She had all the ingredients of the classic American women’s figure skating champion. She was an artist and an athlete, elegant and expressive, with a competitive arsenal of jumps and a program of intricate footwork and transitions ahead of its time.
Thirty years ago, Yamaguchi won a gold medal. And while she wasn’t feted in traditional ways, her triumph now looks like a seminal moment in the sport’s transformation. Her deep edges carved a new path for Asian American superstars: Michelle Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist; Nathan Chen, who won the gold medal in the Olympic men’s individual competition last week; and Alysa Liu and Karen Chen, who will compete in the women’s competition beginning Tuesday.
Five of the 16 figure skaters on the U.S. team in Beijing are of Asian descent. In PyeongChang four years ago, there were seven, including the Shibutani siblings, who won a bronze medal in ice dance. The sport has become so popular with skaters of East Asian descent that those numbers hardly seem remarkable.
Yamaguchi faced a different landscape. Back then, an Olympic figure skating title usually guaranteed certain spoils: gushing media coverage, endorsements deals, the moniker of “America’s sweetheart.”
But when she returned home from the Games in Albertville, France, advertisers questioned whether Yamaguchi — the daughter of second- and third-generation Japanese Americans — could fill that role.
“To marketers, Kristi Yamaguchi isn’t as good as gold,” one headline read. A sports advertising executive put it this way in a 1992 Associated Press story: Yamaguchi “is definitely suffering because of her Japanese face and her Japanese name.”
“Right now there is a negative connected with anything Japanese,” the executive said. “It’s wrong, wrong, wrong, but that is the way it is.”
Yamaguchi had become the first Asian American woman to win gold at the Winter Olympics, and she wasn’t deterred, saying in a recent interview that she “just felt like any other California girl representing her country.” She starred in a handful of commercials, mesmerized audiences on tour, won on “Dancing With the Stars” and started a foundation focusing on early childhood literacy. She reconciled her own questions of identity and found a place on the world stage, having provided a road map both for Asian American talent and for the modern incarnation of her sport.
Asked how she helped find a path, Yamaguchi, now 50, had a simple answer:
“I didn’t go away.”
She grew up fascinated by Dorothy Hamill, the spunky 1976 Olympic champion with the trendy wedge haircut who later headlined the Ice Capades. There was something elegant and accessible about the sport of figure skating to a tiny child with club feet and dreams of stardom.
“I was a small, scrawny, skinny, uncoordinated little kid and tried a lot of different sports, but skating just clicked with me,” Yamaguchi recalled. “I didn’t have to keep up with anyone else. I could go at my own pace.”
Her parents, Carole and Jim, weren’t sure she had what it took to be an Olympian. Other girls had an easier time picking up the basic skills. But Kristi never stopped trying.
And at home, there was another skater the Yamaguchis loved to watch. Nine years after Hamill won her gold medal, a fellow Californian named Tiffany Chin became the nation’s first Asian American figure skating champion, capable of long balletic lines and big triple jumps.
Injuries prevented Chin — who last month was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame — from reaching her full potential. But a young Yamaguchi had an affinity for Chin that Yamaguchi’s mother said she did not fully expect. When Kristi was young, Carole Yamaguchi joked, “I don’t think she knew she was Asian.” Sure, they went to a Japanese church and celebrated Children’s Day, a Japanese national holiday, but she lived in the diverse Bay Area, where there was not just one way to think about being an American. Nothing about her identity made her feel distinct.
Her family history, though, encompassed both patriotism and the indignities that can come with being a person of color in the United States. Carole’s father, George Doi, served in World War II, earning a Bronze Star Medal as the only Japanese member of his troop. As Doi fought for his country, his wife, Kathleen, received a special clearance to leave the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, an internment camp in Wyoming. But she could not find work in an environment distrusting of Japanese Americans and eventually went back into internment in Colorado, where Carole Yamaguchi was born.
When George Doi came home, the family tried to assimilate, and the past was rarely discussed.
“I think much of that first generation that had gone through World War II tried so hard to just put it behind them and move forward and not talk about it,” Kristi Yamaguchi said. “They wanted to really establish themselves as American and living the American life.”
Carole married Jim Yamaguchi and had three children, all of whom loved sports. Brett played basketball. Lori twirled batons. And Kristi’s persistence in skating soon paid off. She became one of the United States’ best young skaters in two disciplines. In 1988, skating with a Mexican American named Rudy Galindo, Yamaguchi won the world junior championship in pairs. She also won the girls’ event. The accomplishment remains singular. It was at the competition that Kristi began to realize that not everyone in the skating world processed her identity.
Yamaguchi had finished ahead of two Japanese skaters that year. She was eager to stand atop on the podium and hear the national anthem, but there was an unusual delay backstage. She did not understand why until she heard an organizer say, “We can’t find three Japanese flags.”
“I’m like, ‘Can someone tell them I’m American?’ ” she recalled.
She was 20 years old when she came to the Albertville Games, the reigning national and world champion. Even so, she was not expected to win after recent rule changes placed more of an emphasis on power and jumping. Yamaguchi’s technical arsenal was nothing to shirk at, but compatriot Tonya Harding was a better jumper and Japan’s Midori Ito was the finest technician in the world. Both of those women were capable of landing the treacherous triple axel.
Without the triple axel, Yamaguchi tried to match her arsenal of triple jumps and difficult combination spins with detailed programs in which every beat — from the turn of her head to a flirtatious lifting of her skirt — was choreographed.
Harding and Ito both crashed on their triple axel attempts in the first phase of the event, clearing Yamaguchi’s path to victory, and a strong (if flawed) program in the final was good enough.
Yamaguchi’s visage landed on a Special K box and the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” and she sat on the couch with talk show host Arsenio Hall. Those appearances were far cries from the cultural ubiquity that came when her role model, Hamill, won gold.
“I didn’t skate and try to win for endorsements,” Yamaguchi told herself. “If I get something, awesome. That’s cool.”
But as skaters and other Japanese Americans posited whether race was limiting her exposure, she wrestled with questions that are familiar to many minorities: Was it me? Was it some broader culture bias? Was it something else?
“It was a hard time,” Yamaguchi said, noting that her Olympic win came a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “At the time, with the auto industry, there was a lot of tension with Japanese American relations. I think that’s what led people to think well … that may be why she’s not getting endorsements.
“I thought maybe that could be a little bit of it,” Yamaguchi said. “Who knows? I’m 20. I’m shy. I was not well spoken. You’re just so young and so naive.”
But those experiences also drove home a new awareness of what she had achieved — and a new feeling of responsibility to speak about her heritage. She was flattered when she received letters from little girls who said they looked up to her, that they wanted to be like her. Japanese American groups reached out to her family to offer support.
Yamaguchi was struck when she saw a family friend interviewed on television, talking about the special pride she felt when she saw that “Sports Illustrated” cover with its headline: “American Dream.”
“I feel like this is the new face of the American dream: an Asian American,” her family friend said.
Less than two years into Yamaguchi’s pro career, the infamous clubbing of Nancy Kerrigan, her former teammate, set off a media frenzy. Kerrigan had the “look” of an “America’s sweetheart” that advertisers had grown used to: She was brown-haired and blue-eyed, with a signature move in which she would glide along the ice with her hand on her heart. The fanfare and endorsement deals that eluded Yamaguchi came easily to Kerrigan, even before she won silver at the 1994 Olympics.
The controversy created a surge of interest in figure skating, leading to huge ratings and weekly made-for-television competitions. Yamaguchi didn’t go away. And although audiences might have tuned in because of the bizarre incident, they kept watching — and fell for Yamaguchi.
She continued to do the intricate steps and many of the jumps that she did while she was competing. She made audiences dance while skating to En Vogue, made them cry while skating to Chopin, brought them to their feet while skating to Simon & Garfunkel.
“Stars on Ice, when we founded it, it was a 30-city tour,” said Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic men’s champion. “When Kristi joined it, it became a 60-city tour overnight. And so she had a great, incredible capacity to draw. People adored her.”
That silenced doubts about whether an Asian American could capture American hearts. Paul Wylie, a silver medalist at the 1992 Games who later toured with Yamaguchi, said she had the ability to mesmerize audiences every night.
“Wow, look at Kristi go,” Wylie recalled thinking. “She’s a star.”
And her arrival was the vanguard for a wave of Asian American talent in the sport. In the 30 national championships held since her gold medal, only three have not included an Asian American woman on the podium. She provided mentorship and sponsorship to many of the women who followed her, including Liu and Chen, the 2022 Olympians.
There is “an intrinsic value with seeing someone who looks like you and in the national spotlight,” said Kadari Taylor-Watson, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at U.S. Figure Skating. “You start believing you can achieve that, too.”
Four years after Yamaguchi won her gold medal, a 15-year-old American named Michelle Kwan won the world championship. Kwan would go on to win silver and bronze medals at the Olympics and five world championships in all, becoming one of the most decorated skaters of all time. Her performances at Salt Lake City 2002 inspired a young man from Utah to take up skating. That boy was Nathan Chen.
“You don’t get a Nathan Chen without a Michelle Kwan, and you don’t get a Michelle Kwan without Kristi,” said Barbara Reichert, a spokeswoman with U.S. Figure Skating. “[Kristi] helped to open the door.”