GANGNEUNG, South Korea — At the end of each lesson — and there have been hundreds and hundreds of lessons with Coach Tom Zakrajsek — U.S. figure skater Vincent Zhou bows to his teacher.
“That kind of respect is so rare,” Zakrajsek said in an interview this week. But it is a hallmark of his most driven pupils, particularly the would-be Olympians whose parents are first-generation American immigrants. Two among them, Zhou, 17, and Mirai Nagasu, 24, are such examples.
In many ways, Zakrajsek, 54, who was reared in life lessons from his Polish and Slovenian grandmothers, shares a language with his first-generation American skaters, whether of Asian or Eastern European descent.
“We were taught to appreciate our grandparents’ struggles to come over to the country and make a new life from the time I was a little kid,” Zakrajsek recalled of his childhood in Garfield Heights, Ohio. “Both of my grandmothers and my mother and father gave us the history, that Eastern European work ethic: ‘Make something of yourself! If you have a dream, work at it!’ So when I see that in skaters, I think about it. And I think a lot of that is the story of our country, right?”
Of the 14 members of the 2018 U.S. Olympic figure skating team, six are of Asian descent. Nagasu’s parents are first-generation Japanese immigrants. The parents of Zhou and Nathan Chen are first-generation Chinese immigrants. Karen Chen’s parents emigrated from Taiwan in 1995. And siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, whose Japanese parents met as musicians at Harvard, became the first ice dancers of Asian descent to win Olympic medals in that event Tuesday, when they took bronze. The previous week, they joined Nagasu, Nathan Chen, Bradie Tennell, Adam Rippon, Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim in clinching the United States’ bronze in the team event.
The collective success of these figure skaters, with the women’s singles title to be determined this week, is testament to how the 2018 U.S. Olympic team has benefited from the participation of athletes with a diverse heritage. On a subtler level, it stands as a formidable case against the closed-border sentiment that has found new voice in a country forged by immigrants.
Nathan Chen, 18, who is coached by Rafael Arutyunyan, a Harley-riding, Armenian-native product of the former Soviet Union figure skating system, leaves the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics with a bronze medal in the team event and a place in the sport’s history.
After a disastrous start to his quest for an individual medal, Chen became the first to land six quadruple jumps in a fearless, furious effort to gain ground in the following night’s decisive free skate. While he scored the top marks for the performance, it wasn’t enough for a medal, vaulting him from 17th to fifth in the final standings.
Refusing to quit, Chen had explained earlier in the week, was a family value. His father, a medical research scientist born in rural China, worked and attended school after moving to the United States in 1988 while supporting his family of five children. Youngest among them, Chen first learned to skate in his sister’s hand-me-down boots. His promising early results, winning the U.S. novice championships at age 10, helped land invaluable financial aid from a foundation started by three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss that helped defray the cost of his lessons.
“My parents did not come to the U.S. with much; they had a lot of hardship,” Chen recounted. “We were all just taught to work as hard as we could, use these opportunities to advance and just really appreciate all that we had.”
Nagasu, who launched her pursuit of an individual Olympic medal with Wednesday’s women’s short program, already has etched her place in figure skating history, as well, becoming the first American woman (and third in the world) to land a triple axel in Olympic competition. She did so Feb. 12, helping the United States earn bronze in the team event. But her parents, Kiyoto and Ikuko, weren’t on hand to watch. They were busy running their sushi restaurant in Arcadia, Calif., and learned of the outcome only after the dinner rush.
“They have to make a living somehow, and the sushi restaurant is how they make their business,” Nagasu explained this week. When she was a young child, the restaurant doubled as her bedroom; she spent many nights sleeping on a bed in a storage closet while her parents worked. Later, Nagasu went to work alongside them, getting paid in quarters.
“I have a great work ethic because I’ve watched my parents work super hard,” Nagasu said. “I’m also great at dishwashing because of the restaurant as well!”
So it is a big deal, Nagasu noted, that her father agreed to close the restaurant for a few days this week — long enough so he and his wife could fly to South Korea to watch their only child compete at the Olympics.
“I’ve learned a lot from my parents. For them to put their business on hold — to come all the way to Korea and to watch me skate — especially for my dad . . .” Nagasu said, her thought trailing off. “He feels responsible — not just for my mom and for himself and myself — but there are other people who work there, too. He’s always saying, ‘I don’t have time for you! I have to feed the people!’ ”
Nagasu and fellow Americans Karen Chen and Tennell are facing an uphill battle at Gangneung Ice Arena, where Russian-born skaters competing under the banner Olympic Athletes from Russia and Japanese skaters are expected to dominate. Of the top 13 scores posted in international competition during the 2017-18 season, Russian and Japanese skaters accounted for 11, led by reigning world champion Evgenia Medvedeva and her 15-year-old compatriot, Alina Zagitova.
“The Russians and the Asians dominate our sport right now because I can see a cultural mind-set of, ‘Nothing is ever good enough,’ ” said Zakrajsek, who sees the same quality in his pupils Zhou and Nagasu, as well several of his Russian American charges. “No matter how good you are, [the mind-set is] you figure out how to be better, and you do that in every way in your life — as a person, in academics, in your sport, if you play an instrument. It’s an approach to life that makes it very easy as a coach to work with someone like that. . . . That’s not common, I think, in American society nowadays.”
Veteran figure skating coach Frank Carroll, who worked with the United States’ most decorated skater, Michelle Kwan, echoed the sentiment.
“Asian skaters are taught discipline from Day One,” Carroll said in a recent telephone interview, “which is different from American kids, who are taught, ‘Oh, dear! You have a right to stand up for whatever you think!’ . . . Are you being abused by a coach who is telling you to do it again?’ ”
In Zhou’s case, the drive for perfection has come at a price.
The only son of Chinese immigrants, both computer scientists by training, Zhou describes himself as introspective, a poet and philosopher who has little in common with typical 17-year-olds who spend their money at Starbucks, eat Tide Pods and vape.
He approaches figure skating as his job. And his mother sacrificed her own career for his, in 2009, moving him six hours from the family’s home to seek intensive training while his father and sister remained in Palo Alto, Calif. Splitting up the family meant stretching resources thin. For much of the time, before Zhou moved to Colorado to work with Zakrajsek, he and his mother lived in a one-room apartment.
To the extent Zhou has struggled, he has been confronting his shortcomings after bad practices. His standards for himself are extremely high.
“That’s part of the Asian American way,” Zhou explained, “so when I don’t meet those standards, I come away feeling just this burning desperation that I didn’t do enough. It has been both good and bad because it has pushed me to do way too much and get injured, which is something that I’ve gotten much smarter about. But it has also helped me be hungry.”
Zhou did just that in his Olympic debut, making history as the first to land a quad Lutz in Olympic competition. He went on to finish sixth (one spot behind U.S. teammate Nathan Chen), boosted by a free skate that included five quadruple jumps.
“Our parents basically made it from the bottom up,” Zhou said, reflecting on the Asian American heritage he considers a gift. “. . . Lots of the Asian Americans on the Olympic team have a similar background, where their parents know what it’s like to struggle and have to work hard to get somewhere. That’s something they teach us, and it has helped us all succeed.”
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