When Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal in figure skating at the 1992 Winter Olympics, she reached the pinnacle of athletic accomplishment and achieved a personal life goal. She hadn’t counted on also becoming a role model and inspiration.
“At first it’s a little intimidating, like, ‘Oh no! What does this mean, what do I do?’” Yamaguchi told NBC News. “But I think I realized that I can be as positive as I can and be a figure [who shows that] anyone can do this, it doesn’t matter what your background is. If you have a goal, have a dream and get set with determination and hard work, you can achieve it.”
Her performance, and subsequent victory, was especially meaningful for many Asian Americans at a time when few Asian-American faces were seen on television at all.
“After the Olympics and receiving so much support from the Asian-American community I started to realize what it really meant,” Yamaguchi said. “I do remember having my role models in athletes I looked up to. One was Tiffany Chin, and I think I identified with her because she was Asian. I certainly appreciated the support and hopefully in some ways helped break the barriers.”
Yamaguchi, who is also a two-time world champion in figure skating, did not rest on her laurels after the Olympics. She turned to professional skating and toured with “Stars on Ice” for ten years. She also created the Always Dream Foundation, now in its 20th year, which works in kindergarten classrooms and schools to help early childhood literacy.
“After the Olympics in '92 — my family has always been very community minded — we wanted to give back in some way,” Yamaguchi said. “I worked a lot with Make-A-Wish after the Olympics that inspired me, seeing the effects and working so closely with families, to start my own foundation.”
Yamaguchi’s foundation has always focused on under-served children, and began to focus on early literacy as recently as five years ago, she said. The timing is no coincidence: Yamaguchi’s own children were just learning to read, and she had just written her first children’s picture book when she and her foundation board were in the process of researching different areas of children’s education.
“I knew that if a child doesn’t have a foundation of literacy and reading, then obviously that is the cornerstone for their education and success in life,” she said. “We thought, as a small organization, that was one area we could really provide the tools, and create that foundation.”
Yamaguchi will combine her love for family and ice skating for her next role as host of the four episodes of the "Colgate Skating Series," which will begin airing on ABC this Sunday. The show, which is a family skating tribute, will features renowned skaters such as Nancy Kerrigan — who won silver at the same Olympics as Yamaguchi — Paul Wylie, and Todd Eldridge, who will perform with their families.
“Basically everyone is all parents or siblings, and it’s really just a celebration of family and love of the sport,” Yamaguchi said. “It’s a really fun heartwarming show and a lot of fun, kind of a good holiday weekend.”
“It doesn’t always happen but there are quite a few skaters whose kids do follow in their footsteps,” she added. “Actually my daughter Emma — she just turned eleven — is skating.”
Yamaguchi also discussed the state of U.S. Women’s Figure Skating, pointing to “solid veterans” Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, newer faces Polina Edmunds and Karen Chen, and Mirai Nigasu — “You can never count her out” — as the future of the sport.
She noted that figure skating is so well-watched because “it combines many elements that lend itself to be very fan-friendly.”
“It’s a performance sport, there’s an actual performance and music and emotion connected to their athletic abilities,” Yamaguchi said. “It doesn’t matter if your favorite skater is first or tenth, they all bring something different to the ice. It’s interesting in that way.”