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Stars of U.S. figure skating team find strength in past Olympians

Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan have been called "heroes" by many of Team USA's figure skating stars.
by Audrey Cleo Yap /
Image: Kristi Yamaguchi
Kristi Yamaguchi performs her routine during the World Figure Skating Championships in 1992.Mike Powell / Getty Images file

On the 14th day of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Michelle Kwan took the ice.

Wearing a costume by designer Vera Wang and leading the female singles figure skaters after the short program two days before, the then six-time U.S. champion and four-time world champion performed triple jump after triple jump punctuated by a near 10-second-long spiral with her leg held high above her head, a signature move.

At home, siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani watched in awe.

Whenever Michelle Kwan texts me or mentions my name, I’m like, 'Wow.' I still can’t believe that this is someone who I grew up looking up to, and they know my name.

“We were 7 and 10 years old, and remember sitting on the floor in our living room, listening to the Olympic fanfare, watching skating, and wanting to be like Michelle Kwan,” the U.S. ice dancers have said.

They weren’t alone: An estimated 177 million people in the U.S. total watched those games according to the International Olympic Committee, and U.S. figure skaters Mirai Nagasu, Madison Chock, and Karen Chen — all of whom plan to compete at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, along with the Shibutanis — cite Kwan as a childhood inspiration.

“I really try to channel my inner Michelle Kwan when I do my spirals every time I run my program,” the 18-year-old Chen told NBC News. “When I would watch her do her spiral, I was so mesmerized. It’s absolutely perfect. Mine doesn’t even come close, but I really do try.”

While U.S. Figure Skating does not currently collect data on skater ethnicity, there has been a visible rise in Asian-American representation in the sport since the days Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, who took home Olympic gold in 1992, broke barriers on the ice.

“It is very obvious that since 1992, we have many Asian-American skaters. Just looking at past photos of our U.S. Championships podiums proves that,” Barbara Reichert, a representative of U.S. Figure Skating, said by email.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to Philip Hersh, an Olympics expert who has covered 18 Games and a former writer for the Chicago Tribune. Hersh attributes much of it to Kwan’s influence, in particular.

“On a list of 10 most influential skaters, she would be numbers one through eight. Michelle is the one skater who did not need to win an Olympic gold medal to have that kind of influence,” Hersh said.

An eventual five-time world champion and nine-time U.S. champion, Kwan was a dominant presence in U.S., nabbing sponsorship deals (Coca-Cola, Visa and East West Bank) along with skating medals.

Hersh notes that Kwan’s sportsmanship — especially after her silver medal finish behind Tara Lipinski at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics — as well as her work since retiring from the sport have only added to her influence.

“She skated her best when lots and lots of people were watching, and everything that she did in relation to that — all the interviews she gave, just the way she comported herself, leaving the ice, coming onto the ice, dealing with success, dealing with disappointment — she is an impressive woman,” Hersh said.

While it’s been years since Kwan or Yamaguchi have skated competitively, their legacies have inspired U.S. Figure Skating’s current generation of elite athletes.

Karen Chen, who finished third at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating championship and fourth at the 2017 World Figure Skating championship, said that when she hits the ice in South Korea, she will be drawing inspiration from both Kwan and Yamaguchi.

In January, Team USA ice dancer Madison Chock told NBC Olympics that her first Olympic memory included “watching Michelle Kwan in the Olympics, she really was my biggest inspiration.”

And Maia Shibutani — who, along with brother Alex, will be returning to the Winter Games for the second time — has referred to Yamaguchi and Kwan as her “heroes,” writing in a blog post on the Team USA website that her “dream was to skate at the Olympics like my heroes, Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi."

Being the inspiration for so many Olympic skaters is a role Yamaguchi finds humbling.

“It’s a big honor because I remember having my mentors and idols, coming up as a skater,” Yamaguchi said. “It’s a privilege to become a role model, and I think just I’ve always just been so grateful with my experience with skating, hopefully I pass it on and inspire someone who wants to pursue it.”

That has included Mirai Nagasu, who will be competing as a women’s singles skater in PyeongChang and has worked with Yamaguchi’s charity, the Always Dream Foundation. She noted that Kwan’s personal story also resonated with her.

“Her parents owned a restaurant and my parents own a restaurant. We’re both from California, so I really looked up to her,” the 24-year-old, who will be competing in her second Olympics, said. "As role models, I think Kristi and Michelle are setting the bar really high.”

Nagasu is known for raising the bar in figure skating herself: Last fall, she became the second U.S. woman to land the triple axel jump in international competition, following Tonya Harding in 1991. No U.S. woman has landed the jump at the Olympics. Nagasu will attempt to do so — twice — at the PyeongChang Games.

And while younger athletes may look up to Kwan and Yamaguchi, Yamaguchi looked to another Asian-American figure skater before winning her gold medal in 1992: Tiffany Chin, the 1985 U.S. national champion.

“I think it was so key for me to have an Asian-American role model and influence to pursue skating,” Yamaguchi said.

Yamaguchi is now passing on the mantle to a younger generation of skaters, particularly Chen, whom she has mentored since Chen was 12. Yamaguchi was in attendance when Chen skated at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, securing her first Olympic berth.

“After the long program, I started to cry. The camera guy must have found her, and she was on the jumbotron. Seeing her face just made me cry even more,” Chen said, referring to Yamaguchi.

“Every single time I interact with them, I am in awe and shock with how much time they take to talk to me and to help me,” Nagasu added of her interactions with the former Olympians. “Whenever Michelle Kwan texts me or mentions my name, I’m like, 'Wow.' I still can’t believe that this is someone who I grew up looking up to, and they know my name.”

I really try to channel my inner Michelle Kwan when I do my spirals every time I run my program. When I would watch her do her spiral, I was so mesmerized. It’s absolutely perfect.

As one of the most senior members on the ladies’ team, Nagasu says she hopes to be a role model for younger team members in PyeongChang, since she was in a similar position at the 2010 Vancouver games.

“This time, I really feel like I’ll be the leader, and I hope to support my teammates and give them advice,” she said. “Getting to the Olympics was the hard part. Now it’s time to enjoy every single moment of it.”

Nagasu was controversially left off of the 2014 Olympic team, a move that caused her to question whether she wanted to continue skating at all. The emotional struggle, Nagasu said, took years to get through. Skating-wise, she made changes, splitting with former coach Frank Carroll and adding the triple axel to her repertoire.

With her second Olympic spot secured, Nagasu hopes that her story inspires the next generation of skaters, especially Asian-American ones.

“I definitely have a special place in my heart for them because I’m so proud to be Asian American, particularly Japanese American,” she said. “That is a huge part of who I am.”

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