Yamaguchi, Kristi Tsuya

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YAMAGUCHI, Kristi Tsuya

(b. 12 July 1971 in Hayward, California), figure skater who was the only U.S. skater in the 1990s to win national, world, and Olympic championships in the same year, and the first U.S. female to accomplish this feat since 1976.

Born with a clubfoot so severe that she required corrective shoes, physical therapy, and a painful night brace, Yamaguchi didn't appear to be Olympic material. After watching Dorothy Hamill win the 1976 Olympic gold medal, however, Yamaguchi requested figure-skating lessons; her parents agreed. Jim, a dentist, and Carole, a medical secretary, hoped that those exercises, in addition to the ballet Yamaguchi had taken since age four, would strengthen her leg muscles. "I remember the first time she put on skates and was taking her first few lessons," her mother said in an interview. "She had a difficult time because she was very small and not very strong."

Over the next several years, Yamaguchi's parents juggled time spent raising their other two children, also athletes, with the many hours they dedicated to Yamaguchi's growing commitment to skating. By age eight her schedule was even more intense, as she awoke at four in the morning to practice with the coach Christy Kjarsgaard-Ness. She also continued her efforts in dance, foreshadowing the artistic style that would become her trademark.

A quick study, Yamaguchi skated both singles and pairs; she was one of the first U.S. females to attempt this dual level of competition. Teamed with Rudy Galindo, she won the junior pairs national competitions in 1986 and 1989. During this period, Yamaguchi received pairs coaching by Jim Hulick in addition to singles coaching by Kjarsgaard-Ness. In 1989 Yamaguchi also won the silver medal in the singles competition, the first woman to win a medal in two national events in the same year since Margaret Graham in 1954. Yamaguchi was only age seventeen, standing four feet, eleven inches and weighing just eighty-two pounds. In June 1989 Yamaguchi graduated from Mission San Jose High School.

In the 1989 World Championships in Paris, France, Yamaguchi finished sixth in singles and fifth in pairs, and the U.S. Olympic Committee named her the Athlete of the Year for figure skating. At the 1990 national competition, she and Galindo won pairs and Yamaguchi finished second in singles. While those accomplishments were astonishing, the dual training began to tire Yamaguchi, and in the 1990 World Championships she slipped in the rankings, placing fourth in singles and fifth in pairs.

Yamaguchi decided to concentrate solely on singles competition. "To improve in one or the other," Yamaguchi told the New York Times about her decision to stop skating with Galindo, "I had to choose. It was a difficult decision, but I knew something would have to change." While Yamaguchi later occasionally expressed doubts about that decision, her singles performances sparkled.

In 1990 she won the Goodwill Games, achieved goldmedal status at the Nations Cup, and won Skate America. The next year she placed second at the Goodwill Games and became the 1991 world champion in Munich, Germany. Tonya Harding earned the silver and Nancy Kerrigan the bronze, making the event the first where three women from the same country swept the competition.

Yamaguchi also won the 1992 nationals and competed in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. She became the first U.S. female skater to win Olympic gold since her idol, Hamill. "There may be two or three performances in your life that are absolutely on, where all the planets are lined up for you, and you feel that you're invincible," Yamaguchi confided in a television interview, when asked about her Olympic performance.

One month after the Olympics, Yamaguchi captured the gold medal at the 1992 World Championships in Oakland, California, just miles from her hometown. After the triple victories in 1992, however, Yamaguchi had to make a choice: to train for the 1994 Olympics or to turn professional. She chose to focus her energy in the professional arena, joining Stars on Ice, a decision that startled many. Even when a change in the Olympic eligibility rules would have allowed her to reinstate her amateur status, she declined and did not compete in 1994. "I feel fortunate to be in this era of growth in professional figure skating, because I love what professional skating has to offer," Yamaguchi said.

Although she chose not to return to the Olympic arena, Yamaguchi's popularity did not fade. In 1996, 1997, and 1998 she was selected as the favorite female athlete by Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards and was named the 1996 Skater of the Year by the American Skating World. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1998 and the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1999. She was also the World Professional Figure Skating Champion in 1992, 1994, 1996, and 1997.

After turning professional, Yamaguchi became actively involved in several charitable efforts. She served as a spokes-person for the American Lung Association and Christmas Seals. In 1996 she established the Always Dream Foundation to support organizations in California, Nevada, and Hawaii whose missions are to "encourage, support, and embrace the hopes and dreams of children." In 1999 she received the Make-a-Wish Grantor Recognition Award and was selected as the Goodwill Ambassador for the 2002 Winter Games to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah. On 8 July 2000 Yamaguchi married Bret Hedican, an ice-hockey defenseman for the Florida Panthers.

Yamaguchi overcame physical impairment to win national, world, and Olympic skating championships, the first time this feat was accomplished by a U.S. female during one year in nearly two decades. She enjoyed much public support, although she did suffer some criticism when she left Galindo to concentrate solely on singles competitions; when she shed her amateur status to become professional; and when she accepted numerous commercial endorsement offers. However, almost a decade after her Olympic triumph, Yamaguchi remained a popular athlete, lauded for her strength, grace, dedication, artistry, and charitable work.

Yamaguchi's autobiography, written with Greg Brown, is Always Dream (1998). For additional information about Yamaguchi, see the following books for young readers: Jeff Savage, Kristi Yamaguchi: Pure Gold (1993); Shiobhan Donohue, Kristi Yamaguchi: Artist on Ice (1994); and Richard Rambeck, Kristi Yamaguchi (1998).

Kelly Boyer Sagert