Yamaguchi, Kristi (1971—)

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Yamaguchi, Kristi (1971—)

American figure skater who won the gold medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics. Name variations: (nick-name) Yama. Born Kristi Tsuya Yamaguchi in Hayward, California, on July 12, 1971; one of three children of Jim Yamaguchi (a dentist) and Carole (Doi) Yamaguchi (a medical secretary); married Bret Hedican (a hockey player), on July 8, 2000.

The year was 1992; the events were the U.S. National championship, the World championship, and the Olympic title in figure skating. Kristi Yamaguchi took them all—a clean sweep.

Born in Hayward, California, in 1971, Kristi Yamaguchi grew up in Fremont, near San Francisco, one of three children of Asian-Americans Jim and Carole Yamaguchi . During World War II, both her parents had spent their early years in one of the infamous Japanese internment camps in the western United States. Carole had been born in one. "My grandfather didn't talk much about World War II," said Kristi, "but he let me know how proud he was to see me make it as an Asian-American representing the United States."

Yamaguchi was five when Dorothy Hamill mesmerized America at the 1976 Winter Olympics. "Part of the reason why I'm in the sport is because of her," said Yamaguchi. "She was an inspiration." A year later, Kristi was on the ice, sometimes toting her Dorothy Hamill doll. The Yamaguchis encouraged their daughter, in hopes that it might strengthen her legs. Kristi had been born with a clubfoot, a condition in which the foot turns inward. Though the defect did not require surgery, the doctors prescribed corrective shoes by day, a brace at night. "I remember the brace," recalled Yamaguchi, "because it hurt so bad." Doctors also recommended physical therapy.

Yamaguchi joined a figure-skating group class and learned the basics; she also learned how to fall. She then took private lessons with Christy Kjarsgaard-Ness (who would remain her coach throughout her career) and competed at age seven, in 1978, in her first local competition. Some who saw her began to urge more skating, less school, but the Yamaguchis wanted their daughter to grow up like everyone else—regular school with no special privileges. Kristi joined the Palomares Figure Skating Club, a member of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), and in December 1980 entered her first USFSA event, the Central Pacific Regional championships. She placed fifth.

At age 11, now competing in the juvenile division, she placed fifth again in the 1982 Central Pacific meet. She also met 13-year-old Rudi Galindo from San Jose, who was looking for a pairs partner. Coach Jim Hulick, a former pairs champion, convinced the Yamaguchis that Krist and Rudi were a good match and that he would oversee their training. The following year, Yamaguchi was skating in both singles and pairs competitions. She and Galindo had joined the St. Moritz Ice Skating Club and entered competitions.

Skaters must do well at regionals to compete in the sectional competitions; they must do well in the sectionals to complete at the nationals; if they place in the nationals, they compete in the World championships. In 1985, Kristi won the Pacific Coast sectionals in the novice class. Thus, she was entered into the 1985 National championships in Kansas City, Missouri.

Now 14, Yamaguchi could no longer be a "regular" student; to secure more ice time, she had to lighten her class schedule and study with a tutor. In Kansas, she and Rudi placed fifth in junior pairs and narrowly missed winning the bronze in women's novice singles. Because of their showing, they were invited to skate in their first international event: the World Junior championships in Sarajevo, then a city in Yugoslavia. Once again, they placed fifth.

In 1986, at the Nationals on Long Island, New York, Yamaguchi and Galindo stunned the crowd with their mirror skating, performing side-by-side triple jumps and camel spins in opposite directions. They took the junior pairs championship while Kristi placed fourth in the junior women's. They entered three more competitions that year, taking two third-place spots and one fifth.

The 1987 Nationals in Tacoma, Washington, had them competing in the pairs senior division, where they placed fifth. Kristi was still vying in the junior division for singles and won the silver medal. Invited to represent the U.S. at the Merano Spring Trophy in Italy, Yamaguchi returned home with a gold medal. She then went on to win the singles and the pairs titles at Junior Worlds in Brisbane, Australia.

At the 1988 Nationals in Denver, Colorado, Kristi had moved up into elite company with the seniors, competing against the likes of Jill Trenary and Debi Thomas . Yamaguchi placed tenth in the singles. In the pairs, she and Galindo placed fifth. A year later, when the 1989 Nationals were held in Baltimore, Maryland, the media was becoming aware of 18-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi. She is "gorgeous to watch," said commentator Peggy Fleming . In the pairs, Yamaguchi and Galindo placed second in the first half of their program. In the singles, Kristi placed fourth in the school figures (one half of the competition). In the second half of the pairs program, to the music of "Romeo and Juliet," Rudi and Kristi skated flawlessly, while NBC commentator Dick Button sang their praises: "This program is wonderful, absolutely thrilling." Yamaguchi and Galindo were the 1989 National Pairs champions and would go on to compete in the Worlds in Paris, France. The next day, skating to Offenbach's "Gâité Parisienne," Yamaguchi jumped her way to first in the long program, singles; her combined scores placed her second to Trenary and gave her a berth at the Worlds. She became the first woman to win a medal in two events at the Nationals since Margaret Graham in 1954. Yamaguchi "exhibits a natural, unaffected elegance when she skates," wrote E.M. Swift. "That, coupled with a jumping prowess second only to that of Japan's Midori Ito , makes Yamaguchi one of the most exciting figure skating prospects in years, American or otherwise." But all was not happiness. Coach Jim Hulick had been diagnosed with cancer in August 1988, but had withheld the news from his prize skaters. After the Nationals, he had no choice but to tell them. At the Worlds, Yamaguchi placed sixth in the women's singles and, with Galindo, placed fifth in pairs.

Back home, feeling isolated, Yamaguchi began to attend regular classes at Mission San Jose High School, practicing on the ice from 5:00 am to 10:00, in bed by 7:30. She graduated in June 1989. The following day, she moved to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to be with her coach Kjarsgaard-Ness who had just married a Canadian and moved there with her husband. While living with the couple, Yamaguchi trained at the Royal Glenora Club, the training rink of Kurt Browning, in Edmonton. Periodically, Hulick and Galindo arrived in Edmonton for skate time on pairs routines. Though things went well in Canada, Kristi missed her home and Jim Hulick was getting thinner; they worked around his cancer therapy treatments in Los Angeles. When Hulick died of colon cancer on December 10, 1989, age 38, coach John Nicks took over. Kristi's beloved grandfather, another important influence on her as a skater, died around the same time.

At the 1990 Nationals in Salt Lake City, Utah, Yamaguchi and Galindo took the pairs championship while Kristi was once again in a battle for first place with Jill Trenary. But Kristi looked shaky in practice and placed second in competition. There were those who began to mutter that her schedule was too demanding, that she should specialize in one event. Where her opponents worked on one routine, Kristi had to master two. At the 1990 Worlds in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, Yamaguchi placed a disappointing fourth, a victim of the school figures, behind Trenary, Japan's Midori Ito, and America's Holly Cook . In the pairs, she and Galindo placed fifth.

With the Olympics only two years away, Yamaguchi made a tough decision. She knew her chances of winning the women's singles might be hurt by attempting both. She and Galindo announced their retirement as a team and Kristi returned to Canada to train. It had an immediate effect. At the 1990 summer Goodwill Games in Tacoma, she finally beat Trenary, as well as European champion Surya Bonaly , then defeated Midori Ito at the Skate American competition in October in Buffalo. She took the Nations Cup in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, that November, outperforming the Germans Evelyn Grossman and Marina Keilmann . "Once she made up her mind to concentrate on singles," said Christy Kjarsgaard-Ness, "everything came into focus."

The 1991 Nationals were held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in February. With her nemesis, school figures, eliminated as a requirement in the competition and Jill Trenary out due

to injury, Yamaguchi was the favorite. But Tonya Harding took the Nationals as the first American woman to perform a triple axel in competition. (Midori Ito was the first woman to do so, in 1989.) Once again, Yamaguchi came in second. At the 1991 Worlds, however, Kristi, in one of her best free-skate performances, took the gold, while Harding took the silver and Nancy Kerrigan snared the bronze. The U.S. had swept the event—a first.

Yamaguchi was determined to give it all she had for the Olympics. She went into weight training, traveled to Toronto, Ontario, to meet with choreographer Sandra Bezic , traveled to Enid, Oklahoma, to meet with costume designer Lauren Sheehan , selected Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz" for her original program and Ernesto Lecuona's "Malagueña" for her long program. When the Nationals were held in Orlando, Florida, Yamaguchi took the gold and the cover of Newsweek, Kerrigan the silver, and Harding the bronze.

At the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992, Yamaguchi's principal rival was the favored Midori Ito of Japan, who was capable of pulling off an exploding triple axel, a feat that would be tough to beat, especially since the media had built it into the premier feat of figure skating. Before the event, while doing commentary ringside, Dorothy Hamill noted: "Kristi is graceful and musical, but when Midori skates, she has me on the edge of my seat." The Artist-Athlete was about to go head to head with the Amazing Athlete. Kristi was no slouch in the athletic department; her opening combination was a triple lutz jump into a triple toe loop. Said Kjarsgaard-Ness, her annoyed coach, "I think her opening combination is the equal of a triple axel in terms of difficulty." In the original program, Yamaguchi skated a near-flawless "Blue Danube" and ended the fundamental half of the competition in first place. Ito, who had fallen on a combination jumped, surprisingly placed fourth. Media demands had created too much pressure for the Japanese great.

Then came the long program on February 21. Yamaguchi was skating well with her customary grace until she fell out of a triple loop. Unnerved, she turned a proposed triple salchow into a double. The rest of her program went smoothly. Midori followed. Though she fell on her first triple axel, she completed the jump on a second attempt. Even so, Yamaguchi won the gold medal; Ito took the silver; Kerrigan the bronze. Wrote Martha Duffy in Time, "In the current high-vaulting, teeter-totter world of skating, to jump is to survive, to land upright is to prevail."

At the World Figure Skating championships in Oakland in March 1992, Yamaguchi again competed to the Spanish strains of "Malagueña." She drew 5.9s across the board, placing first to Nancy Kerrigan's second place, while China's Chen Lu came in third. That year, Yamaguchi turned professional and joined the "Stars on Ice" show.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1992.

Donohue, Shiobhan. Kristi Yamaguchi: Artist on Ice (juvenile). Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1994.

Duffy, Martha. "When Dreams Come True," in Time magazine. March 2, 1992.