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Kristi Yamaguchi Reflects On Her Olympic Career & How The Tokyo Games Postponement Is Affecting Today’s Athletes

By Kristi Yamaguchi | July 29, 2020, 4 p.m. (ET)

Kristi Yamaguchi participates in the Parade of Champions during the World Figure Skating Championships on March 24, 1996 in Edmonton, Alberta.

 

Once upon a time there was little girl named Kristi Yamaguchi, who wanted to ice skate. She started skating and competing when she was about 6 years old. She had her first big international win when she was 16. At that point she set her sights on the Olympics. At 20, her dream came to fruition by representing her country at the Olympic Winter Games and the icing on the cake – she won gold. 

That’s a pretty broad version of what happened. As you probably know from most athletes, every Olympic dream has its own journey, its own story. 

To start at the beginning, did you know that the little girl, who went on to be an Olympian, wore casts on her feet for the first year of her life? 

I was born with severely turned in feet and legs, tangled up kind of like criss-cross applesauce. The few baby pictures I have you can see the little casts. It didn’t bother me; I didn’t know any better. But it was a lot for my parents. The casts were replaced every couple of weeks because of the rate of growth at that age. Once I was out of the casts, I was moved into corrective shoes with a brace. I remember learning how to walk with the metal bar between my feet, forcing them to turn out. It was frustrating because I knew how to walk, but it was often easier to crawl to get from point A to point B. 

I look back now and am obviously very thankful that my parents put me in those casts. I would not be talking about the Olympics if they weren’t such dedicated parents. 

So I battled that as an infant and toddler, but fast forward a few years. After trying baton twirling, soccer, gymnastics — all those activities your parents put you in — I finally found figure skating at the age of 6. We went to see a local ice show and it was so magical for me. The music, the lights, and YES, the costumes! 

Dressing up in sparkly outfits? I’m in! Some 30 years later it’s still one of my favorite elements of our sport. 

I begged to go skating. My mom asked the pediatrician if it was alright. He thought it would be great to help strengthen my legs and add coordination. So, off to rink I went!

By nature I’m more on the shy side, an introvert. As a kid, I was painfully shy. Afraid to talk to anyone. 

Finding skating was such a gift. It helped me come out of my shell and gain some self confidence. Even though I was shy, the performer in me was always there. 

And hey, once in a while you can win a medal — that was pretty fun. 

It wasn’t always easy. At my first competition, I finished 11th out of 12. I was bummed not to get one of the shiny medals that the top three girls got and were running around wearing like a badge of honor. 

I figured out right then that I wanted to improve and that it was going to take some work. 

My coach, Christy Ness, who taught me from the time I was 9 through my Olympic career, had a couple of sayings she used to motivate us. One was, “There’s no secret to success. It’s just plain and simple hard work!” 

Yep, we’ve all heard that time and time again. There’s no silver bullet: you have to bite the bullet and just do it! Her other one was, “If you’re not working hard, I know who is!” (Referring to our competitors.) 

I can tell you how many times that got me going. Visions in my head of Midori Ito doing triple axels. 

I talk a lot about when I first started skating because I feel it was these early years where I learned the fundamentals that became the foundation for my whole career. And even now, it’s helped me establish a work ethic.

When you get into the nitty gritty of it and what it is like to train for the Olympics, it’s pretty straightforward and similar for all Olympians. You eat, drink, breathe and sleep your sport. Not just in an Olympic year, but for some 14+ years like I did. 

The USOPC has a saying about training for the Games: “The Olympics isn’t every four years, it’s every day.” I reference it often.

Days like on-ice training, school, then off-ice training, rest, sleep and then repeat.

But there’s an emotional and mental side that can be a bit tricky, too. There are days when you’re tired, grumpy or just don’t want to be there. That’s when you have to push yourself to think of your goals and be strong mentally. You dig deep to find motivation. You look to your team for support. 

These athletes need all of our support, particularly this year. 

These athletes’ dreams are on the horizon. I can tell you that the hopefuls training right now for Tokyo 2021, their heartbeats are on overdrive right now every day leading up to the Games. Their lifelong dreams are at their fingertips and it’s going to be exhilarating for us to watch their pursuit of Olympic and Paralympic glory. 

But the delay has been a tough. Another year of pushing themselves to their limit physically, mentally and financially — in fact, three in four athletes have lost income opportunities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why they need the support of people like you and me, who can’t wait to cheer them on in 2021. Before we rally behind them then, we can show our support now.

The best way to do that is by donating to the COVID Athlete Assistance Fund. The fund puts money directly in athletes’ pockets through one-time stipends meant to cover bills and expenses. One hundred percent of gifts to the fund will go directly to Team USA athletes.

If you have a dollar to spare, would you consider supporting these athletes and keeping their Olympic and Paralympic dreams alive by donating to the COVID Athlete Assistance Fund?

I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my friends, family, coach, fellow skaters and donors who gave what they could to ignite my dream. We’re all on the same team — Team USA — and I know it would mean the world to today’s athletes to have you in their corner. 

GO TEAM USA!