It’s been exactly a quarter of a century since Kristi Yamaguchi won gold at the Olympics in Albertville. Since then, the skater has not left the consciousness of the American public, despite the fact that most Olympic athletes, after they retire, fade from fame faster than social media memes. So how does Yamaguchi, 45, continue to remain such a popular figure?
“I think it’s because I have continued new challenges even outside of skating,” Yamaguchi told Excelle Sports. “If I could keep skating, I would, but the body can only take so much. When I won ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in 2008, it breathed a new life. One of the first times I met [Japanese skater] Mao Asada, that was the first thing out of her mouth!”
While Asada, a three-time world champion, may only know Yamaguchi through her foray into reality television, newly crowned U.S. champion Karen Chen, 17, has a much closer relationship with the skating legend. The two grew up in the same town, Fremont, Calif., and Yamaguchi started mentoring the younger skater in 2012 when Chen was just 12. The tutelage paid off quickly: Later that year, Chen won the U.S intermediate gold medal in San Jose, Calif.
“There was something about her that was really special,” Yamaguchi said of Chen. “There were many things about her that reminded me of my skating at that stage. She was a hard worker and listened well, which is not common. When I saw those qualities I knew [she had great potential]. Being able to apply what she was told, I saw the passion she had for skating.”
[More from Excelle Sports: Karen Chen earns first place at U.S. Figure Skating Championships]
Chen’s current coach, Tammy Gambill, agrees and says the spark the young skater has is truly unique.
“[Chen] has always had that potential,” Gambill told Excelle Sports. “There’s something special inside of her you just can’t teach. I knew she had the potential at this stage.”
While Yamaguchi says she never had a mentor like Chen did, she grew up admiring American champion Brian Boitano, who is also from the Bay Area. Even without a mentor, Yamaguchi was able to rise to early fame. What expedited her fame, though—along with the fame of all American figure skaters—came at the 1994 U.S. Championships when, Tonya Harding attacked Nancy Kerrigan. All of a sudden, everyone in the country knew who Harding and Kerrigan were, in addition to Yamaguchi, even though she had turned professional at that point. “In a tragic way, [the attack] was a perfect storm,” Yamaguchi said of the incident.
After Harding and Kerrigan, a new wave of skaters became America’s darlings after Tara Lipinski, Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes and Kimmie Meissner won gold at the 2006 World Championships in Calgary—the last time any U.S. woman has won gold at a major international competition.
— Kristi Yamaguchi (@kristiyamaguchi) January 23, 2017
Since then, none of America’s new generation of skaters—primarily, Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold and Mirai Nagasu—has been able to win against the best athletes from Russia and Asia, where the sport has exploded. But Yamaguchi says that could all change at the World Championships this March in Helsinki, Finland.
“The U.S. has, at any given time, a contender for the podium. Ashley, Karen and Mariah [Bell]—if they skate cleanly in both the short and the long, one or two could be on the podium,” Yamaguchi said of the U.S.’s 2017 Worlds team. “But they have to skate cleanly.”
[More from Excelle Sports: From newcomer to international star: Is Mariah Bell is the new face of American figure skating?]
Five days after Chen won Nationals, the world of women’s figure skating saw a new milestone reached at the European Championships: Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva broke Kim Yu-Na’s seven-year-old world record for highest points total. The 17-year-old is the clear favorite to retain her gold medal at this year’s World Championships, as well as to stand atop the podium at next year’s PyeongChang Olympics.
“Medvedeva has been so dominant, the best in several years,” Yamaguchi said. “She’s the one to watch. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, here’s another and she’ll go away’ [like other young Russian skaters have in the past five years], but she has kept the wheels in motion at the level she skates.
“There will be an incredibly high level of competition at Worlds. It means a lot because the skaters will be setting up for the Olympics.”
Of course, Medvedeva wouldn’t be topping podiums without two triple-triple combinations in her free skate, Yamaguchi says—a combination that was rarely attempted when the retired skater won back-to-back world championships in 1991 and 1992.
“You want to see progression in your sport,” Yamaguchi said. “There were only two or three of us doing triple triples in 1992, and now everyone has to have a consistent triple triple. The new judging system adds components. It’s a different style of skating, more technical indeed. I think with the way the new judging system is now, you’ll see a lot of turnover. It’s hard to keep up this level for an extended period of time.”
— Kristi Yamaguchi (@kristiyamaguchi) December 28, 2016
Off the ice, Yamaguchi is busy with her two daughters and husband, Bret Hedican, a retired professional hockey player. While her 13-year-old daughter Keara likes to hula-dance and plays softball and soccer, 11-year-old Emma has skated for the last five years. Yamaguchi says she wonders whether she should push Emma a little harder in skating, but that she’s also not willing to push her too hard. In addition to being a mother and a children’s book author—Yamaguchi has written three to date—the skater continues to work with the Always Dream Foundation, which she established 20 years ago to help provide opportunities to underprivileged children through reading.
[More from Excelle Sports: Buy Kristi Yamaguchi’s book “Cara’s Kindness”]
So how would one of America’s biggest and most enduring skating stars liked to be remembered? “Taking the experience of the Olympics and translating it to a make a positive difference,” Yamaguchi answered. And for those in the younger crowd, her fame can always be easily referenced as winning that show where Yamaguchi proved her ability to dance with the stars is just as good as her ability to skate above the competition.