BIG DREAMS, BIG ACHIEVEMENTS, ON ICE AND OFF
By Paul Freeman [September 2012 Interview]
It’s one thing to dream. It’s another to turn your dreams into reality. The Bay Area’s Kristi Yamaguchi has been extraordinarily successful at doing that.
She won a junior world title in 1988 and two national titles in 1989 and 1990 as a pairs skater with Rudy Galindo. The dazzling Yamaguchi won the 1992 Olympic ladies' singles competition. She also triumphed in the World Figure Skating Championships in 1991 and 1992 and a U.S. Figure Skating Championship in 1992. In December 2005, she was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
But the ice rink hasn’t been her only area of achievement. Yamaguchi became the celebrity champion in the sixth season of “Dancing with the Stars.” More recently she has delighted children and parents with her books, the adventures of Poppy, a skating pig. She also just launched an active wear line. Proceeds of the books and the clothing benefit her Always Dream Foundation.
“Always Dream is 16 years old now,” says Yamaguchi, who was raised in Fremont, California and still resides in Northern California. “This last year, we’ve been focusing on our energy onto early childhood literacy. This last couple of weeks, we launched two different reading programs in six different schools in the Bay Area. We’re partnering with a national literacy organization - Raising A Reader - in one of those programs. And the second reading program we launched is is a language/arts program that is software, so it’s used on a tablet, bringing innovative technology into the classroom, as well. So it’s exciting times and forward-thinking with this whole 21st century way of education.”
Though Yamaguchi has accomplished so much in so many areas, Always Dream Foundation gives her a unique kind of satisfaction.
“I know how fortunate I was. I had a lot of support, coming up as a skater, not just from my family, but from the community. And I got to live out my dreams. So to be able to take that now and give it back, to help others achieve their dreams, give them something positive that can influence their lives, that’s been really rewarding these last 16 years. And we’re looking to continue that work.”
Also rewarding has been the enthusiastic response to her children’s books, “Dream Big, Little Pig!” and its new sequel, “It’s a Big World, Little Pig!”
“It’s so fun to go to schools and stores and meet the kids and see their faces when they’re hearing your book, seeing their reactions to it. That motivates me to keep on going with it.”
When Yamaguchi was growing up, she was enamored of such books as Dorothy Kunhardt’s “Pat The Bunny,” Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” and, a little later, E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.”
She and her husband, Bret Hedican (former NHL defenseman and now a San Jose Sharks TV analyst) have encouraged their two daughters, Keara and Emma, to read.
Yamaguchi says, “One of the best pieces of advice that our pediatrician gave us, when our first daughter was born, was, ‘It’s never too early to start reading to them. Start showing them books.‘ And so we did. It’s always been a big tradition and a bedtime ritual to sit down, look at books and read them. Both our girls, the older one especially, is an avid reader. And our younger one is learning. She’s in first grade. So we try to instill that value in them now, as early as possible.”
Reading their favorite books to them over and over inspired Yamaguchi to dream up original stories. “Obviously, not never being a children’s author before, I drew from personal experience and just knew what kind of message I wanted to give to the kids that would read the book and went from there. So both books are very personal. They’re not about me. Poppy [the book’s piggy protagonist] is a fictional character. But I certainly drew from personal experience.”
As for the message, “It’s about having a dream and pursuing it with perseverance and persistence. And continue to dream big, no matter what stage of your life you’re in.”
As a child, Yamaguchi latched onto her dream. “It was just finding something to love. I tried a lot of different things, dance, baton twirling, cheerleading, soccer. But once I started skating, that was it. I knew it, from that point on. I loved it and was intent on focusing on that particular sport.
“I was taught early on that you need to set goals. Obviously having the big dream of someday being a professional ice skater kept me going through all the years.”
For Yamaguchi, born with club feet, skating proved to be physical therapy, as well. “My parents really looked after my badly turned-in feet early on. When I wanted to skate, my mom asked the pediatrician, ‘Is this okay for her legs?’ And it was great exercise, great for coordination and for strength. I seemed to just take to it right away.”
Yamaguchi overcame her physical issues, turning an obstacle into a positive. “Maybe in some ways, that taught me early on to face a challenge and do what you can to get over it. As a young skater, I wasn’t the most talented. Things didn’t come to me so easily. But it was good, because it did teach me a work ethic at a very young age. And it taught me the rewards for the work that was put in.”
She knew there were dues that needed to be paid, to attain excellence in sports. “Probably by the time I was in junior high, I definitely knew that I would have to make choices in order to focus on skating and to continue to have that as a major focus in my life. And it was fine. I loved skating so much, I felt that I was gaining other things in skating that were exciting, so it was worth - I don't want to say sacrifice - but the tradeoff, I guess.”
Yamaguchi appreciated the analytical side of figure skating, but also enjoyed getting lost in the magic of the twirling, soaring flight.
“It is a little bit of both. Back when I competed, I would say, you’re really skating from the gut and you put the training and the time in before, so once you get to the competition, you want to try to turn your brain off and let your body do what it’s trained to do. Once you get to the competition, it’s like, ‘Okay, keep it together, keep it together.’ Physically let your body do what it’s trained to do. Currently, the rules have changed so much that it is a lot more strategic. It’s a lot different, competing under these new rules.”
For Yamaguchi, the rewards of competition included an Olympic gold medal. But it can be difficult to reach the pinnacle at such a young age. “It’s kind of sad when you’re at 20 and you’re like, ‘Now what?’ But I was really luck that I knew I had a long road ahead of me with professional skating. That was kind of the ultimate goal. I was excited for the Olympics, obviously. That became my focus. But I was also so excited to skate professionally. And skating is one of the few sports that can offer that. So I joined Stars on Ice, which is a professional tour, and toured with them for 10 years. So I continued to have quite a challenge in front of me, while still dealing with my own sport.”
In the context of professional skating, she could be more creative. “That’s what I was excited about, because you can be. You have a lot more freedom of expression, with music, with the characters portrayed on the ice, styles of skating. So that was opening up a whole new door. And I kind of thrived in that.”
Yamaguchi also thrived on the “Dancing With The Stars” competition. “That was another challenge to face. And I wanted to make sure I put the effort into it and had fun with it. Even though it got stressful and pretty intense at times, I had a great partner and tried to make the experience as positive as possible. And it was awesome
“Awesome” is a word women are using to describe Yamaguchi’s new line of fitness apparel, called Tsu.ya (a version of her middle name).
“A lot of love has gone into it and it’s exciting to be able to launch. Women can feel good inside and out, because a portion of the proceeds will go back to the foundation.”
Along the way. Yamaguchi has become a role model, a responsibility that she handles as gracefully as she did every double axel.
“It’s intimidating at times. Sometimes you feel like, ‘Oh, no, I have to be a certain way.’ But the more you are just yourself, especially having children now, you know you’re a role model to them and that they’re your most important little ones to influence. So that helps motivate me to be as positive as I can.”
Yamaguchi, 41, trusts that her daughters, ages six and nearly nine, will follow their dreams in life. “I just want to get them to find something they want to do, find a passion. They’re both exposed to a lot of different activities right now and hopefully they’ll gravitate towards something. I just always try to enforce giving 100 percent. Once you commit to something, you’ve got to show up to practice on time. You’ve got to be ready to go. And try your best every single time, whether you win or lose. It’s the effort. Hopefully, they will keep that in mind.“