Figure skater enjoys post-Olympics pursuits, including foundation, family
To win the women's figure skating gold medal at theOlympic Games is to win the sports lottery. Life changes forever. Often, you become a household name, with more fame and fortune than you ever could have imagined.
And so it was for Kristi Yamaguchi. It has been 22 years since she won her Olympic gold medal in figure skating at the 1992 Albertville Olympics. Over 6 minutes and 40 seconds in two nights of competition in that rink in the French Alps, her life changed forever.
She earned much more than a gold medal: a professional skating career, a life full of appearances and travel, an opportunity to speak for the causes she loves, especially her Always Dream Foundation – and a husband and family. As luck would have it, she met her husband, hockey player Bret Hedican, at the opening ceremony of those Olympic Games.
"I guess you could say that 1992 in Albertville was a pretty good experience for me," said Yamaguchi, now 42.
"Winning the gold opened up a lot of opportunities, other challenges that I wanted to take on and do in my life," she said. "The first thing was touring and being able to make a career out of my sport, skating as a professional for 10 years and enjoying that. Beyond that, it was having the opportunity to start my foundation and give back, which was something important for me and my family. I've enjoyed taking on other challenges outside of skating, even as my main focus with my life is my family."
But none of this came easily. She made the difficult decision to jettison a successful pairs career – and longtime skating partner Rudy Galindo – to focus on singles. She uprooted her life and had to leave her family in the San Francisco Bay Area to follow her coach to Edmonton, Alberta. She lost more than a few competitions she was supposed to win, and underwent some serious soul-searching at a relatively young age.
Just as Yamaguchi acknowledges how her life has been enriched by the Olympic Games, the journey also tested her. It was a challenge not unlike what most of us face at some point in our lives.
"I think people do have their Olympic moment," she said, "maybe not in front of an audience as the Olympics has, but it's nice to have a goal and to work towards that goal and to be motivated daily with the thought of achieving that goal.
"If people are facing something monumental in their life, I think when that comes upon you and when you face something insurmountable or something that appears to be too much to handle, ask yourself, 'Do I want to give up on this?' and keep asking yourself, 'Do I want to live with regrets?' It's about really digging deep. If you keep asking yourself if you really want to give up, and follow through on that, then you will live with no regrets. If you fail, at least you tried."
When the Olympic competition is over and a skater is standing at the top of the podium with a gold medal draped around her neck, the hardships and tough times seem so far away. For Yamaguchi, the challenges began early when she was forced to make a difficult choice. She and Galindo, who lived with Kristi and her family for nearly two years, were the two-time reigning U.S. pairs champions, but Yamaguchi, then 19, also was a rising star in singles, having finished second two years in a row in the women's national championship.
"I thought I could handle both, but it was a lot, and it was brought to my attention that I should focus on one discipline," she recalled. "We knew the pairs field internationally was so strong and so deep that the possibility of a medal was very slim. There were more opportunities in singles. Still I was overwhelmed and shocked to have to make that decision. It was hard especially because other people were involved, it wasn't just a decision on my own, it affected Rudy and his family. You realize you do have to make those tough decisions in order to move on."
So she focused solely on singles and immediately becomes America's ice queen?
At the 1991 national championships, no longer a pairs skater, Yamaguchi did not win the women's event. She finished second once again when Tonya Harding landed an historic jump, the triple axel.
"It was my third time in a row being in that second-place position, but that was the most devastating," Yamaguchi said.
She went back to the rink in Edmonton to train for the upcoming world championships and spent a week moping around. Finally, Canadian world championKurt Browning, who trained with Yamaguchi, pulled her aside:
"What's wrong with you? You look miserable and it's miserable to watch."
Yamaguchi, still not yet 20, was questioning everything. "I was thinking maybe skating's not for me. But after talking to Kurt, I asked myself what life would be like without skating, and I thought, 'No, there's absolutely no way. It's in my future.' That's when I decided to change my attitude and my perspective on the sport. A light went on. I wasn't skating for other people's approval, I had to get back to that pure joy that got me into the sport in the first place. I was determined to enjoy every single practice at the worlds in 1991, to love skating again."
And she did. Yamaguchi won the 1991 world championship. She won the 1992 U.S. national championship. She won the 1992 Olympic gold medal.
"I remember waiting for the first note of my music," Yamaguchi said of her Olympic short program. "Once the music started, it put me in the zone. Things felt really, really good out there."