Kristi Yamaguchi knows what it means to be the best and has a gold medal to prove she was the top female figure skater at the Winter Olympics in 1992.
But that was then. Today, Yamaguchi is breaking into a new sport: kung fu, the Chinese martial art that can be every bit as graceful as figure skating but also a lot more aggressive. The champion on ice is training to become a kung fu master on land.
Those who practice kung fu consider it exercise, self-defense and a way of life. Yamaguchi, 50, started her practice in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, when gyms and ice rinks were closed. And even for a former Olympian, getting the hang of the sport wasn’t easy.
“Like a month or two in I was like, ‘Oh, wow! This is very humbling!’ ” Yamaguchi says from her home in Alamo, California. “Once you’ve been in Olympic-athlete shape, after that you just always feel out of shape.”
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Old work ethic, new sport
Figure skaters like to say the ice rink is a cryogenic freezer. Yamaguchi is proof of concept. Today, she may not style her shoulder-length black hair in the bouffant she sported back in 1992, but she looks remarkably the same as the day she glided to victory in Albertville, France, wearing black and gold sequins.
To the centuries-old practice of kung fu, Yamaguchi brings a decidedly modern (and intense) approach to training. She attends group classes at Richard Lee’s East West Kung Fu in Alamo up to three times a week and takes monthly private lessons, says Janice Fitzsimmons, her black belt instructor.
This level of dedication isn’t surprising. During Yamaguchi’s competitive figure-skating days, every triple lutz and salchow was the product of a well-cultivated work ethic. As Christy Ness, who coached the Olympian starting at age 9, often said, “There’s no secret to success. It’s just plain and simple hard work.”
And yet, being named “best in the world” can sometimes be a burden, creating unrealistic expectations for athletes who struggle to find purpose after realizing a dream like medaling at the Olympics. Yamaguchi avoided that potential pitfall by redefining herself as a wife, mother and philanthropist, and in 2008 by competing on Dancing with the Stars (she won, of course).
“I think a lot of people, when they’re kind of settled in their life, they may not be so willing to try something new,” Fitzsimmons says. “She takes it on, and she’s good with becoming uncomfortable to get more comfortable.”
Yamaguchi has an orange-2 belt, a beginner level in kung fu. She is on track to earn a purple belt by the summer, which will put her two belt levels away from her husband, Bret Hedican, an NHL Stanley Cup champion, former Olympian and fellow kung fu enthusiast. In a family of elite athletes, Yamaguchi says the competition is friendly.
“I can visualize them sparring,” jokes Dale Minami, a family friend as well as Yamaguchi’s lawyer.
A new perspective on age 50
Last July, Yamaguchi turned 50, entering a new decade that finds her busier than ever with Always Dream, her 25-year-old foundation that promotes early-childhood literacy. Busy but also mortal. The aches and pains that creep into her hips and joints could be attributed to all those years spent leaping, spinning and contorting her body in supernatural positions — or simply to being human.
“The body definitely feels different than it used to,” she says. “I’ve kind of resigned that there’s probably no more pain-free days left.”
In addition to kung fu, Yamaguchi stays active by going for hikes and walking her dog, Tank, on the hilly streets of her neighborhood, which, for a time, started to feel unsafe to her. Since the pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes have exploded, a trend so alarming that she felt compelled to take a self-defense course with her two teenage daughters.
Unfortunately, the legacy of anti-Asian sentiment runs deep in her family. Yamaguchi is Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese American, and her grandfather George Doi served in Europe with the 100th Infantry Division’s Quartermaster Company during World War II. While he fought for freedom overseas, his family was imprisoned at Amache in Colorado, one of 10 U.S. internment camps built during the war to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans in the name of national security after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
That legacy made Yamaguchi’s triumph in 1992 all the more poignant. Just a generation after her mother, Carole, had been born behind barbed wire at Amache, Yamaguchi made history as the first Asian American Pacific Islander gold medalist at the Winter Olympics. She continues to be a motivating force for new generations of AAPI figure skaters, including Karen Chen, who calls Yamaguchi an “inspiration and role model.”
But looking ahead, will there be a black belt in Yamaguchi’s future?
“One step at a time,” she says. In East West Kung Fu’s 55-year history, dozens of students have earned black belts, but only an elite group of 20 have risen to world-class status. Will Yamaguchi be among the elite in kung fu? The journey would be long, but Yamaguchi quickly shifts into a champion’s mindset.
“I never sold myself short as far as facing new challenges and figuring out what’s next.”
Lynda Lin Grigsby is a contributing writer who covers race and the Asian American Pacific Islander community. A former editor of a national AAPI newspaper, she has had her work also appear in Parents, Pasadena Magazine and the Pacific Citizen.