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Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi speaks on greatness of Hanyu, Mao, Takahashi

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One of the benefits of covering skating for many years has been the high caliber of people I have continually come in contact with. Skaters, coaches, choreographers, executives and parents, they almost always seem to be open and approachable.

The latest example came recently when I had the opportunity to interview 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi while she was in town for the Tokyo run of the dance show “Love On The Floor” that also featured Daisuke Takahashi as a guest dancer.

Yamaguchi, a two-time world champion (1991, 1992) was gracious with her time and answered every question I asked. Just weeks shy of her 46th birthday, the native of Fremont, California, looked fantastic. It seemed as if she had been frozen in time and could still skate competitively.

Now the mother of two girls (Keara Kiyomi — born in 2003, Emma Yoshiko — born in 2005), Yamaguchi has a full plate on her hands with family life, her philanthropic work and her dance career. She is married to former NHL player Bret Hedican, now a TV analyst for the San Jose Sharks, who looks like he came out of central casting.

In our session, Yamaguchi came across as both down to earth and straightforward. Asked to give an opinion, she didn’t hesitate or try to sugarcoat it. She also laughed at herself a few times.

Best known for her greatest fame as the Olympic champion in Albertville, France, 25 years ago, Yamaguchi burnished her athletic image when she became the celebrity champion of the popular American TV show “Dancing with the Stars” in 2008. Yamaguchi has worked hard and enjoyed an incredible life as a result.

Yamaguchi’s family story has not been without tribulations, however. Yamaguchi’s father (Jim) and mother (Carole) were both in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II as youngsters.

Kristi’s mother was born in 1945 at the Granada War Relocation Center (also known as Camp Amache) in Colorado, while her father spent time at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.

Despite their challenges early in life, Jim went on to become a dentist, while Carole was a medical secretary, and the couple raised three kids in Northern California.

One can only imagine what Kristi’s father, who looked out at the world from behind barbed wire as a young boy in the country he was born in, felt the night his daughter became an American icon by winning the Olympic gold over Midori Ito.

Kristi is a yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese-American. Her family roots trace back to Wakayama and Saga prefectures, so the chance to visit the nation of her ancestors is always meaningful.

“With my heritage I have always loved being able to come and skate in Japan,” Yamaguchi told Ice Time. “There wasn’t as much skating back in the ’90s, but I was probably here once a year for skating for the NHK Trophy and then Stars on Ice, which came here for a few years while I was still performing. It always felt special to be able to come here.”

I asked how much Yamaguchi is able to follow skating these days.

“I try to keep up,” she commented. “I don’t watch every single Grand Prix. I try to keep up with the results. I watch the worlds and the U.S. championships.”

The conversation quickly turned to the current popularity and power of Japanese skaters.

“They are rock stars,” Yamaguchi assessed.

When asked about fellow Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu’s epic free skate at the worlds in Helsinki a few months back, Yamaguchi could only shake her head in amazement.

“Oh, wow. Just incredible,” she said. “The leaps and bounds that men’s skating has taken so quickly. He (Hanyu) just combines so many incredible qualities into one performance that it’s pretty amazing.”

The rapid evolution of the quadruple jumps has taken Yamaguchi by surprise.

“Even since the last Olympics, it has gone from two quads to four and five, and Nathan (Chen) doing six,” she noted. “It’s crazy.”

Yamaguchi cited the narrow margin for error in performing the four-revolution jumps.

“Just knowing that any slight variation on your technique, or if you are off a little, it can be disastrous,” she stated. “How consistent he (Hanyu) is is pretty amazing.

“He has pushed the sport. He has been a bit of a trailblazer for his time.”

Yamaguchi expressed great admiration for recently retired three-time world champion Mao Asada.

“I was a huge fan of Mao,” commented Yamaguchi. “I have always loved her skating. I was hoping for her to do it when it counts. I think she just brought such elegance and technically she pushed the sport, too. Being gutsy to go for those triple axels.”

Yamaguchi admitted she was sorry to see Mao hang up her competitive boots.

“I was heartbroken for her retirement, but also excited because I am hopeful that she continues to skate professionally,” Yamaguchi said. “She has done incredible things for the sport and in the sport.”

Ice Time wondered if Yamaguchi had ever skated with the 2010 Olympic silver medalist.

“No. I have never skated with Mao,” Yamaguchi said wistfully. “I have just always admired her as a fan.”

When I pointed out they were represented by the same agency (IMG), Yamaguchi laughed and replied, “Yes, we are. But (she is) much younger.”

Making a difference

In the past couple of years Yamaguchi, who retired competitively in 1992, has begun performing in skating shows again.

“My foundation (Always Dream), that works on early childhood literacy, we started doing ‘Golden Moment’ again,” Yamaguchi said. “We first started about 18 years ago. A few years ago we brought it back and did it in San Jose, then a year later we did it in Hawaii. This year we are tackling both San Jose (Sept. 3) and Hawaii (Sept. 9, 10).”

Yamaguchi believes the shows help publicize a cause close to her heart.

“I’m just inspired by being in markets and it kind of got the word out in a bigger way,” she commented. “What we are doing and who we are. The show has helped us do that and get our message out.

“So I put the skates on pretty much once a year for those events,” Yamaguchi said. “It’s not televised. The last two years I have skated with my daughters, so it’s kind of a more warm, fuzzy feeling. So I’m already getting on the ice and preparing for that in September.”

When I suggested having Mao join the cast (which includes 2006 Olympic gold medalist Shizuka Arakawa) in the future, Yamaguchi would not rule it out.

“We had our cast set already when Mao announced her retirement,” Yamaguchi noted. “I will be interested to see how much she stays involved with skating. Hopefully she will continue.

“You see Daisuke Takahashi continuing to skate and a lot of other past champions like Shizuka staying very active. Hopefully Mao will do that as well.”

Ice Time asked Yamaguchi why she chose to have her foundation focus on early childhood literacy.

“At the time our kids were around 4 and 6, and I had just written my first children’s picture book,” she recalled. “I was just around literacy so much, I was visiting schools and libraries. But my kids being at that learn-to-read age is when you start to realize just how important reading to your kids is and the difference it makes.

“As a small organization, we thought, ‘Where in education can we make a difference?’ ” Yamaguchi commented. “We figured we are not big enough to fix the problem efficiently, but if we can start at the ground level and give the tools to under-served kids who don’t have access to books, maybe we can be that provider and can help build that foundation from the get-go.

“So early literacy became our passion,” Yamaguchi stated. “Something that we really believe is that if we can reach out to those under-served kids, we know that 60 percent of families in poverty don’t have age-appropriate books at home. That’s one huge step to even get access to books.

“Being able to expose them to books, expose them to stories, and get them interested helps close the achievement gap with kids maybe that have access to books,” Yamaguchi continued.

“Even then it is also parent engagement and part of our program is all about that, too. Teaching the families at home that they can be a part of this and need to.

“Even as young parents, we didn’t know how important it was to read to our kids. Our generation, parents handed us a book and said, ‘Here you go.’ “

Takahashi’s allure

I brought up Takahashi’s enduring appeal to skating fans after his retirement and Yamaguchi admitted that even she is blown away by it.

“We are doing this dance show, which has nothing to do with skating, but we are a bunch of skaters in it,” Yamaguchi stated. “Probably 99.9 percent of the people in the theater are Daisuke Takahashi fans. It’s pretty incredible the power that adoring fans have.”

Yamaguchi then gave an example of what she was referring to.

“There is a group of 36 that are coming to every single dance show — all 13 of them,” she exclaimed. “They bought tickets to every show. Wow. How do they do that?”

Ice Time queried Yamaguchi on what it is that makes Takahashi, the 2010 world champion, such a magnetic figure.

“When he competed he was one of the rare competitors who could combine such dynamic artistry and showmanship within such a technically difficult routine,” Yamaguchi commented.

“He just had such a flair on the ice, that he brought a different look,” she said. “He was just different from any other skater. Not just Japanese skaters, but in the world. He had the magical ‘it’ factor.”

Yamaguchi says that even without the skates, Takahashi remains a sublime artist.

“Even now, dancing with him, he still has that on the floor,” Yamaguchi stated. “So he is just an incredibly gifted athlete and performer.”

I wondered about who Yamaguchi’s skating idols were growing up.

“(1968 Olympic champion) Peggy Fleming. She is from the Bay Area, a local girl as well,” commented Yamaguchi. “Dorothy Hamill was my very first idol, when I first started skating. Not really understanding why she was America’s sweetheart. She won the Olympics, but I did not really know what that was, but I wanted to be like her because everyone loved her.

“Also (1984 Olympic champion) Scott Hamilton and (1988 Olympic champion) Brian Boitano . . . I had idols outside the sport, too. In terms of skating, probably those four.”

Yamaguchi pointed out that Boitano, who hails from across the Bay in Mountain View, California, had a big influence on her at a crucial point in her career.

“While Brian prepared for the 1988 Games in Calgary, being in the Bay Area, and watching him train and seeing what he went through,” Yamaguchi remembered. “He was  a big mentor as well, from afar. It’s not like he worked with me, it was just by example.”

Yamaguchi’s illustrious career includes an achievement that is unlikely ever to be equaled again.

At the world junior championships in  Brisbane, Australia, in 1988, Yamaguchi won both the singles and pairs titles. She captured the latter with pairs partner and San Jose native Rudy Galindo.

Think about that for a moment. The singles and pairs titles at the same worlds. These days that would be almost beyond comprehension.

I inquired about what Yamaguchi felt had been the biggest changes in skating since her era.

“I think overall the sport really started to change when the IJS (International Judging System) came into play,” she stated. “I think it really swung the pendulum from the way the sport had been looked upon forever, the end of the 6.0. I think the IJS swung the pendulum to be more technically-geared, with the accumulation of points, being more strategic on your choreography and how you set up your program with the jumps to maximize your points.

“It has become a lot more strategic in that way,” added Yamaguchi. “You can understand the logic behind it. I think it has changed our sport in some good ways. I think spins have gotten incredible. Everyone has to have good spins now.”

Yamaguchi then provided an example of the changes that have transpired.

“Technically, the women, 25 years ago, maybe the top four or five were doing triple/triples, but now you have to have that,” she noted. “Everyone has to have at least one triple/triple. They are doing it more consistently.”

Yamaguchi acknowledged that the impact of the IJS has not been all good.

“In some ways you almost have a cookie-cutter formula in what you have to do,” she said. “It is harder to find the time in a program to really let your personality or the character of your routine come out. You have like just 30 seconds of footwork now.

“It’s different. You can’t judge a performance just on that emotional feeling that you get like maybe when you watched a Janet Lynn or a skater that artistically is so amazing,” Yamaguchi commented. “So it’s a little different. In some ways good, in some ways you miss a little bit. Sometimes I think the magic can get lost when it is so technical.”

Exponential growth

Ice Time asked Yamaguchi if during her time as an elite skater she ever thought the sport would rise to the popularity it has in Japan.

“Before Midori there was Emi Watanabe,” Yamaguchi said. “Even when I was a young skater, because of the Japanese heritage, I knew who she was. She seemed at the time like a pretty big skating star as well.

“I think they have always embraced their top skaters here, but with the success they have had recently with Mao and Daisuke, starting that wave, and Midori, too, it’s just helped the explosion,” Yamaguchi analyzed. “When your skaters are successful, that is when you are building a huge fan base.”

While Yamaguchi has accomplished a lot in her life, I mentioned that unlike many skaters she had never become a coach.

“Once my career slowed down, we started a family right away,” she stated. “That has just taken priority over anything else. If I coached full time I would want to be in the trenches. Right now I don’t have that time to give.”

How about coaching at some point in the future?

“I don’t think I would ever want to be a full-time coach where I am responsible solely for the skater,” Yamaguchi admitted. “I love working with skaters, and maybe being more of a specialty coach where I would help in certain areas and supplement what their main coach does.”

At the end of our session I wanted to hear from the Olympic and world champion what she felt was the toughest part of being a top skater. As with so many conversations about skating these days, it went back to Hanyu and his phenomenal free skate in Finland.

“You are definitely dedicating your life to the craft,” Yamaguchi commented. “There are so many aspects of skating, and I think that is what makes it so fun to watch. Not only the exciting technical side, which you sit on the edge of your seat for because you are hoping they land all their jumps. But there is that emotional side to it, too. That’s what draws the fans in and creates that connection with the athletes.

“So it’s finding the balance of both of them,” Yamaguchi said. “The technical side is the first and foremost thing you need to do, and it’s consistency. Hanyu is a good example of being such a strong competitor. He has handled pressure that is just hard to imagine, through the Olympics and this past worlds.”

Yamaguchi, who triumphed in similar circumstances during her competitive days, knows exactly what kind of fortitude is required to prevail in those conditions.

“You are going to have doubters, and he (Hanyu) is going up against a field that had beaten him all year, and he is still able to pull it off,” she concluded. “So under that kind of pressure, to perform like that, is pretty amazing.”