What It Means to Be ‘The First’

Kristi Yamaguchi at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOC)

For Shondaland, Nicole Chung interviewed figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi. The two discussed many things, including Yamaguchi’s experience being the only Asian-American Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, and what her win meant for the representation of Asian-Americans in sports and the media.

NC: Before you, there’d been Tiffany Chin and Debi Thomas, but overall very few women of color in U.S. skating. You were the first and are still the only Asian American Olympic Champion in figure skating. The sport was expanding in terms of who did it, who it was available to. Do you remember thinking about any of that as you came up the ranks?

KY: When I competed, I wasn’t thinking about that at all, I was just focused on skating. I had grown up a California girl; we were fortunate to live in a diverse community. After the Olympics, I think my eyes were opened by the incredible amount of support from the Asian American community, and in particular the Japanese American community. It was a little intimidating at first. At first I didn’t really understand it; I was just grateful. The gold meant so much more than I had ever thought it would to other people.

I began to appreciate other things even more — like the journey my own family had to become American, to let me pursue the American dream . . . My grandparents’ internment [during World War II] was not talked about much when we were kids. There were references to “camp,” and we were old enough to know when reparations happened. My paternal grandfather received his U.S. citizenship two years before he died. He just believed in this country so much, and wanted his family to be here. My mom was born in an internment camp, and my dad’s family were there, too. They all had to recreate a life for themselves — you just look back and think, Wow, that was only one generation ago. It’s amazing how far they’ve come. There were so many sacrifices that went into establishing themselves here in this country so I could be an ice skater.

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