THE OLYMPICS / WINTER GAMES AT ALBERTVILLE : Going Beyond the All-American Story
Hers is the portrait of an All-American family. Grandfather George was a U.S. Army infantry officer during World War II. Dad Jim is a dentist. Mom Carole is a medical secretary. Brother Brett plays varsity basketball. Sister Lori is a world champion baton twirler. And itsy-bitsy, pony-tailed Kristi is a world champion figure skater, favored today to become Olympic champion as well.
Yet this is not the complete picture of the Yamaguchi family of Fremont, Calif.
Kristi’s mother was born inside a Japanese-American wartime internment camp in Colorado. And her father was 4 when his family was coerced into selling off its Gilroy (Calif.) farm and most of its belongings before being relocated to a similar camp in Poston, Ariz., where they remained confined for the next three years.
“They don’t talk about it much,” Kristi says.
She is aware of some of the hardships that her American-born maternal grandfather, George Doi, endured even while fighting for the United States in the war. A lieutenant, he was stationed in the European theater because his superiors thought it best not to send troops of Oriental heritage to the South Pacific.
Back home, Lt. Doi’s wife was transported from Los Angeles to a wire-fenced camp in Colorado, one of more than 120,000 Asian-Americans herded like cattle into such degrading surroundings after Japan’s 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The prevailing sentiment among U.S. government officials was that some of these people, citizens or not, might attempt to aid the Japanese war effort.
As the wife of an officer, Mrs. Doi actually had the option of remaining free in Los Angeles.
But no one would rent her a room.
Fifty years later, when Kristi Yamaguchi, barely out of her teens, found herself taking part in figure skating’s national championships at Minneapolis while her nation’s military forces once again went to war, hers had become a different world. But just the same, on her civilian clothes as well as on her skating costume, Kristi wore a yellow ribbon and a sewn-on American flag.
And whenever she skates at international events, often against her gifted rival Midori Ito of Japan, the same thing happens every time. A journalist stops to chat with Kristi, listens a while and invariably says:
“My, your English is very good.”
That one always makes her laugh.
Sixty inches and 93 pounds of athleticism on ice, Kristi Yamaguchi is a giggly, not particularly gabby California girl whose favorite things in the world are going shopping, going roller-blading and going to San Francisco 49er football games.
She was born with clubfeet, twisted so grotesquely that for the first year of her life they were encased in plaster casts, after which Kristi wore corrective shoes until she was 4. Carole Yamaguchi thought ballet and ice skating might improve her daughter’s delicate sense of balance. Kristi, not much bigger than a Barbie doll, began doing foot-long leaps on the ice, clutching a store-bought toy likeness of 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill.
She was always quiet. Not even her best school friends at Mission San Jose High in Fremont knew that Kristi was setting her alarm clock every day for 3:45 a.m., riding with her mother to the rink at the Fashion Island mall and putting in five hours of training before hurrying back for a 10:30 class. If she limped during gym class, she might not even tell anybody about the stress fractures in both legs.
Self-reliance was what a shy kid needed most.
“Figure skating is different from, say, football, where you have an opponent and you can affect their scoring,” says Yamaguchi, now 20. “I have to go out and give my personal-best performance every time.”
Others helped. Her parents, obviously. Also her grandfather. And then there was Rudy Galindo, who was so fond of Kristi after her family gave him a home for a year that he changed the spelling of his name to “Rudi” when they began skating pairs, simply to give it symmetry with hers.
And, of course, there was Jim Hulick, who coached the pair on their way to the U.S. championship. Those were happy days, no doubt about that, the three of them together.
But there was more to this portrait, too.
Kristi split with Rudi because she could no longer skate singles and pairs both. He was heartbroken. They rarely spoke. And this came shortly after their coach, Hulick, revealed something that he had been keeping from Kristi and Rudi during their training for the national championships--that he was terminally ill.
Hulick even postponed a scheduled biopsy and juggled chemotherapy treatments around their practice sessions, confiding to a friend, “At least I have a desire in life. I’m not just sitting around thinking about dying.”
Stricken with colon cancer at 38, Hulick died in December of 1989, in West Covina. Five days later, Kristi’s grandfather, George Doi, died, too.
The fragile 93-pounder from Fremont resolved to be strong. She struggled to overcome her stage fright. She worked at becoming less reticent. She lifted weights until she could squat 155 pounds. She installed seven triple jumps into her program to refute claims that the Yamaguchi routine was more artistic than athletic.
“She seems happier,” Carole Yamaguchi says, with her daughter now poised to win an Olympic medal. “All the emotional turmoil isn’t there now.”
At the nationals last month in Orlando, her mother offered Kristi a $100 reward for successfully doing a triple salchow, a maneuver that continually had exasperated the skater. Kristi did one perfectly, then afterward, from the winner’s pedestal, caught Carole’s eye and mouthed: “One hundred.”
Your everyday, normal, All-American girl, waiting for her allowance.