Episode 120

Kristi Yamaguchi ·  Olympic Ice Skating Icon

“When we were in practice, any time I put my music on to practice my routine, I would put myself in that moment, like, okay, this is it all the judges are sitting there. I would get my nerves up and be mentally ready. ”

Kristi Yamaguchi captured the gold medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France in figure skating. She is also a 2-time World champion and U.S. National Champion.  Kristi is a member of the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame, World Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the US Olympic Hall of Fame. She recently received the USOPC’s Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award for “serving as a powerful force for good in society” as well as the 2019 Heisman Humanitarian Award for the work of her Always Dream organization.


Following a long and successful career in professional figure skating including 10 years of touring with Stars On Ice, Kristi took to the dance floor to win the mirror ball trophy with partner Mark Ballas in season 6 of the popular TV show “Dancing With The Stars.” In 1996, she founded Kristi Yamaguchi’s Always Dream whose mission is to give children from low-income families access to high-quality books in the home environment. Aiming to close the opportunity gap and digital divide with an innovative, family engagement program.


In 2012, Kristi added New York Times Best-Selling author to her list of achievements by introducing her first children’s picture book, “Dream Big, Little Pig!”, and then following up with “It’s A Big World, Little Pig!” and a third title “Cara’s Kindness”. Kristi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, 2-time US Olympian and Stanley Cup Champion, Bret Hedican, and their daughters Keara and Emma.


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Podcast Transcript

Kristi Yamaguchi

Intro: (00:00:00) Hey guys, welcome to Asian Hustle Network Podcast, my name is Bryan my name is Maggie. We interview Asian entrepreneurs around the world to amplify their voices and empower Asians to pursue their dreams and goals. We believe that each person has a message and a unique story from their entrepreneurial journey that they can share with all of us.

Maggie: (00:00:23) Today we have a very special guest with us, her name is Kristi Yamaguchi. Kristi captured the gold medal and then the 1992 winter Olympics in Albertville, France in figure skating. She is also a two-time world champion and our national champion. Kristi is a member of the figure skating hall of theme, the world figure skating hall of fame, and the US Olympic Hall of fame. She recently received the Jesse Owens, Olympic spirit award for serving as a powerful force for good of society, as well as the 2019 Heisman humanitarian award for the work of her always dream organization, following a long and successful career in figure skating, including 10 years of touring with stars on ice. Kristi took two dance floors to win the mirror ball trophy with partner Mark Wallace in season six of the popular TV show dancing with the stars. Kristi resides in San Francisco Bay area with her husband two times, us Olympian and Stanley cup champion, Brett petticoat, and their daughters here. Welcome to the show!

Kristi: (00:01:32) Thank you, Maggie, and great to be in the show, and Bryan, thank you for having me.

Bryan: (00:01:38) Kristi it is such an honor to have you on the show. I remember talking to my mom last week on my mom and telling her we are going to have Kristi Yamaguchi on the podcast. She was jumping up and down in the kitchen. We watched your ice-skating competitions back when I was a kid so around 1992, I was in elementary school. You’re such an inspiration for us to have you on the show today. it’s like, whoa, this is so surreal. So thank you so much for everything that you’ve done, but we want to hear your story. What was your upbringing like? Where’d you grow up and how’d you get into figure staking?

Kristi: (00:02:12) I am a California girl and grew up In the San Francisco Bay area, particularly the East Bay in the small town of Fremont, California. it was a pretty sleepy town when I was growing up and mostly a suburb it’s not super diverse, but I was diverse enough where I didn’t feel like in a minority.

My family was also part of the local church which was, part of Kristi Yamaguchi a larger Asian American community. I started skating when I was about six years old in first grade and I remember my mom, I wanted to go and my mom said, oh, well, when you are learning to read, then you can get started.

So, I started skating at age 6 at an ice staking ring in Hayward, California called Southland in the mall, and just loved it from the very beginning. I have an older sister, a younger brother, and so that middle child thing. I agree with all the stereotypes of the middle child but I’m a fourth-generation Japanese American.

Bryan: (00:03:40) That’s an insightful childhood experience because Maggie here also grew up in San Francisco in the Sunset District. I’m kind of curious too because knowing that you’re one of the first Asian American winners in the ice-skating Olympics for the United States. Who were your idols growing up? Because it’s hard to imagine ourselves in those positions if we don’t have people that look like us in those key positions. I’m just wondering for yourself, like, how did you keep yourself motivated knowing that you’re pioneering a new space for everyone?

Kristi: (00:04:22) When I was little, I just didn’t even know better. I guess I just love skating and when I first started, Dorothy, Hamill was my big idol. she won her Olympic golden 76 but as I grew older, probably like middle school age, there was another prominent Asian American skater, Tiffany’s chin. She is from the Los Angeles area, and we often competed in both LA and Northern California, so I got to see her often and even train with her occasionally.

Tiffany was the first Asian American US champion and then was also a world bronze medalist. She was blazing the trail, but at the same time identified with that Asian American. I remember seeing you and was like wow, I want to be like her. I think there are so many things about her stating that I looked up to, technically she was taking the sport to the next level, and she was a very artistic, beautiful skater as well. Seeing someone with both of those qualities had an impression on me as a young skater. I always use her as an example as a role model and idol that I looked up to and who, I feel as an Asian American helped me connect what success as an American skater could look like.

Bryan: (00:06:23) Thank you so much for, sharing that experience too and it’s so refreshing to hear that. I think regardless of what era you’re in or how you grew up, it’s always great to have like the idols, and friendly competition sort of motivating you. We’re all human and we all took the baby steps to get to where we are today. This is what we want to communicate through this entire podcast. I am curious what the entire process was like getting to the Olympics and world championships? Did you face any sort of setbacks or, or prejudice or any sort of like things like that nowadays we kind of look back and be like, hmm what was that?

Kristi: (00:07:22) As you said, it was a long road, It was 14 years. For me to eventually have a spot on the US Olympic team it was a long road, and a lot of positive things happen. Some things were looking back, it’s the little microaggression here and there.

I remember the second world championships I attended. I think I was 19 and in Halifax, Canada, which is far from past Toronto. I landed and was gathering my luggage from security and everything. There were helpers there. I remember I was gathering my stuff and the volunteers like, wow you speak good English. And all of my gear is like team USA and everything. I’m just like, yeah, I’m American and she’s like, oh, okay. But there was this like a confused look on her face and I kind of just brushed it up. The fact that I still remember being asked that and I think we’ve all probably been asked as, oh, you speak good English, or your parents speak really good English and it’s like, hmm.

I think another time was before that I was at the junior world championships in Brisbane, Australia and this was before you guys were probably even born. It was like 1989 and I ended up winning the ladies’ title and then two skaters from Japan were silver and bronze.

We were waiting for our metal ceremony, and it was just taking forever, really like ready to get on the ice and I was like, what’s taking so long let’s get the show on the road here. They’re like we only have two Japanese flags. I kind of looked at them and said I’m American, you need to find American flags for the first place.

Maggie: (00:11:19) I appreciate you for sharing those stories as well Kristi and I think it’s those moments that especially when we’re young, we don’t think about them when they’re happening but when we grow older, and we look back into the past and we’re like maybe that didn’t sound right. I’m so glad that we’re as a national community and like you said, not only Asian communities but other minority groups as well. We’re finally kind of speaking up now, especially after the pandemic and what we’ve experienced. I feel like the Asian community is finding its voice. I’m so glad to hear that we’re trending in that direction but appreciate you for sharing those stories.

Bryan: (00:11:59) We still hear stories from podcast guests as well. Citing similar experiences of “you speak really good English!”

Maggie: (00:12:40 I commend you for just having such a strong mindset as well. As Bryan said, I’ve also watched you a lot while it’s growing up and my parents knew I loved watching you so much on screen. I just love the mindset that you have because I think there’s this one line that you said before, where it’s like, “you just do your best and forget the rest”. That line is just so powerful and it’s just so inspiring.

I noticed that you were a pairs skater with Rudy Galindo. and I think this applies to this can apply to our listeners because a lot of our listeners are entrepreneurs and small business owners. It’s important to find a partner with that you connect and synchronize.

You and Rudy became so successful together. Can you talk about that relationship you had with Rudy and what do you think made your relationship with Rudy so successful in your career?

Kristi: (00:13:34) It was a very fun time in our lives. We were very young when we were paired off, I think I was 11 and he was 13. If you can imagine Rudy now is probably 5’7 on a very good day. We were a very petite team, but we were both very strong as single skaters. So, as we partnered together we progressed pretty rapidly in the US competitive scene and it was a great time.

That partnership worked and clicked because we developed a very strong friendship, first of all, but also trust in each other and mutual respect.  I was just in awe and like, oh, why does he want to skate with me? But at the same time, he pushed me to improve and to come up to his level. I think that trust and respect are just essential to any partnership, whether it’s a personal relationship or business, you must share the same vision of where you want to go.

Maggie: (00:15:38) I completely agree and I think that goes with any partnership whenever you’re working with someone, you have to have the same vision and the same goals otherwise you won’t know which direction you’re going towards.

We know that you established the always dream foundation for children in 1996 could you talk a little bit about that and what your purpose was for the dream foundation at the time that you had created it and how it has kind of changed today.

Kristi: (00:16:09) It was shortly after the Olympics in 92, when I had hands-on experience with the non-profit organizations and that it was the Make-A-Wish foundation. I think having my eyes open to the impact that you can have on the child’s life, whether it was one day we spent time with the families and with the kids and helping them forget some of the challenges that they were facing and for a day, like just bring them fun and happiness. It was such a powerful feeling and just the rewarding so I knew I wanted to do more and, that was something that posts the Olympics would really fulfill and just give me more new purpose and direction. So, in 96 established always dream foundation with my co-founder Dean. It was all about embracing the hopes and dreams of helping underserved children.

There are so many kids out there who don’t have that kind of resources. We should help encourage that dream in a child and then maybe even habit help them take that first step, then that was the goal.

Bryan: (00:19:38) It’s a reflection of who you are and to continue to give back and develop the new generation and create the foundation for them. It’s awesome to hear that but I do want to take it back a couple of years to 1992. Talk about your mindset going to like the 1992 Olympics with your momentum from the 1991 World championships. What was your mindset like? What was the atmosphere like entering the competition? How did you mentally prepare yourself to perform in front of millions of people around the world? And on top of that, how did you take care of yourself? What did you eat? How many hours did you sleep? Did you tell yourself affirmations growing up? What was the internal voice that was going inside your head as you were entering this competition?

Kristi: (00:21:51) Yeah, coming off the 91 worlds and having my first world championship was interesting because I had never won that world title before, I even had one Australia national title. It felt good because I felt like I’m never even going to be the best in our country. How does that even compare them to the world? So being able to walk off the world championships, it just was a huge shot of confidence not only in my skating but how I just felt I was accepted into the role of being considered an Olympic hopeful and a contender for an Olympic medal.

It was huge, and it was a big turning point and so preparing for the Olympics after that I always sit down, sat down with my coach at the beginning of the year, and we kind of mapped out the summer. When I would pick out new music and then when I would go to work with the courtyard to create the routines for that competitive year and what content we were planning to put in the program.

You guys were probably super young, but the big talk that year was the triple axel from the 1992 Olympics. It was just a huge jump in technical prowess in the woman’s figure skating world.

My biggest competitor Madore Ito from Japan and she had pushed the boundaries. Technically it was doing every triple jump in the book, including the triple axel and everyone knew if we wanted to compete and be competitive with her, we needed to up our game and, and be up there too.

We created that plan and stuck with it, training was my main focus. It was just doing my training, having a little bit of a break, and then it was just really resting and recovering, like having a good dinner which looking back now, I’m not sure like my nutrition was probably the best. There’s a lot more nutrition science these days than back in 1992, but I was in bed early, probably like 9 or 10 PM. Competition season starts in October so at that point it’s like, you’re gearing up, starting to showcase, what you’re going to put out there for the Olympics. At the same time, you don’t want to peak early and leave everything on the table in the fall, and then by February, it’s just like, you’re already going downhill. So, it’s a little strategic and like walking on eggshells.

I would say all year, I just don’t want anything to go wrong like getting sick or getting injured, and make sure you have eight to nine hours of sleep, so your body is ready to train again. Yeah, it was almost like you can’t even breathe the wrong way. Otherwise, it’s like, oh no, something might go wrong.

When us championships came around January and it was decided that there who was going to represent us at the Olympics. When I was named to the team, it was kind of like a huge relief and in just a moment where it’s like, okay, this is the culmination of what I’ve worked my whole life for. At that point you’re like, oh, it doesn’t even matter what happens at the Olympics. I’ve made the team, I’m an Olympian and that’s okay.

Bryan: (00:26:44) It’s so insightful to hear that and just the preparation in place. I’m very much the same way it’s like very, something hard. I had to breathe a certain way and wake up at a certain angle so it’s just coming to show how meticulous you have to be in preparation for the Olympics rate.

Let’s jump into the Olympics competition itself. What was that atmosphere like knowing that you got past the fact that you are an Olympian representing the United States and now had the opportunity to be an Olympic champion?

What was that feeling like? Like stepping onto the ice and having all the lights on you. Like how’d you kept yourself calm? Because I would imagine this is your first Olympics. You must have a lot of nerves in place. I don’t know how you deal with nerves.

Maggie: (00:27:41) And just dealing with like the pressure from yourself and your fans. \You had to develop a such thick skin and a strong mindset. I want to know more about that too.

Kristi: (00:28:05) I’m already getting nervous. But it started with the preparation that started years ago and then fine-tuned through that season. One of the tricks, my coach always kind of used on her students and I use it a lot. When we’re training every day in practice, any time I put my music on to practice my routine, I would put myself in that moment, like, okay, this is it like all the judges are sitting there.

At the Olympics and on the world stage you can’t miss anything, or this is it. I would try to put myself there and bring my nerves up even in practice so that I just knew what it was like. My coach trained her students to be prepared mentally and physically. She would be tough on us. I mean, she would make me so nervous to the point sometimes where I was just like I don’t even want to lesson today. But in some ways that were her strategy to condition us to deal with the pressure and to be able to perform under that pressure and know that we could do it.

When the Olympics came and I was getting ready for my competition, which was a short program. What they call now a short program at the time was called the original program, but it’s eight required elements that you must do. It was so nerve-racking like I was like getting ready and I was almost like, oh my God, why am I doing this? Why did I pick the sport? Can I just go home? All of these doubts, keep coming into your head.

As soon as the music started, I just always tried to focus on the sound of the music and just let my body do what it was trained to do. I was a very consistent stater and a sense that I did things the same all the time and even in practice so when you perform you can easily go into more easily automatic mode when the pressure is on.

Bryan: (00:32:46 I mean you just put us in the moment it’s like we’re imagining ourselves on the ice and say, okay, one thing at a time and things correctly taking at the moment. I’m just really grateful at the time there were no social media to kind of cloud your judgment.

Kristi: (00:33:05) I feel so much for the athletes these days and anyone in the public eye, because there is enough back then if you like actually read an article and you’re just like they’re saying that about me, but I can’t imagine like countless millions of people being able to comment their opinions whether they’re a subject matter expert or not. That’s my biggest advice to a lot of young athletes. Don’t read the comments as good or bad, it’s not always going to be accurate.

Bryan: (00:33:56) Most definitely agree with you it’s so hard nowadays. How has your life changed in terms of your media presence and just being the Olympic Champion? What was that turning point like where you’re like, well, I am a celebrity now?

Kristi: (00:34:24) It’s interesting because the world championships happen to be like a month after the Olympics and Oakland, California was hosting it. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to just like sit and bask in Olympic glory.

After the Olympics, there was just some skating event and we got to the mall and it was just, there is like a backup for blocks to get to the mall but they got me in and when I skated, there were people like in the trees, in the mall, trying to look down onto the ice and 10 people deep, and the mall was what is going on here? I’ve never had security before ever, but just to get from one part of the skating rink to the other I had to have like a wall of security around me just to walk.

I was just like, what is going on? Is this what it’s like to be a rockstar? I think at that point I realized a lot of people watch the Olympics because when you’re in France with just your family there and friends. But I think was just kind of eye-opening, there were a lot of people watching and a lot of people supporting the Olympians while you were there. Throughout that year, everything was in a dreamlike state. It didn’t sink in that all that was happening until maybe literally until probably like a year later.

Bryan: (00:37:20 I can’t imagine how much your life has changed. I appreciate hearing that story a lot. It’s amazing to hear. I know Maggie has something to say too.

Maggie: (00:37:37) No, I’m just in awe as well. I can’t even imagine what that must’ve felt like for you because that’s such a young age as well. I’m sure it was so shocking to you, but also it felt good at the same time that you were able to achieve something so astronomical and I feel like I’m in the moment when you’re telling us this story and it’s like making my hands sweaty as well.

Bryan: (00:38:35) I love your storytelling so much on this podcast. I want to talk a little bit more about mental health. What was your mental health like as you were competing so hard and what was the mental health like? We talked to enough athletes and celebrities that there is a form of depression that comes when you’re not competing anymore and that you have to look at your life. And ask yourself what is your life’s purpose now? I want to hear your side of the story too since we’re reflecting now on your time as an ice skater and then post ice skating, what was the transition like on your mental health and how do you keep yourself healthy in your mind

Kristi: (00:39:35) I think that is a huge pitfall for athletes in general. I mean, it doesn’t matter what level of athlete you were but when you focus so much of your energy, it’s a huge transition because it is, it’s such a big part of your identity and who you were growing up. Amazingly, we’re still trying to figure out and tackle, the best way is to deal with that transition. I think maybe cause it’s just different for everyone. I think I was very fortunate in the sense that after the Olympics at the time and the nineties, there was a distinct line between amateur skating and then professional skating that line is no longer there.

After I got married, I toured for a couple more years, but I stopped touring after 10 years, and then we started a family. My best advice is always like finding a new challenge and I think if I let the 92 Olympics be the pinnacle of my life that’s kind of sad. I think finding work in the community, finding a way where I can still feel like I can make a difference.

Bryan: (00:44:21) What advice would you give to someone who wants to get to ice skating? Let’s take it up a notch to how about someone who was going to escape, but doesn’t have the family means to do it. How can they pursue their passions and goals?

Kristi: (00:44:44) It’s a good question and I think that’s something that there probably isn’t one specific answer but as far as if you want to get into ice skating go visit your local rink and learn through those group classes, you also get introduced to many of the teachers who teach.  Keep taking lessons but there are people in the skating community who are there ready to help out.

It’s advocating for yourself and find resources where you can even if you don’t want to be a top-level competitor. I know there are organizations out there that are trying to address that.

Maggie: (00:47:49) You have pioneered the space as Bryan said. I am just like so happy that you were able to share your story with us today. I’m so glad that you were able to find new directions and new challenges, you know, and you served as such an inspiration for so many young athletes and young girls and boys and you continue to do so serve as an inspiration.

Kristi: (00:49:57) There’s a lot of obvious focus with always dream and its growth. We’re in California, Arizona, and Hawaii, as far as schools go we serve at the kindergarten level. We’re looking to accelerate our expansion and go a lot deeper and serve more students.

Maggie: (00:51:21) Thank you for everything you’re doing and it was such an honor to have you on our show today for our listeners on the podcast. Where can they find out more about you online and the always dream foundation as well?

Kristi: (00:51:35) I’m on Twitter and Instagram at Kristi Yamaguchi and so congratulations and thank you guys for all you do, that is such an honor to hear that from you.

Bryan: (00:52:20) Thank you so much for your encouragement and it’s again, what Maggie said to you. It’s such an honor to have you on the podcast today and an honor meeting you. Can’t wait to see what your next chapter is, how your next chapter one phone, and we’ll be there to support you at every step along the way.

Kristi: (00:52:43) Ah, I appreciate that. Thank you so much