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Pure Grace

As the legendary Olympic figure skater reveals, winning gold at Albertville in 1992 was not her biggest achievement that year.

By Kristi Yamaguchi, San Francisco, California

As appeared in

We rented skates and I slid out tentatively on the ice, my mom holding my hands, my legs wobbly and unsure. We made a few turns on the rink, me slipping and sliding. And then something happened. I could do it! I could stand on the ice and skate all on my own.

Something inside of me clicked. This is me, I thought. This is what I am meant to do. It felt like pure grace had found me. I burst into tears when I had to return the rented skates. I thought I’d never get them back!

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Every child has dreams. But dreams need to be nurtured and shaped or they’ll fade. My parents encouraged me to take lessons and a group class. I was intimidated by all the other kids, scared when I had to skate in front of them by myself, but I stuck with it.

Teachers, too, saw something in me that I couldn’t begin to see in myself. “Try this,” they urged. “Try that.” A jump, a turn, a figure-eight pattern that cut elegantly through the ice, leaving my marks behind. Things that seemed impossible became second nature.

I was given a Dorothy Hamill doll, dressed in a miniature version of the red costume she wore in the 1976 Olympics when she won gold. Not that I ever thought I would do the same, but a seed had been planted. I had something to aim for.

I took my Dorothy Hamill doll with me to the rink and let her watch me skate.

Of course, it was work, all that training, but as long as you have a goal in your head and you’re working toward it, gaining skills, gaining strength and ability, you don’t always realize how hard it is.

Up at four to get on the ice at five o’clock and train before school. Back to the rink at the end of the day. It wasn’t like school. I never had that feeling of wanting to sink in my chair and hide behind my desk. I didn’t mind being in the limelight in a skating program.

I wasn’t shy Kristi staring at her feet. I was someone else on the ice. Happy, confident, free. Some people express themselves by speaking eloquently, telling jokes or singing beautifully. I expressed myself with my skating. Everything I was feeling inside could come out on the ice.

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I worked myself up to a level where I was the Junior American champion and skating in competitions with people I had admired only from afar, like Brian Boitano. That was what was so intimidating about watching Brian in his press conference. He was so calm, unflappable, quick and funny.

I clicked off the TV in a funk. My coach insisted I was Olympic caliber, but I could only imagine falling apart in front of a camera. Live? In front of the whole world?

I would rather die, I told myself. Why would God give me this gift, something I was so grateful for, and then add something that made it impossible?

The next day I was at the rink. As usual. I was practicing a combination of jumps that had once seemed impossible. I could remember seeing others doing them and thinking, I’ll never be able to do that. Almost like having to skate across the ice by myself that first day of class. But look, now I could.

Same thing can happen to you when you talk to people, the thought came to me. A strong, insistent thought.

You can do this, Kristi, the same way you learned to do a triple Lutz and triple Salchow. You didn’t do it all at once. But step by step, you learned. You took a big challenge and chopped it down to bite-sized pieces.

I worked very hard the next few years—on the ice and especially off. After competitions journalists talked to me and although my heart pounded every time I spoke to them, I got to know them. They became familiar faces. And they got to know me.