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

It was the men’s figureskating finals of the 1988 Winter Olympics. I was 16 and already had racked up my share of skating titles. Someday I’d be in the Olympics. In fact, it was my dream.

That night I lay on our living room floor excitedly watching the battle of the Brians in Calgary: American Brian Boitano facing Brian Orser in his home territory of Canada. Both of them had been world champions. Both of them deserved to win.

Naturally I was rooting for Brian Boitano, a northern Californian like me. We’d skated on the same ice. I held my breath in amazement. Boitano pulled off an amazing eight triple jumps, almost flawless. The gold medal! I jumped in the air when his score went up.

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But what happened next is what I’ll never forget. Brian sat in front of the camera with his coach, surrounded by a crush of journalists scribbling in notebooks, lights flashing, the TV interviewer holding a microphone up to him.

Brian was talking about his career and his medal, talking to the whole world. A tremor went through me, then a terrible sinking feeling. I could never be in the Olympics, I thought. No way could I talk in public like that. I’d freeze. Just the idea of a press conference terrified me.

You see, I loved skating partly because I didn’t have to talk. I could express myself with camel spins, split jumps and spirals. I didn’t have to stand up and give a speech like some teachers expected.

Public speaking was one class in high school I would never take. I could feel the blood rush to my face if I thought a teacher was going to call on me. I stared at my shoes. Please, please, let someone else talk, I’d pray. I was sure I’d get my words jumbled up and make a fool of myself.

What if journalists asked me questions like they asked Brian: “When did you first learn to skate?” “Where did you grow up?” “Tell us about your family.” I’d freeze up like the ice beneath my skates!

And yet, there was so much I would love to say, about my family and all the support they’d given me. About following my dream of being a figure-skating champion.

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Why should a dream have some part of it that was so scary? Why would I have to do something I feared in pursuing something I loved?

Then I would fantasize: Maybe if they did a profile of me I could let the pictures speak for themselves, like a slide show.

I could find a snapshot of my maternal grandfather in his Army uniform, the only non-Caucasian in his platoon during World War II. A second-generation Japanese-American, he fought against the Nazis in Europe.

His wife, my grandmother, stayed in an internment camp in Colorado, barracks of rough cabins, families crowded on top of each other. Even with her husband a soldier in the U.S. Army, she didn’t feel safe in the outside world. Anti-Japanese sentiment ran too deep.

“Where was your mother born?” a journalist could ask.

“My mother was born in an internment camp,” I would have to say, “on January 1, 1945.” A New Year’s gift, they called her. I had a picture of the camp.

I would also look for a picture of me as a child: dark-haired, round-faced and my tiny legs and feet in casts. I was born with club feet, pointing inward and curled under. For the first 18 months of my life they were in plaster casts. Then I had to be fitted with special corrective shoes with a metal bar connecting them. I remember the bar clanking on the hardwood floors when I tried to walk. I was quite a sight.

No wonder I yearned to do something graceful when I was finally free of that thing. First it was ballet, then baton twirling. Speechless magic! I could show you a photo of my older sister, Lori, and me with our batons. But what I really wanted was to go ice skating like Lori.

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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!

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Slowly I learned that the best approach was simply to be myself. To be honest and gracious and do my best, just like on the ice, to answer their questions. So when my big moment came four years after Brian’s, I was ready.

Sometimes I think my biggest accomplishment at Albertville was not winning the gold but talking to the press afterward. When you do the thing you fear most you put an end to fear.

I am still shy. I don’t love giving a speech, though I am always grateful and honored to be asked. I might look composed and relaxed, but I have to take several deep breaths to calm myself.

I’m glad I have this challenge because it helps me as a mom, helps me remember what my girls are going through, with all the challenges kids face these days.

Fear can stop you dead in your tracks. Fear can kill a dream. But facing a fear is empowering. What are you afraid of? What one thing scares you more than anything else? This year, walk right up to it and conquer it, step by step.

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Watch and listen as Kristi reveals the three people who most inspired her!

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Your Comments (18)

Thanks for sharing your story Kristi!

Why is this article called "Pure Grace"? There's precious little to indicate that Yamaguchi allowed God to play any real part in her accomplishments. Although this article may be inspiring from a sports or an everyday perspective, it is not inspiring spiritually. As Jesus warned, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it." And "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?"

Yamaguchi was certainly an outstanding skater, and is an attractive, talented woman, but according to the Bible, those qualities aren't what's important to God.

Oh, I wanted to add one more thing. If "Guideposts" is going to feature an article on a figure skater, how about Janet Lynn, who won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics? Janet is a devout Christian who, in interviews, always seems to give God all the glory. She's stated repeatedly that her main purpose in skating was to let God's love shine through her on the ice, and in that she seems to have succeeded to a phenomenal degree. She also eventually left the world of professional skating behind to devote herself full-time to her family. She has said that there was a part of her that wanted all the glory for herself, but in the end she chose to do what she felt God wanted her to do and what would give Him the most glory. Now *that's* a story that is spiritually inspiring, and which can help others walk in the way of Christ. An Olympic medal itself (gold or otherwise) won't get you into heaven, nor will it win you any special bonus points there. At the end of the road, what you've done for Christ is the only thing that will matter.

Kristi, you are a very empowering woman. Sharing your loves and your fears are great for young children as a lot of people just think that talented people are so lucky. You tell of the loves and fears and children need to hear that from people that they look up to so that they continue to follow their dreams without just saying I can't do it. Yes, God gave you a gift and you have used it so well in your life. I have followed your career and the career of Brian and you are two people to be so proud of (the things that you do for charity
and your kind ways of talking with people.) I also followed you on Dancing with the Stars and there again you were great. I wish you all the best with your endeavors and with your family, what a great mom you are. God Bless all of you

When reading stories like the above, it gives us courage and strength to move forward with His guiding hand and know that God will never let me go.

May God continue to bless u and your family and use u for the extension of His kingdom on earth.

Regards
Mrs L P Christian

Kristi, my daughter and I watched you blossom and skate. We were privileged to see you in person at St. Louis in a show. We were standing by the drive when you left that night and had a biggest smile. You truly have been a role model for all young women. Today, I see you as a beautiful mother and still a role model for all of us. Thank you!

Thank you for sharing your personal history in a very inspiring way. You have overcome several challenges and you chose to not let them get in your way. Yes, God gives gifts and what we choose to do with them is our gift to God. Thank you guideposts for publishing Kristi's story. It is stories such as Kristi wrote that keeps me renewing my subscription yearly.

This article was very inspiring! I used to be a very shy person, then I got into the Pharmacy profession and realized that I had to speak to people, some very unhappy and that helped me alot! It pushed me out of my comfort zone in a huge way! It is good that you shared this. Maybe people will read this and learn that God does not leave us alone in our problems. If we seek Him, He always there!!!

Ms. Yamaguchi, thank you for sharing your talent with the world and me; my Mom loved to see you state with your friends on tv. She may have seen you once at the Baltimore Civic Center. Also for revealing your major life's struggles. It always helps to know you are not alone. You are certainly an a lovely inspiration.

Usually don't read Guideposts anymore but for some reason logged into Pure Grace by Kristi Yamachugi and it reminded me why we no longer subscribe. You used to have a magazine about Christian experiences. There was nothing in this article to suggest she had any knowledge of let alone any understanding of God. It has nothing to do with the Christian faith. Please unsubscribe me from your list - I don't need inspiration - I need Jesus Christ. Thank you.

Our magazines are still filled with faith-based stories, Dob; you might well be pleasantly surprised if you give us another look. If you do prefer to unsubscribe from our mailing lists, you'll find an unsubscribe link at the bottom of every email.

I stopped subscribing to Guideposts years ago when it started getting too politically correct. For instance, "HIS Mysterious Ways" was changed to simply, "Mysterious Ways." WHY? Is it because feminists might object to the masculine reference to God? Can't think of any other reason - yet Jesus Christ referred to His FATHER in Heaven, not his MOTHER. I also notice that Guideposts carefully avoids controversial subjects, such as abortion which is THE Christian issue of our times. The legal slaughter of 50 million children in the womb is simply never mentioned. What would Jesus say about that? How can any organization calling itself "Christian" turn its back on this horrendous evil? Isn't it sad that the early Christians faced death-by-lions and all manner of persecution but some of these modern-day Christians are too timid to simply speak out against this most diabolical act of murder? You have a huge forum, Guideposts - USE it.

Kristi, Thanks for sharing your story with us. God has definitely blessed you and may your words help others, including myself, overcome their fears.

Beautifully written, such an empowering story! I love what she said, Why does God give a gift, then a hardship in its way? So true and helpful! What a wonderful story for this time of year, too.

I've always admired you tremendously, Kristi. I never, ever knew about your club feet and all that you overcame to become a superb skater. Wow! You made my day! Thank you!

Dear Ms. Kyamaguchi and Guidepost,

Thank you for the above article it will be most helpful. As I read your article I fund myself nodding and smiling. I also have issues with public speaking, and well, I have accepted my dream job as an assistant track coach at a local high school. It scares me to death to think I will be up in front of the school, students and at the end of the season making a speech about how well the students did in front of EVERYONE. Smile...so I will be myself and have the confidence I have always had out of the public eye. Again, bless you and my God continue to bless you and your family.

PS. I will try and remember to breath.

Sincerely,

Donna Burnette

You are a beautiful person both inside and out. :)

Kristi,
God has blessed you with a true talent for speaking from the heart. Your story of conquering what you fear most is an example of what we can do when we work with God. You blessed us by sharing your story so well. Your video was a joy to watch.