Yamaguchi Lafayette Library's guest at speaker series
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
When Olympic figure skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi was six years old, she fell in love. Ice skating became her passion.
A visit to the Lafayette Library and Learning Center's Authors and Athletes Speaker Series on April 11 proved public sentiment about the Alamo resident is filled with equal passion and love. Adoring children, arranged on the floor at her feet -- and equally adoring adults, packing the Community Hall to overflowing -- were evidence that Yamaguchi's 1992 Olympic Gold Medal has lost none of its shine.
Moderator Dennis O'Donnell, television station KPIX 5's sports director, asked Yamaguchi if she realized how much winning the gold would change her life.
"You're focused on doing the task at hand, on competing the way you trained all year," she answered. "You're hoping, but it was about getting out there and doing my job."
Her laserlike focus, Yamaguchi's longtime coach, Christy Ness, said in an interview after the presentation, was apparent from early on. Ness coached the young prodigy from age nine through the Albertville, France, Olympics and into the skater's subsequent professional career.
"When she was little, she listened very well," Ness recalled. "She never said a word. She'd just nod her head, then go out and do it. With her, something happened every day. That's very rare."
It's also rare for an athlete to become a best-selling author and a philanthropist devoted to improving the literacy of children in disadvantaged communities. Yamaguchi has used her high-beam, professional athlete focus to do both.
Through her Always Dream Foundation and two New York Times bestselling books about Poppy, a pig who "dreams big," the mother of two young daughters has turned a bedtime routine into a public benefit.
Yamaguchi said her daughters inspired her to become a writer. "With my first daughter, the pediatrician said, 'Read to her.' So we started reading favorite books, over and over again. When my second daughter came along, I thought, 'I've always wanted to write a book,' so they helped me to do it," she said.
Although she now skates only for fun, Yamaguchi said the lessons she learned on the ice have never faded. Perhaps because she started life with turned-in feet -- requiring casts, braces, and corrective shoes until the age of three -- she has a special appreciation for overcoming obstacles.
"It doesn't have to be a sport. It starts with a dream, believing in yourself, setting goals and hard work. If you keep your eye on getting through challenges, the victory at the end will be sweeter," she said.
A young audience member used the opportunity to gain practical advice from an Olympic champ. "Did you use "the walker" when you first started?" the young boy asked. (The walker is a handheld, assistive device, used while learning to skate.)
"I might have used a chair," Yamaguchi said. "They didn't have all the technology they have now: back then they had buckets and little chairs to push."
O'Donnell asked her to speak about specialization in sports. Claiming she was "no expert" and seeking advice herself, as the mother of two young children, she said that while growing up in Hayward, her parents encouraged participation in a broad spectrum of activities.
"They left it open, but when they saw the way I was driving at skating, they were OK with my being specialized," she said.
When she was training to become a dancer on ice (she said that is how she thinks of skating), Yamaguchi would prop a Dorothy Hamill doll on a ledge to "watch" her practice. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it was her turn to observe, as a special correspondent to NBC's "Today" show. Yamaguchi said San Jose skater Polina Edmund performed admirably in what was the 15-year-old skater's first senior competition and first full season.
"For her to go out there and put her name on the map for the first time is maybe a first step to putting Bay Area skaters back on the map," she said.