Kristi Yamaguchi Interview

Kristi Yamaguchi article
As a little girl, Kristi Yamaguchi watched her big sister, Lori, try ice skating, so of course she had to try it, too. For young Kristi, who was born with club feet, it also proved to be great physical therapy. Though Lori gave the sport the cold shoulder after a couple of months, Kristi kept at it and went on to win gold in the 1992 Winter Olympics. Today, she’s the mom of two girls herself, and at work on a cool concept that will serve the needs of all children.

Chet Cooper: Tell us about your Always Dream foundation.

Kristi Yamaguchi: I founded it in 1996. I was inspired by the Make-A-Wish foundation to make a positive difference in children’s lives. We’ve been helping out various children’s organizations, which is rewarding. Our latest project is a playground designed so that kids of all abilities can play side by side. That’s our focus now.

CC: Are you working with a playground company, or are you doing this on your own?

KY: We’re doing this on our own, but we’ve also partnered with the city of Fremont, where we’re building the playground. Fremont is my hometown. They’ve given us the land within the Central Park area to build this playground, so they’ve been amazing to work with. We work with an architect who specializes in equipment designs for children with disabilities. So it’s a unique playground, and we’re excited about it.

CC: There are companies that manufacture accessible playgrounds, so you might want to look at what they’ve done and learn from their successful and not-so-successful experiences.

KY: Our architect has done a number of these playgrounds before, and she knows the different manufacturers, so we felt pretty confident that we could do this ourselves.

CC: That’s good. What about fundraising?

KY: We’re currently fundraising. It takes a while. This project is three or four years along from when we started. We hope to break ground soon. We had a dinner about a year-and-a-half ago in October to raise funds for the playground, and we’re planning another event, called Dancing the Night Away. Proceeds will go to fund the playground as well.

CC: Has anyone from your organization reached out to the Kirk Douglas Foundation?

KY: No, we haven’t. We’ve just been trying to raise funds on our own. Maybe we should look into that.

CC: He told me that his main focus is playgrounds. They put a lot of money into them and into parks in the greater LA area. I don’t know their geographic boundaries, and the Bay Area may be too far away, but I’d suggest you contact his office and let him know what you’re doing. They seem to be pretty sincere, and it might be a good fit.

KY: We’ll look into that, thank you.

CC: So, does the dancing event connect in any way with your stint on Dancing with the Stars?

KY: We’re inviting some celebrities from season six—the same show I was on. Obviously, my professional partner, Mark Ballas, has been invited. We’ve penciled everyone in, but things are subject to change depending on people’s professional schedules. We’re planning a Friday evening of dinner and a short dance show afterwards with maybe four or five of us couples doing some routines, and then inviting everyone in attendance to come onto the dance floor and learn simple dance steps and maybe to dance. We plan to have a band.

CC: So you’re bringing your experience on the show into other aspects of your life.

KY: Wherever I go, people ask me about my experience on the show. So there’s a tie. Because of the visibility and the appeal of the show, people are still really interested in it, so I thought, why not? If that’s what people want to talk about, then why not get my friends from the show involved and create a fun night of entertainment.

CC: Did you feel that you got more exposure from the show than from the Olympics?

KY: It’s different. I think my generation remembers me and knows me as a skater and an Olympian. But I think with the younger crowd-people who watch reality TV-they know me from the show. So my two worlds are coming together. Although my generation knows me as a skater, they’re certainly interested to see what I was doing on Dancing with the Stars.

CC: While we’re on the subject of reality TV, what did you think about Scott Hamilton appearing on The Apprentice?

KY: I thought he was an awesome candidate. He’s such a smart guy and he has great vision; he knows how to rally the troops and stay positive. (See related story,
p. 50) He’s also a great businessman. I thought he would do really well, and I think he could have done well, but one fault maybe is that he’s too nice of a guy. As far as playing the game goes, he’s not as cutthroat as some of the other competitors.

CC: He just wants everyone to get along and doesn’t have that aggressive, take-somebody-down-to-win attitude.

KY: Yeah, it’s not like him to be mean, or put someone else down to make himself look good. I thought he would last longer, but in the second episode he was fired.

CC: That’s what I heard. It was surprising.

KY: I was shocked.

CC: Would you do a show like that?

KY: Probably not. Dancing with the Stars was right up my alley: performing for fun. You’re putting yourself out there and learning something new, and yet it’s not cutthroat competition. It’s survival of the fittest, but in a nice way. With The Apprentice, you need to be calculating, and that’s not my forte.

CC: How do you spend your days? Do you go to an office?

KY: We do have a foundation office in Oakland, CA. I go there once a week or so to check on things. A lot of times it’s fulfilling requests for other charities or auctions. But I’m constantly in touch and on the phone with Jim Adler, my chief operating officer, who runs the foundation. And lately Dean Osaki, who’s putting together our fundraising event. So there’s constantly something going on and projects to move forward. We’re growing and expanding what we do, and we hope to get this playground kicked off. It’s in a great location, right across the street from the California School for the Deaf and Blind, and across the street from a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Fremont. We’re hoping that it brings in kids from all over the Bay Area.

CC: When you build it, will you have volunteers come out to work, or will it be strictly a construction company?

KY: We do have a construction sponsor, Swinerton, and right now we’re still working out the details of their involvement. But I think once we get going, there’ll be quite a few volunteers to help us get this done.

CC: ABILITY Awareness and Always Dream should work together to engage volunteers with disabilities in building the playground. (See related story, p. 15)

KY: Yes absolutely. We need to stay in touch.

CC: Let’s go back to the rink for a moment: At what point did you and your family say, “There’s something here with this ice skating thing?”

KY: I loved it from the beginning. I was practicing before school and things started to get more serious. By junior high, it was like, “All right. My family’s invested a lot of time and money into the sport. Is this something I want to continue to do?” Because the training time and juggling with school becomes an issue. So at that point I started competing and representing the state of California, and continued to progress. I definitely wanted to keep at it, so my parents said, “All right, as long as you keep your grades up and you’re giving it 100 percent.”

CC: Can you remember the first time you skated?

KY: I don’t remember the first time specifically, but I do remember one of the first times that I put my skates on. My mom had to pretty much hold me up to get around the ice. She came on the ice with me. She had her arms-or hands-tucked under my armpits and was holding me up. I thought I was dragging her. I felt like I was going really fast, moving my feet, taking us both across the ice. I just remember that feeling of freedom.

CC: Did your mother skate.... continued in ABILITY Magazine

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ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Kristi Yamaguchi issue include DRLC — Seeking Global Human Rights: Headlines — The Accidental Advocate: Green Pages — Ready To Save Money?: Humor — You Don’t Know Jack!: Senator Harkin — Let’s Stop Workplace Abuses: Women’s Health — Give Your Ticker Some TLC: Ashley Fiolek Pt ii — More With The Teen Motocrosser: United Cerebral Palsy — My Child Without Limits: Scott Hamilton — On The Ice, In The Boardroom: Major League Baseball — Playing With A Disability: Sickle Cell Anemia — One Woman’s Story: Crossword Puzzle — Guess Your Best!: Events & Conferences; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

More excerpts from the Kristi Yamaguchi issue:

Kristi Yamaguchi — Here Comes The Neighborhood

ABILITY House at Los Al — A Place Military Families Can Call Home

ABILITY Builds — New Accessible Homes

Moses deGraft Johnson, MD — Ace Of Hearts

Dancing with Sickle Cell Anemia

DRLC — Seeking Global Human Rights

HUMOR — You Don’t Know Jack!

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