Kristi Yamaguchi — Here Comes The Neighborhood

Circa 2009

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.

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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 TVthey 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.

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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.

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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.

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 armsor 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?

KY: No, actually my older sister tried skating for a couple months, took lessons, but it wasn’t really her cup of tea. She didn’t love it. As the younger sister, I wanted to try it, too. So I tried it, and ended up loving it.

CC: The family just goes out to have a little fun, and look what happens?

KY: Pretty much.

CC: So then families should be warned about this?

KY: (laughs) Well, sometimes you can’t help where dreams sprout up from, you know?

CC: For some reason, I tend to think that people who become skaters live near a lake that freezes over a lot, and that they are out there on their own. I don’t typically picture a person going to a rink.

KY: I think I got hooked after seeing a local ice show. I was like, “Wow! That looks like a lot of fun!” I fell in love with the costumes and the music. It was a combination of things.

CC: I grew up in New Jersey, and we had a lake behind our house, so we skated all the time. Whenever the ice became safe, we were all out there, playing ice hockey. It was one of those things, as you said, that gave us a sense of freedom: You’re out there just sliding along, feeling great. I’ve always felt that that could have taken a lot of children to another level. But when we did eventually go to rinks, it seemed a little bit more dangerous, because people flew around, out of control.

KY: Oh, yeah, it’s more crowded. But it wasn’t bad. I guess the rink is how California kids learn. (laughs) You learn to get up quickly so no one runs over your hands.

CC: You were born in Fremont?

KY: Actually Hayward, CA. (They’re sister cities.)

CC: So you’ve been living up there in the Bay Area all your life?

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KY: I’ve actually lived away from home for the last close to 20 years, since I graduated from high school. I moved up to Canada and trained there through the Olympics, and then pretty much after the Olympics I was on the road touring for 10 years. When I got married, I lived wherever my husband was playing. So this has been the first year that I’ve pretty much been here in northern California. It feels good.

CC: You’re closer to your parents now, so you’ve got good babysitters nearby, right?

KY: Oh, yeah, I definitely take advantage of that.

CC: Do you do any mountain biking?

KY: Not right now. I’m hoping maybe when the kids get a little bigger, we can get them out there.

CC: I interviewed Bruce Jenner years ago, and I asked him about his workout routine after retiring from the decathlon. He doesn’t touch weights; he doesn’t do anything except mountain bike. And I thought, “That’s strange, how can mountain biking be that much of a workout?” And then my friends invited me up to the Oakland hills, and we rode a couple of times, and I thought I was going to die.

KY: Yeah, I know. It’s a real workout.

CC: My friend got behind me and actually pushed me up the steeper hills with his hand while he rode beside me. (laughs) I was thinking, How is he able to do this? And I thought I was in decent shape. I surf, ride motocross, play chess—I guess I wasn’t doing enough— maybe I need to play more chess. So be forewarned. Still, I think you’d like it, and it’s so beautiful out there… Anyway, tell me, did you ever rollerskate?

KY: For fun. The usual rollerskating parties, and birthday parties here and there.

CC: As you started to progress in representing California in ice skating, did you actually start seeing the possibilities of traveling around the world and going to the Olympics?

KY: I did. Once I made it to the sectional championship, which is the whole West Coast, my next goal was to make it to the national championships. As a novice, I qualified for the nationals, and ended up second. At that point, I was thinking, “OK, hopefully next year, when I’m a junior-level skater, I can go to some international competitions.” There are a lot of steps along the way, but certainly by the time I was 13 or 14, the Olympics was the big dream.

CC: Anything that surprised or delighted you as you traveled?

KY: Traveling a lot as a youngster and as a teen, I met kids from other countries. One of my first international competitions was in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. There was a whole ordeal just getting there, first of all. At 14, my first time in a then-Eastern bloc country, seeing soldiers on the streets with automatic weapons, seeing a tougher life opened my eyes to a lot of things.

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Meeting some of the other skaters was a joy. I had so much fun trying to communicate with them, and getting to know them and their likes and dislikes. Some were very interested in Western culture and others seemed very Western and very much like myself. You realize that despite all the differences and the different ways that we’ve been brought up, ultimately we’re in this world together. I think that was a good thing to learn early on.

CC: When you start traveling internationally, you realize that there are so many similarities, but you also realize that with television, movies, etc., America has so much influence. I bet there are people all around the world who have watched Dancing with the Stars, and are seeing you all over again. As you were saying, the younger generation is seeing you as a different person than the prior generation. Do you have children?

KY: I have two girls, three and five.

CC: Skating yet?

KY: For fun. They’ve been on the ice several times. We go once or twice a month, just to play. No formal lessons or anything yet, but we’ll see. If they really, really ask for it, I’m open to it. Otherwise, I’m not going to push the issue.

CC: Do you think they have an idea of how talented their mother is on the ice?

KY: They know that mommy skates. They’ve both been to many ice shows, and they’ve seen me skate. So I’m not sure if they think that’s any different than any other mom. To them, it’s no big deal to see mom on TV. Maybe it will be when they get a little older. I don’t think they realize that I’ve won an Olympic gold medal; I don’t think they know what that means yet.

CC: What does your husband do?

KY: He’s a hockey player in the NHL. He’s played for the last 17 years.

CC: Did you meet on the ice?

KY: We did. He was actually on the U.S. Olympic team in ‘92 as well, so we shared that experience, although we didn’t know each other then. We met a few years later at Vancouver, where I was skating and his hockey team was playing. So, it was an ice event that brought us together, and we got to know each other, and the rest is history.

CC: How did that happen? Somehow you got to sit close to each other? Somebody introduced you? Who said, “Let’s go and have some coffee?” How did that happen?

KY: He came up and introduced himself. He said, “I was on the ‘92 Olympic team for the U.S. as well, and I just wanted to say ‘hi’ again.” As an Olympian, you feel a connection with someone who’s been on the same team. So after we were reintroduced, we were talking about the Olympics in Albertville, France, and the different people we remember from that Olympics. It was just conversation. A few weeks later he was in the San Francisco Bay area. We kind of had our first little ice cream, I guess. (laughs). We went out for ice cream, and then I went to the game, and we just kept in touch. I was on the road at the time, and he was playing and pretty much on the road, too. So it was good, being forced to talk on the phone and to get to know each other that way.

CC: Now you both live in Oakland?

KY: East of Oakland, in a town called Alamo. This is our home base. I’m here year-round now, and my husband is currently playing for the Anaheim Ducks, so he’s in Anaheim. Are you calling from Anaheim?

CC: Yeah.

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KY: Yeah, I thought I saw 949. That’s downtown. So he’s been down there, and my daughters and I have been going back and forth quite a bit this whole season. It looks like they might be done. They’ve been struggling on and off throughout the season.

CC: Switching subjects… As you decided to build playgrounds, how did you choose children with disabilities as part of your outreach?

KY: Well, we’ve reached out to kids with disabilities before. One of our board members, who’s been with us for several years, is a quadriplegic. So we’ve looked at the different organizations and tried to help everyone. Disabilities was high on our list. Our board member loves Hawaii, so we said, “Let’s go to Hawaii and work with some kids out there,” and we did an Olympic-themed summer camp for four days. We had kids with disabilities paired with a buddy who was an able-bodied person, and we did fun Olympic-type activities. The point was to ingrain in the kids that disability or no disability, we’re more alike than we are different. By working together and just being there and celebrating each other, you get so much more out of life. Between our foundation, the counselors and the kids, it was life transforming. In those four days, we all experienced something incredible.

The following summer we did a leadership weekend in Hawaii with the kids, and I was inspired to create a playground, which is more permanent.

CC: But it’s not in Hawaii! KY: I know. We looked all over the California Bay Area. The situation with the city of Fremont stepping forward and partnering with us made the most sense.

CC: Are you still going to do camps?

KY: It’s on our list, but for now we’re focused on the playground. Maybe once it’s built next year, we’ll do another camp. I definitely want to, because I think so many people got so much out of it.

CC: The kids were kids who lived in Hawaii?

KY: Yes. Most of them were underprivileged kids, as well. Everyone felt like family by the end of four days.

CC: It was Olympic-themed, so you had different sporting activities that were somehow connected to different Olympic sports?

KY: We did a broad range of things: relay races with the kids, kite making, kite flying, crafts. And the kids were divided into groups. Each group picked a name for themselves and a team color. We had a little opening ceremony where everyone marched in with their team and their lead counselor. They made up a song that they sang at the opening ceremony and then, at the end of the camp, everyone received a medal. Actually, Scott Hamilton had come in with his wife Tracy, and they were part of that final day where we awarded all the kids with medals.

CC: That sounds like fun.

KY: They designed and created a team flag as well.

CC: Was there a closing ceremony, since you created a parallel to the Olympics? Did Scott come out and award the medals?

KY: Yes, he came out and awarded the medals. We also had a final dance with all the kids, to recognize them all. The kids had all different types of disabilities. Some were cognitive. Some were physical. Some were both. We definitely had activities that everyone could participate in.

CC: You could take that concept to other parts of the country as well, couldn’t you?

KY: Absolutely.

CC: Any ice activities?

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KY: No ice. We did go skating the following year, when we had the leadership camp. We took all the kids to the one ice rink in Honolulu and had a fun day of skating.

CC: You’ve heard that some of these cruise line ships have skating rinks on them?

KY: Some of my friends actually do some of those shows. It’s just amazing. But they said it’s difficult, because when you’re in rough waters, you don’t know whether you’re gonna go forward or backward on the ice.

CC: Oh, wow! So if you’re doing any jumps, and the ship is going to be pitching one way or the other, you wouldn’t know where the landing is going to be.

KY: That’s what they say. You hit the ice a lot sooner, and sometimes you’re singing and because of the tilt, you start moving across the ice. But they don’t do the huge jumps that you see in competition. The ice is really small, too. But it’s good entertainment.

CC: Have you ever been on a cruise?

KY: No, I haven’t.

CC: I thought I wouldn’t like them. But I do. It surprised me. There are so many fun activities. It’s amazing.

KY: My parents have both gone, and they love it. I like the whole idea of an all-inclusive travel experience. You don’t have to pack anything special; you have everything you need on the ship.

CC: I’ve done Alaska, which is incredible. I’d recommend Alaska to anybody. These excursions that you do, like getting on a plane from the bay and flying out over the glaciers and seeing how really large they are, and then going to a place where they barbecue salmon right off the river… It’s all so cool. Alaska is an incredible place. Yamaguchi: It sounds like it. I’m hoping maybe when the kids get a little bigger, we can get them out there.

CC: You haven’t tried it yet?

KY: No, I haven’t. My parents keep saying, “Why don’t you do one of those shows and we can all go on the cruise?” Maybe, some day.

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