Skater goes for gold this week


February 16, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- The crescendo will occur inside a stark arena in front of 9,000 spectators on the final Friday night of the Olympic Winter Games.

A solitary figure in a raspberry dress with a matching headband will glide across a sheet of ice.

For four minutes and 30 seconds she will skate to a haunting Spanish melody that will echo through the building and around the planet. And if the night is perfect, she will become a butterfly with a smile, soaring for gold and glory.

Kristi Yamaguchi's delicacy will enchant an audience. But it is her strength that could bring her ever-lasting fame.

Just as she combines artistry and athleticism in a bid to become the Olympic women's singles figure-skating champion, Yamaguchi's life is a blend of fortune and fortitude.

The performer was born with misaligned feet.

The skater survived the death of a coach, the breakup of a pairs' partnership and the distress caused by a move from Northern California to Western Canada.

The fourth-generation Japanese-American came from a family that lost every possession during the panic that swept a country in a state of war and confusion.

From this melting pot emerged an athlete of grace and steel.

"I see myself as a skater who likes to put on a performance and use the music," Yamaguchi said. "And, of course, I'm one who puts the jumps in there."

Yamaguchi is a 5-foot, 93-pound prima skater who wears a size 1 dress and size 4 shoes. But don't let her size fool you.

"Kristi has a killer instinct," said her coach, Christy Kjarsgaard Ness. "If you look hard, you can see it."

But Yamaguchi's genius is to mask the killer instinct with a coating of sequins, smiles and triple jumps. She may still litter her sentences with pauses and giggles. But on the ice, the 20-year-old woman is a star.

1991's dominant performer

After three consecutive second-place finishes at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Yamaguchi finally established herself as the sport's dominant performer in 1991, leading an all-American medal sweep at the World Championships in Munich.

At last month's U.S. Championships, she won the gold medal with two perfect on-ice displays to place even more distance between herself and her rivals, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

Now, as she enters the Olympic Games, she moves inexorably toward a meeting with Japan's wondrous jumping machine, Midori Ito.

"It was strange, being a world champion without being a U.S. champion," Yamaguchi said. "But now, I have an American title."

And she is part of an American story, one mixed with racism and redemption.

Yamaguchi will represent a country by cutting edges on ice. But her roots lie in the dust of internment camps set up to imprison 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Her mother, Carole, was born in 1945 behind the barbed wire fence of the Amache Camp in Pueblo, Colo.

Her father, Jim, was 4 years old when he and his three brothers, four sisters and their parents were tossed off their Gilroy, Calif., farm and shipped to Poston, Ariz.

"When you look back on something like that, you just figure it was a time of panic," she said.

"It's hard to think it can happen again."

An American story

What happened to Yamaguchi's family was a result of fear and ignorance that swept American in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even second- and third-generation Japanese Americans, whose forebears immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, were not immune from unfounded accusations that they would aid the enemy.

Yamaguchi's maternal grandfather, George Doi, was drafted in the Army in 1942, put through basic training 13 times and finally shipped to Europe, where he served with the 100th Infantry that crossed the Rhine into Germany. In America, his wife, Kathleen, fearing for her safety, voluntarily entered an internment camp to give birth to her daughter.

Years later, George Doi would reflect on his family's war-time experiences and his granddaughter's budding stardom: "When I think of all we came through, it is almost unbelievable."

Jim Yamaguchi can recall his family wandering from camp to camp in the West, from horse stables in Salinas, Calif., to tar-roofed shacks in Arizona. When the war ended, they migrated to Santa Maria, Calif., where they lived in tents.

"There is no anger in our family," Carole Yamaguchi said. "No one really said too much about it until we were all a little older. Then, they explained to us what had gone on. We weren't bitter."

They went on with their lives, fulfilling American dreams. Jim Yamaguchi attended dental school, entered the Air Force in 1963 and later started a practice in Fremont, Calif. He married Carole, whom he had met while enrolled at the University of California at Berkley.

They raised three children. Lori, 23, is a former world champion baton twirler who recently graduated from the University of California at Davis. Brett, 17, is a senior point guard at Moreau High School.

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