Yamaguchi has stage, knows lines Olympic champion glides with changes

April 11, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

The lines are as rehearsed as her performances on ice. Kristi Yamaguchi has heard all the questions, and provided all of the answers.

About her future.

Her endorsements.

Her gold medal.

Life is changing for the 20-year-old from Fremont, Calif., the one whose dream was to win the ladies' singles figure skating Olympic gold medal, to emulate her idol, 1976 champion Dorothy Hamill.

"Even now, it's still overwhelming to think I could be up there, on the medal podium," she says. "But you have to remember that I'm a skater. As long as I love it, that is what is important."

Yamaguchi, winner of the singles gold at the 1992 Winter Games, is on tour with the other stars who rose from a tiny, makeshift arena in Albertville, France.

The medal-winning skating troupe hits the Baltimore-Washington area this weekend, with sold-out exhibitions tonight at the Baltimore Arena and tomorrow afternoon at the Capital Centre in Landover. The company includes men's medalists Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine and Paul Wylie of the United States. There are Russian gold medalists from pairs (Natalia Mishkuteniok and Artur Dmitriev) and ice dancing (Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko), too.

Each performer has been forced to confront career changes. For Petrenko, a gold medalist, and the Russians, there is the thrill of turning professional, of charting a new course even as their country plots a new political path.

For Wylie, winner of the men's Olympic silver, this is a time of opportunity. The 27-year-old Harvard graduate is a college admission officer's dream. Virginia wants him to study law. So does Stanford. And Harvard. But Wylie plans to delay his study of torts and contracts for two years, so he can cash in on new-found fame.

"My life has changed completely," Wylie said. "I'm able to make money at this now, to be a part of ice shows so that I can pay for my law school education. People recognize me on the street, too. And then, when you come out on the ice, people stand up. For people to be genuinely excited for you, well, that's exciting to see. I guess, deep inside of every one of us, you root for the underdog."

But while Wylie is headed for professional success, Yamaguchi is on the brink of super-stardom that will translate into millions of dollars. This 5-foot-1, 93-pound skater has been called both artist and athlete. She can enchant a crowd with the wave of a hand, or the whirl of a triple jump.

"The woman is amazing," Wylie said. "Kristi handles everything well, from the off-ice interviews to the performances. She goes about everything with meticulous care."

Yamaguchi is unflappable. Less than 12 hours after performing in Baton Rouge, La., she showed up Wednesday with her Olympic teammates at the White House immaculately dressed and remarkably refreshed. She worked her way through interviews. Hugged teammates. Even presented a red-white-and-blue USA team jacket to President Bush.

"We have seen that she is the real Special K," the president said.

Yamaguchi smiled, and bowed her head, overjoyed yet slightly embarrassed by the attention she received.

Yamaguchi is in the midst of a difficult transition. Although she is accustomed to performing on global stages, she relishes the comfort and routine of daily training in Edmonton, Alberta. But now, there are parades to attend, speeches to give, contracts to sign.

Her first deal was cut with Special K cereal. Others will follow. Despite early reports that Yamaguchi's endorsements would suffer in the wake of Japan-bashing, she has been accepted with open arms by the U.S. corporate community.

"I don't think any of it [Japan bashing] has applied to me," she said. "I am fourth generation Japanese-American. I went to the Olympics in Albertville for the United States, and when I won the gold, I felt American inside."

Her exhibition routines are a celebration of her American roots. She skates to "Pretty Woman," and "America the Beautiful." For a few months, now, the only judges she will have to please are the fans in the audience. That is a lot easier than the pressure of skating for medals.

Facts and figures

What: 1992 Tour of World Figure Skating Champions

When and where: Today, 8 p.m., Baltimore Arena; Tomorrow, 2 p.m., Capital Centre

Tickets: Sold out

Top performers: Ladies' singles -- Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Jill Trenary. Men's singles -- Viktor Petrenko, Paul Wylie. Pairs -- Natalia Mishkuteniok and Artur Dmitriev, Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval. Dance -- Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin, Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko.

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