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Kristi & Company

Olympic champ Kristi Yamaguchi juggles celebrity and philanthropy with her favorite role: being a mom.


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Kristi Yamaguchi opens the door, inviting a Diablo writer into her enormous Alamo home, the first word that comes to mind is petite. Just over five feet tall and (maybe) 100 pounds, petite might be stretching it. As she sits down to chat at a long dining room table, under a massive iron chandelier, she looks smaller still.

When she speaks, the figure skating legend is polite and friendly, but soft-spoken and shy. She’s not the type A, bigger-than-life personality we’ve seen in recent Olympic champs, such as Shaun White and Michael Phelps. It’s easy to wonder how someone so modest could accomplish all she has in her 38 years on such an international stage: Olympic gold medalist, reality show darling, and TV commentator.

But don’t let her diminutive appearance and shy demeanor fool you.

The qualities that drove Yamaguchi to win Olympic gold and the Dancing With the Stars glitter ball award soon reveal themselves. Not only is she a fierce competitor, she has the champion’s ability to focus on the challenge. And her drive for new challenges keeps her from kicking back into a leisurely retirement or withdrawing from the spotlight.

Yes, Yamaguchi is happy to be back in the East Bay, where she grew up. She is making a home in Alamo with her husband, retired professional hockey player Bret Hedican, and daughters Keara, six, and Emma, four. But, she also keeps busy—very busy—outside her home with her latest challenge. She wants to help East Bay children in need through her Always Dream Foundation, a nonprofit she formed in 1996.

Earlier this year, she led her foundation to open a new playground in Fremont equipped with wheelchair-accessible ramps, specially modified swings, and other features that allow children of all abilities to play there.

“I had the opportunity to see my dreams come true, but an athlete’s life is inherently selfish and self-centered,” says Yamaguchi. “At this point, I’d like to help make other children’s dreams come true.”


Overcoming Obstacles

Raised in Fremont, Yamaguchi is the middle child of Jim, a dentist, and Carole, a homemaker. Kristi, older sister, Lori, and younger brother, Brett, were the first generation in the family to have an all-American suburban childhood. (Yamaguchi’s mother was born in a Japanese internment camp while Yamaguchi’s grandfather was in the U.S. Army, fighting in Europe during World War II.)

Yamaguchi’s childhood became anything but ordinary after she discovered ice-skating at age six. The sport helped strengthen her feet and legs from procedures she endured as a baby to correct club feet. Skating also gave her an immediate outlet for self-expression. “I didn’t feel shy at all on the ice,” she says. “There was a feeling of freedom, of gliding on the ice, where I could express myself in a way I had never felt.”

As much as Yamaguchi loved being on the ice, she wasn’t a prodigy. She had to focus and work hard to make her talent shine. “She was incredibly shy when she started. I would ask her questions, and she would softly peep her answers,” recalls coach Christy Ness, who began working with Yamaguchi when she was nine. “But, she was also able to focus, intensely, from a very young age. She respected each practice. She improved a little bit each day and never slipped back. And, she truly loved the sport; she never burned out because she loved it so much.”

Yamaguchi’s practices with Ness, who now lives in Lafayette, started out as 15-minute blocks of time. They quickly turned into longer, more rigorous sessions. For Yamaguchi, skating had become her calling.  

“I can remember summer nights, listening to my brother and sister playing outside at 7 p.m., when I was lying in bed, trying to get to sleep so I could be up the next morning at 5 a.m. to practice,” she says.

To allow for time to practice and travel, Yamaguchi was homeschooled for her first two years of high school. But, something besides wanting to win the next competition kicked in. As much as possible, she wanted to enjoy a normal teenage life.

She decided to attend Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School for her junior and senior years. “I realized that I did not want my high school years to go by without doing some of the normal things kids do, like going to the prom,” she says.

 

 

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