The 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi are almost over. I have not been watching them for a number of reasons, but as this blog is mostly about the past, I’ve been thinking a lot about past Olympics. As it happens, my favorite Olympics, the 1992 Winter Games at Albertville, France, were going on exactly 22 years ago this week. In fact, 22 years ago today, on February 21, 1992, American figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi won her gold medal in ladies’ single figure skating, defeating Japanese competitor Midori Ito and her own U.S. teammate Nancy Kerrigan.
I remember the duel for the gold at Albertville was a fierce one. We Americans sent three extremely talented women to Albertville to compete: Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan and the later-to-be-infamous Tonya Harding. All three had their work cut out for them. France’s Surya Bonaly was a French national and European figure skating champion. Midori Ito was noted for her extremely athletic performances, pulling off maneuvers that most other skaters couldn’t do, or couldn’t call up on command. Chief among them was a move called the triple axle, the successful completion of which was thought to be the factor on which the gold medal at Albertville depended.
On February 21, 1992, the stars aligned for Kristi Yamaguchi, then only 20. She was the daughter of a dentist and the grandchild of a Nisei family that had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. Both Midori Ito and Tonya Harding fell when attempting to do triple axles. Yamaguchi couldn’t land a triple either, but the rest of her program, emphasizing polish and steady skill rather than spectacular stunts, edged her out of her competitors. As it turned out the triple axle wasn’t the decisive factor, and she took home the gold medal, the first awarded to an American woman for single’s figure skating since Dorothy Hamill in 1976. Below is a video of Yamaguchi’s performance.
The 1992 Olympics were life-changing for Kristi Yamaguchi in more ways than one. At the games she met Bret Hedican, who was playing hockey for Team USA and also played for the NHL St. Louis Blues. They married eight years later. In 1996 Yamaguchi established a foundation for the education of underprivileged children. She occasionally appears on TV and in movies, often in cameo appearances.
Her competitors have had interesting lives since 1992. Surya Bonaly became an American citizen in 2004 and has served as an activist with PETA. Midori Ito continued to set world records in skating, particularly records involving athletic firsts and feats. She lit the Olympic torch in Japan at the 1998 games in Nagano. Tonya Harding, of course, was banned from skating for life after ordering a hit on her rival Nancy Kerrigan just before the 1994 games. The tabloid media frenzy surrounding that incident was one reason why I largely stopped watching the Olympics.
But, for one moment in time, Kristi Yamaguchi was a national hero. I have fond memories of that moment.