Kristi Yamaguchi: Olympic Medalist, Fitness Guru And Mom

For this Wisdom Watch conversation, host Michel Martin speaks with Kristi Yamaguchi, the first Asian American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Yamaguchi discusses her athletic career, her new children's book, Dream Big Little Pig!, and a new exercise video she will be releasing next week. The DVD is called "Kristi Yamaguchi: Power Workout."

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're winding down our celebration of National Poetry Month with our last batch of the tweet poem sent in by our listeners and a few of our colleagues. Our latest offering in just a few minutes.

But first to our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk to those who've made a difference through their work. Today we hear from Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Every one of the technical requirements flows into the next. She opens with her combination, a triple lutz and a double toe loop. Kristi's hardest jump. Triple lutz, double toe loop.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: That's from the coverage of Kristi Yamaguchi in the 1992 Winter Olympics, where she won the gold. More recently you probably have seen her on the reality TV show "Dancing with the Stars." She was a champion there as well, winning the sixth season in 2008. And in the rest of her life, she is a wife, a mom of two, and now she has switched gears again. She's the author of a new picture book for children titled "Dream Big Little Pig." And she's promoting her fitness DVD for adults called "Power Workout."

I don't know how she managed to fit us in, but Kristi Yamaguchi joins us from Berkeley, California. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. KRISTI YAMAGUCHI (Figure Skating Champion): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Busy lady.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We want to talk about your new projects, of course. But I do want to go back and talk a little bit about the sport that made you famous and a sport that, in fact, you actually helped make famous. And do I have this right, that you were actually born with clubbed feet and as a child your feet were placed in casts to straighten them and you wore corrective shoes after that? Do I have that right?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: That is right. Probably a few weeks after I was born I started having casts put on my legs to straighten them out. After that corrective shoes and with a brace in between. So yeah, I went through quite a few corrections, I guess, early on, till I was about two-and-a-half or so.

MARTIN: And I understand that by the time you were four you were hooked on ice skating. Do I have that right too?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Probably about six.

MARTIN: About six.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, what is it that you fell love with?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: It gave me a way to kind of express myself out on the ice to the music and kind of become someone else while I was out there. I loved the performing side of it all.

MARTIN: Many people assume, fairly or unfairly, that when a child undertakes such a rigorous sport, the parents must be pushing him or her. But in your case, is that true or was it you?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: My parents really didn't know what skating was or what it entailed. But they saw that it had a positive effect on me and in my confidence, that they continued to encourage it. You know, they didn't really have to push me too hard. I think I was the one telling them I have to get to the rink, you know, I have to go every day now and I need more lessons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: So they supported me as much as they could and encouraged me, but in the end they really let it be my own activity.

MARTIN: With lessons lasting five hours a day from the time you were 11, six days a week - now that you're a mom yourself, what do you think now when you look back on it?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: By the time I was junior high, things were pretty much focused on the skating. And I think at that point I also started to show some success in the West Coast region and moving on to the national level. So you know, it's definitely a gamble because I was focusing so much. I didn't have the social life that every other high schooler has, but I wasn't really interested in it. I think I was more interested in, you know, training and the competitions and being ready for it.

So that meant, OK, you have to be in bed and up early. Even Saturday mornings I was up early. Yeah, as a parent now I'd probably be like, what, I'm not doing that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, because you write the whole family has to be involved. An 11-year-old can't drive herself to the rink at 5:00 a.m.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: No. Exactly. My mother was very involved and was the chauffeur, and my travel companion. And my dad had to hold the fort down at home while we traveled with my brother and sister and get them off to school and everything. It was definitely a family and outing, family effort for sure that went into it all. But I was lucky to have parents who were willing, I guess.

MARTIN: But speaking of family, your mom's family were among the Japanese-Americans who were put into internment camps during World War II. I think your mother was born in an internment camp.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And I think your father also spent time in an internment camp as a boy. Do you think that those experiences in any way contributed to your drive?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Absolutely. Knowing the sacrifices that their families went through, I mean, they definitely wanted to live out the American dream. And even when their civil liberties were taken away, they continued to say hey, I'm proud to be an American. I'm going to raise my family here and give them the opportunity to live out the American dream.

MARTIN: Does race ever, or race or ethnicity play an issue in your life or has it throughout your career? I want to mention that I think you were, well, I know you were the first Asian-American woman to win Olympic gold in figure skating.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And, you know, sometimes some of these sports who have a tradition of being mono-ethnic, let's put it that way, on the one hand it can be a tremendous source of pride for some people. On the other hand sometimes that there are things that come out that people are really ready for the change. I'm reminded of like Tiger Woods when he became a golfing, you know, phenomenon they were just remarks made about whether he was going to have collard greens and fried chicken served at the Masters when he first won, that kind of stuff.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And then Serena and Venus Williams, for example, when they became a phenomenon on the trail...

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Right.

MARTIN: ...when racial slurs directed at them.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Right.

MARTIN: And it hasn't really come out until recently that they actually went through quite a lot behind the scenes that a lot of people didn't talk about. So I just wanted to ask you, if you don't mind, because you are a trailblazer in this way whether this has been a factor for you?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Probably not as severe as that. And those are things that are just appalling to hear and there's a lot of fight there. But in skating, I don't know. I mean I - I don't know if I was really sheltered from it, but it was pretty a diverse and international sport that I didn't feel too much of discrimination or anything with the race. I think there are skaters from all over and once you're at the world competition everyone was on the same playing field looking back, and there was an outpouring of incredible Asian-American support after the Olympics.

But then I did realize that becoming the first Japanese-American to medal and figure skating at the Olympics was a big deal and, you know, it was amazing to feel that support. You know, I think it got me involved in the Asian-American community more and realizing that you've got to take pride in your heritage.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.

Just before we talk about the book though, you have - well, this is related because you have two daughters of your own now. And I understand that they've been ice skating since they could stand up.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Pretty much.

MARTIN: Pretty much?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: You know, yeah. Well, you always got the question. Well, my husband is also a former NHL player so, you know, we had all the jokes. Oh, were they born with skates on? And once a couple of times a year they would take them on the ice and have fun. They're five and seven years old now, so this past fall we finally enrolled them in some group lessons at the local rink. So they're having fun and we don't necessarily want them to compete or to find their path there in skating but just to learn and discover the joy of it.

MARTIN: I think it is so hilarious though that you're married to a former hockey player, because do you ever race or do anything like oh, anything you can do I can do better, anything like that? I mean because...

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah, once in we used to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Not anymore.

MARTIN: Do you try to make him do jumps? And how does that work when you go to go together?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah, every now and then.

MARTIN: When you go together to the rink, I'm just trying to picture that, what do you do?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Once in a while if I was actually working for something and he just happened to be here and oh, I'll put my skates on and just go out there and play around a little bit. But, yeah, he actually did put on figure skates one time. He came out on the ice and was trying to skate gracefully and, you know, was kind of mocking figure skating moves. And I said all right, well, let's see. Let's do a lap around the ice and see who wins. We took off skating and, of course, he got into his hockey stance and right away hit the toe pick and went down hard...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: ...on his elbow and on his knees. So after that I think he kind of had a good respect for figure skating and the toe picks.

MARTIN: You go girl is all I can say.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Right. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But I think you should've smashed him against the boards just for the heck of it. You know what I mean? I think that would have been so...

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. But anyway...

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: I don't know.

MARTIN: That isn't really a natural segue to the children's book, but really...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You published "Dream Big Little Pig!" How did you get the idea for this?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Once my kids were - I guess they were like four and six when I really started working on it. You know, I was just inspired by them and seeing how important books were in their life and how much they enjoyed our story time and, you know, at that point just kind of actively work on getting it done. So it was fun. It's been a really rewarding project.

MARTIN: How did you come up with the idea of Poppy the pig? Just to let people know, Poppy is a pig. She's a potbellied pig who dreamed she wanted to be a star.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And she tried being a prima ballerina, then a singer, and then a supermodel. But her mother and her family keep telling and her friends are very supportive. They keep telling her follow her heart. How did you come up with the idea of her becoming a pig? Because, honestly, I've got to tell you Kristi Yamaguchi, when I think of you that is not the animal that comes to mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Well, it's not...

MARTIN: I'm thinking gazelle.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm thinking like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Well, it's not meant to be autobiographical at all. But, yeah, I've always loved pigs and I think when I decided oh, OK, it's not going to be a little girl. I want to do an animal or a character and a pig was the first choice because I've always had this connection with pigs. I'm born the year of the pig. I've always loved Miss Piggy. My parents called me Pig Pen when I was little. You know, and I thought the character would also lend itself to be very fun and comes with its own challenges, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: It was like a perfect choice to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, she is very cute and very fancy. She's got a glittery - beautiful glittery costume on the cover.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the new fitness DVD too. So, I'll just play a short clip from it. And the voice you're going to hear is Erin O'Brien, who is a celebrity trainer who you work with in the DVD. And in this section here she's got you working with some five pound weights, and you're working on your abs and chest.

(Soundbite of DVD, "Kristi Yamaguchi: Power Workout")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ERIN O'BRIEN (Celebrity Fitness Trainer): You're going to have the knees bent. And the first thing I'm going to ask you to do is pull in the belly. OK? So the belly is nice and firm. And I want you to think of closing off your ribcage so, as someone came up and sewed your ribcage together, OK? So let's all in tight and brace.

MARTIN: OK. Well, this whole pulling in the belly thing...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I think that might be a little easier for you than for some. I'm just...

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Well, I think it's all a state of mind. It's just, it's - that's what you're trying to imagine that you're doing.

MARTIN: And who do you hope will benefit from this?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: You know, whoever is looking to continue or start and have an active lifestyle to improve their fitness level. It's kind of tailored to the active busy woman, working woman out there, whether she's a mom or has a career.

The easiest way for me to get a workout in during the day is just to either put a DVD in and do the timeslot. You know, I don't have to leave the house. The kids are there, I can still work out. In this particular DVD you can pick to do all four sections of it or you can do one or three or depending on the timeframe that you have. So, you know, it's very flexible but yet you get a total body workout from it.

MARTIN: So for people who are trying to fit their workout in around all their other obligations. But did you have to have this picture here with doing the curls here? I mean don't you think we're self-esteemed challenged enough that we have to look at this amazing upper arm?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: My mom was like oh, you look a little soft.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: So...

MARTIN: I beg to differ.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Oh, no.

MARTIN: I think you're looking quite buff here.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: But you have to admit, you had a running start.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: No skating.

MARTIN: Or a skating start. Come on.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we actually filmed the DVD back in end of October and I had been working out pretty intensely from August on. And, you know, I mean obviously fitness has always been a part of my life, so wanting to do something more official like this and to really get in shape was a lot of fun. I mean it was a challenge. And actually the taping of it was a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: You know, a couple days of shooting. But, you know, it was enjoyable and really excited and happy with the outcome.

MARTIN: I don't think I can let you go without asking something about "Dancing With The Stars," because...

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: OK.

MARTIN: ...there's so many people, first of all, who love that show and who follow that show, and certainly loved you on it. So what was the best thing about that show? I understand that it's actually much harder than it seems, that it's actually really intense.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. I mean it's tough physically and you're challenging yourself. But I think the more intense part is the mental and the emotional stamina that you need for it because it gets exhausting. You're tired. But I think your brain never shuts off. It's not allowed to because you're learning so much in such a short amount of time that even though it's physical, your mind is still having to absorb the movements and the steps and the music and put it all together. So you see a lot of tears on the show but it's just because your brain is on high gear for such a long time.

MARTIN: Was there anything about it that you just would not know if you had not been a part of it?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: You do get spray tanned. Well, I guess that's pretty obvious that you're getting spray tanned before every show on Monday.

MARTIN: No, I didn't know that. You get spray tanned?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. I mean they encourage it.

MARTIN: Stop it.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. Oh yeah.

MARTIN: Why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Well, in ballroom dancing, in Latin dancing, particularly when they compete, they feel that the darker your skin is the more you see the muscle definition, and the lines, you know, it just looks better. So you get the spray tan, you know, the night before, Sunday night. And then Monday, you also get bronzer put on and then like another coat of shimmery stuff for the skin.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. It's great. I mean you do kind of look like wow, I wish my skin looked like this all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, well, thank you for that. So we started this conversation as a Wisdom Watch. So I just would like to ask if you have any wisdom to share.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: One of my mottos not only just in skating but in life in general and I try to enforce it as well, is like no regrets and just like going for it. And, you know, in skating it was like, OK, I don't want to get to the competition and feel I didn't work hard enough or I didn't do something to prepare myself for this moment. So, you know, just not leaving any regrets. If things didn't work out then at least I knew well, I did everything I could, and just go about life like that as well.

MARTIN: Kristi Yamaguchi is an Olympic gold medal athlete, a children's book author, mother and philanthropist. Her new children's book is called "Dream Big Little Pig!" And her workout DVD is called "Kristi Yamaguchi: Power Workout." And she was kind enough to join us from Berkeley, California.

Kristi Yamaguchi, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. YAMAGUCHI: Thank you for having me.

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