Realizing the American Dream as Asian American Olympic Figure Skaters

Hometown pride is one thing, but pride in one’s heritage is a whole other level. From Kristi Yamaguchi to Karen Chen, being able to say I’m from Fremont, California in addition to being a fellow figure skater swells me up in pride, but to tell you the truth, I’m much more proud of the fact that we’re all Asian Americans succeeding in our fields.  Growing up, it was hard to relate to people shown in the media, since for the most part, they didn’t look anything like me. And even if Asian American characters were in the media, they were never cast the hero, but always the sidekick (or even worse, and were relegated to a nameless background character). Cartoons and sports were enjoyable to watch, but I never really saw myself in them until I came across figure skating as a young four-year-old kid watching Michelle Kwan win the U.S. championships. To me and other young Asian American kids, Michelle Kwan was the real life hero for us to aspire to be like.

She continued to inspire me throughout my whole elementary school career as she won each U.S. championship after that for the next seven years, and pushed me to start figure skating myself. I guess you could call me lucky since I came from a generally diverse area to begin with, but it was still amazing to suddenly see all these young Asian American kids who also caught the “Kwan craze” and started enrolling in figure skating lessons all at the same time. I suppose what’s even more amazing is that some of the very same skaters who started the same time I did ended up being Olympians themselves, truly following in the footsteps of the one Asian American woman we all looked up to. Michelle Kwan was the single hero that made me believe I could be something more, and in turn, inspired the generation of Asian American figure skaters we saw representing America these past couple of weeks at the Olympics in Pyeongchang.

From a Few Pioneers to a Full-Fledged Team

Have you met all my little cousins? #olympics

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When asking the Asian American Olympic skaters, many of them also cite the few pioneers that I looked up to as inspiration for them to undertake their own journey to the Olympic stage. It’s amazing to think from just a literal handful of Asian American athletes, diversity in representing America on the international stage increased. That diversity lends itself more than just to the physical representation at the Games, but also to the musical and artistry choices by the skaters.

Traditionally in skating, it would be a common staple to use a piece of classical music or opera, such as Bizet’s Carmen or Puccini’s Turandot, but for this year’s Olympics, there was a wider variety in music choices. For example, Nathan Chen (who attempted a historic six-quad program) and Mirai Nagasu both chose songs to skate to that had Asian influences, which were “Mao’s Last Dancer” and “Miss Saigon,” respectively. The two-time Olympic gold medalist, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, also skated to a Japanese-themed song, citing that by winning with such music “…was a historic thing [for an Asian to win with the Asian music], because Asians haven’t really won at the Olympics.”

Now, 14 athletes — exactly half — of Team USA identified as Asian American, seven of which were figure skaters including men skaters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, female skaters Karen Chen and Mirai Nagasu, and ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani and Madison Chock. These skaters span from first time Olympians to Olympic veterans, but despite the gaps in their experience, all of them credit their upbringing for their success, which Kristi Yamaguchi says boils down to “‘…certain values of work ethic, perseverance, determination and focus — for any athlete, no matter what your background is.’”

Our Presence is Our Success

However, it is no secret that many parents of these athletes came to America hoping for better opportunity for their families and a shot at the American dream, which is not unlike the mindset that business people have looking for their next venture. In fact, the parents of Mirai Nagasu (the first American female figure skater to land triple axel), came to America from Japan to start their own business as sushi restaurant owners to great success, but not without hard work.

Mirai’s parents weren’t even there to see their daughter perform the history-making triple axel since they were still at their restaurant, going about business as usual. However, her parents eventually decided to close the store for a few days to watch their daughter skate in the individual event, which is uncharacteristic of her father, Mirai explained, saying that that he often says “‘I don’t have time for you! I have to feed the people!’”  While it may seem harsh, Mirai instead sees her father’s words as an evidence of his work ethic, and credits him with instilling the same kind of hard working attitude that allowed her to score a bronze medal in the team event for America.

For her hard work, Mirai (along with fellow Team USA skater, Adam Rippon) was invited to the Oscars. Being the same age as Mirai, knowing that she comes from the same generation of skaters as me, and also looked up to same people I did, it was surreal to see her grace the red carpet with her bronze medal stashed away in her clutch bag. Growing up, I remember not being able to really identify with anyone I saw in the media, but here now was a fellow Asian American girl showing us she finally made it and was eager to share that fact with the world, saying I can’t wait to get home and put this medal around every kid’s neck.” Now it’s her turn to inspire the next generation, and better yet, she won’t be alone in the endeavor.

Passing on the Torch to the Next Generation

As the Olympic flame grows dim and the closing ceremony ends the 2018 winter Olympics, in skating rinks throughout the country, young Asian American skaters show the same determination and grit worthy of Olympic athletes themselves. Some of these kids are jumping quadruple jumps with no fear in hopes of becoming the next Nathan Chen, who did an impressive fight during the free program with six attempted quads after a disastrous short program, and perhaps these next generation skaters can achieve even greater and be the first skater land all six types of figure skating jumps as quads — including the notorious axel. The Asian American skaters that represented Team USA can now be considered pioneers in their own right, inspiring the next generation of skaters in a much bigger way than previous generations could. From being social media influencers to endorsing your breakfast cereal, these Asian Americans are far more ubiquitous today than they were in my childhood.

Although the narratives of these Asian American athletes are inspiring, their hopes and dreams aren’t exclusive, and many aspiring business entrepreneurs can relate to the idea of going to a new country to find success. If anything, these athletes show that with hard work and perseverance, the smallest source of inspiration can help lead one to major success. Ideally, more opportunities for less represented groups in the international sporting arena will translate into more business opportunities for the upcoming generation, as they explore more options as various industries also become more diversified. Perhaps they too will be the pioneers in their fields.

While we can’t guarantee the next trip you book with Claire will lead to Olympic gold medal, it can perhaps lead to you realizing your own dreams just like how the parents of these Asian Americans did when they made the decision to immigrate to America. If you’re looking for more tips about having a successful business in America, we have other articles written that can help with that! Besides racial representation in the Olympics, April has covered other topical issues such as net neutrality and the travel ban. April also has extensive experience in doing research with artificial intelligence and explored how big data and AI can be synergized with businesses.