Kristi Yamaguchi Gave Olympic Figure Skater Karen Chen the Best Advice Before Pyeongchang

Kristi Yamaguchi
Photo: Getty Images

It’s been 26 years since figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi won the gold medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics, swiftly becoming America’s Sweetheart in the process. And now, with the Pyeongchang Winter Games just days away and a whole new crop of skaters going for the gold, the 46-year-old athlete is sending off Team USA with some words of wisdom, specifically to her mentee, women’s figure skater Karen Chen.

“I’ve known Karen since she was 12 because we have the same hometown [Fremont, Calif.],” said Yamaguchi, when she stopped by InStyle’s N.Y.C offices last week. “The one major thing that I've told her is that for the Olympics you have to learn to insulate yourself from the pressure. I've always tried to keep her thinking positively because it's easy to let doubts creep into your head before a big performance like this.”

Yamaguchi says that social media has indeed changed the game for today’s athletes, both in positive and negative ways.

“With Twitter and Instagram, it’s easy to feel like you are being constantly judged,” she said. “But on the flip side, you also have so many more people supporting you and following along on your journey. I told Karen, ‘America is rooting for you! You can’t forget that—even with all the pressure that you're feeling right now.' I’m so proud of her because she has overcome a lot of obstacles to get to this point.”

Though Yamaguchi has a special soft spot for Chen, she's excited to root on all of Team USA, including fellow women's figure skaters Bradie Tennell and Mirai Nagasu. "We have a great group this year and I think we have potential to medal in three of the four disciplines. I can't wait to see what happens."

Ahead of the Winter Games, we caught up with Yamaguchi to talk skating, bad ‘90s fashion, and what it was like to be the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal. Read on for our chat below.

Kristi Yamaguchi
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Even though you're not competing, you're still very involved in the figure skating world. How do you think the sport has changed since when you were in the Olympics? I think the biggest change came when they revised the judging system after the 2002 Olympics. Now it’s on a point system that is leaned more toward the technical side of skating. They tried to take subjectivity out of judging, but at the end of the day it’s still just people giving those scores. It's become a little more confusing for everyone, I think.

Skater Ashley Wagner was publicly upset with her score at the US National Championships, which led to her not making the Olympic team this year. What did you make of the shake-up? It's hard because she’s been the face of US figure skating for six years or more. But there's constantly a new generation coming up and I think Bradie Tennell surprised everyone. She has made a mark that you can’t ignore with her consistency and her technical ability. It’s always sad when a favorite is left off, but all three girls on the team have certainly earned their spot.

At the 1992 Olympics, you became the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal. What has that meant to you? It’s funny because at the time I didn't even know I was the first until it was reported on the news. It’s cool though! I love when young skaters come up to me and say that I’ve inspired them to take up the sport.

Kristi Yamaguchi

You wore some very ‘90s figure skating costumes back in the day. Which ones were the most memorable for you? Well, we all know that ‘90s fashion was just terrible. I think it's the worst decade for clothes, so that was working against me. We kept Swarovski in business. [laughs] My most memorable one was definitely from my Olympic win—it was black with gold sequins.

How did you decide what look to wear at the Olympics? It was interesting because at the National Championships, I wore a hot pink dress with short sleeves and because I competed so well in it, I also wanted to wear it at the Olympics. But I had the black and gold dress made as a backup. When I went to compete, my mom pulled it out and said I should wear it because it was more elegant. She was right!

Besides competing, what was the best part of the entire experience? Definitely the Opening Ceremony. When you put on your Team USA uniform and join all the other amazing athletes from around the world, it’s so powerful. I felt like, 'Who cares what happens in the competition?' This moment is very cool on it’s own.

What was the best part about hanging out in the Olympic Village? I have to thank Scott Hamilton for my experience in the Olympic Village. He pulled my mom aside after I had made the team and said, 'This is her first Olympics let her experience it all.' I made so many memories. And it was amazing to go into the dining hall and see every athlete you’ve ever looked up to just sitting around and hanging out.

So how was the food? Honestly? Terrible! All of the food was shipped in and we basically lived off soggy noodles, green beans, and other vegetables. That was my one complaint!

Kristi Yamaguchi

Where do you keep your gold medal today? It’s in Colorado Springs in the museum at the US figure skating headquarters for now. My husband and I traveled there about 4 years ago with our daughters and they got to see it for the first time. They had to put on white gloves to hold it and everything. I think I got some points with them for that.

Besides winning a gold medal, you met your husband, Bret Hedican, at the 1992 Olympics, right? Yes, that was a good year for me! I met my husband there, but it wasn't exactly love at first sight. [laughs] He was on the US Olympic hockey team and at the Opening Ceremonies, Nancy Kerrigan and I decided to walk around and meet some of the other athletes. She already knew some of the hockey team, so we all ended up chatted and taking pictures. It actually wasn’t until a few years later that I ran into him again at an event in Vancouver and we hit it off. I had to go back to my Olympic photo album and say, “Oh, yeah, there we are!”

You also recently joined Team Milk, an official sponsor of Team USA. What has that been like? Yes! Team Milk is all about supporting Team USA athletes as they pursue their dreams in Pyeongchang, so it’s been really exciting for me to partner with them. It’s also a full circle moment because I did the Milk Mustache campaign, shot by Annie Leibovitz, over 20 years ago. Milk was always an important part of my nutrition when I was competing, and now as a mom, I always start my daughters’ day off with a glass.

Kristi Yamaguchi

How often do you get back on the ice these days? Not that often anymore. Sometimes I'll skate around, then like 10 minutes later, I'm like, 'Now what do I do?' It’s different when you aren’t training for something. I did a benefit show back in December, so that was fun. And my younger daughter [Emma] skates now too, so I'm still at the rink four times a week.

Does she have Olympic dreams yet? I think every kid who is 12-years-old has Olympic dreams! We'll see, though. I always say just keep working. She has her own coach, but she’ll ask me to help her sometimes—but not too much. [laughs]

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