Asian Americans skate into Olympic spotlight in record number
It’s a historic moment for Asian-Americans skaters.
Half of Team USA’s figure skaters — seven out of 14 — are Asian Americans, which is a record, according to US Figure Skating.
They are: Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, Madison Chock, Mirai Nagasu, the sibling ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani and Vincent Zhou, who reflect a growing trend of representation in the sport. Among them, Nathan Chen, 18, is a favorite to medal as the figure skating competition began this week.
For a minority group that hasn’t had the highest visibility in American mainstream pop culture or sports world, their selection to the US team elicited a joyous response on the blog, Angry Asian Man: “Look at all these All-American skaters going to the Olympics.”
In recent years, Asian Americans have gained increasing visibility in the sport. After Kristi Yamaguchi won gold in 1992, at least one Asian-American figure skater has competed in every Olympic since then.
“I think we’re seeing the rise of more diversity in our sport in the US,” said Yamaguchi, who became the first Asian-American woman to win Olympic gold.
Diversity in skating
During the 2017 season, 39% of the top US skaters in the men’s and women’s singles elite program were of Asian descent, according to Team USA. Meanwhile, Asian Americans represent about 5.7% of the US population.
So why are Asian Americans excelling in this sport?
“I don’t know if there’s any specific explanation for it,” Yamaguchi said.
One factor could be that the skating rinks and training centers are in places like the San Francisco Bay Area and Detroit where the pool of talent is more diverse, she said.
After all, the 2018 US Olympic Team is the most diverse winter team on record with 10 African Americans and 11 Asian Americans, according to the US Olympic Committee.
Torrey Sun, who is a biracial Chinese American, competed in the 1960s when figure skating wasn’t very diverse. Sun says what’s happening in figure skating could reflect diversity in general in the US.
“I think of some other comparisons like the diversity in the student body in college and university campuses, which is different compared to what it was like in the ’60s,” said Sun, who is now a university administrator.
Nature and nurture?
Audrey Weisiger, a Chinese-American former figure skater and now coach theorizes that a combination of factors can lead to success for Asian-American figure skaters, including a smaller physical frame.
Weisinger said when she looked at the world champion men’s medal podium, she noticed that they were around the same size.
“Men are doing quads, and if you’re too big, you can’t do it,” she said. But being lighter has its drawbacks too, making them susceptible to injuries, she added.
In addition to the physical demands of the sport, the support and resources for a budding ice skater is also critical.
“It’s parents living in America, willing to do anything,” Weisiger said. “A lot of families invest everything and a lot of moms devote everything to their kids’ careers.”
This characteristic isn’t unique to Asian Americans, but Weisiger said she has noticed very dedicated Asian-American parents and heard a lot of stories about hard-working, immigrant parents who sacrifice for their children’s training. And figure skating can be a very expensive sport.
“I find a lot of the skating moms are very driven and they want their kids to be successful,” she said.
For one, Nathan Chen credits his mom for helping him.
“My mom spent most of my life with me on the ice, making sure that I was getting the right training in and doing all the right steps to do well in the sport,” he said last month. “I wasn’t able to have lessons year round, she would stand on the ice, take notes of what the coach is asking me to do. And then after the coach left, she would continue training me, continue going over all those little things and she would ask the coach what specific things to work on, things that I could improve on.”
“She made it really fun. She made a lot of games out of it and she just made me find my passion for skating at a young age,” he said.
Regardless of ethnicity or background, skaters say it’s also about the mentality.
“Any athlete can be successful,” Yamaguchi said. “You need certain values of work ethic, perseverance, determination and focus — for any athlete, no matter what your background is.”
Having a role model
Another factor is representation. One of Yamaguchi’s skating idols was Tiffany Chin, who won the 1985 US Figure Skating Championship title and finished fourth in the 1984 Olympics.
“I really looked up to her. I think unknowingly as a young athlete coming up, had a connection with her,” Yamaguchi said. “Seeing someone like you who’s accomplishing things that you aspire to, means a lot.”
Many of the young Asian-American skaters credit Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan as role models who showed what’s possible.
This year could be historic for Asian-American males if Nathan Chen or Vincent Zhou medal in the men’s singles competition.
“The two of them are just extraordinary. They’re pushing the boundaries. It’s an exciting time for sure for Asian-American men to be so prominently featured in the Olympic sport,” said Yamaguchi, who’ll be covering figure skating for NBC’s digital “Olympic Ice” show.