One space, two forms of talent

From left to right: Vicky Nguyen holds a discussion with Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Wie West in the Sobrato Center at War Memorial Gymnasium. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Though they come from different sports, former professional figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and professional golfer Michelle Wie West have more in common than one might think. On Oct. 17, the Silk Speaker Series hosted the decorated duo. An in-person audience of 200 and an online audience of 5,300 listened to Yamaguchi and Wie West discuss, among other topics, motherhood and womanhood, mental health, and their Asian American identities. Vicki Nguyen, an NBC News reporter and USF alumna, served as the event’s moderator.

Nguyen opened the conversation by asking Yamaguchi and West about their identity through sports and the importance of representation. Nguyen mentioned that she grew up watching Yamaguchi on television winning gold at the 1992 Winter Olympics when women’s figure skating was the pinnacle of the games. West said, “It wasn’t up until Se-ri Pak won the US Open 1988 that it clicked for me that I can actually play this [golf] professionally.” 

Yamaguchi said her identity was not a primary focus as skating became central to her life, but the support from the Asian American community following the Olympics led her to understand what her win truly represented. “I really feel that the generations before me had really paved the way to be able to live the American dream, and ultimately I got to do that,” Yamaguchi said. “I think at that point, I was always very conscious and proud of my heritage.”

Both athletes also spoke about the importance of mental health, especially in regards to the rise of social media and the internet. Yamaguchi said, “I think as women especially,  we want to take things on ourselves, or we think we have to, but what I think I’ve learned through the years is that having mentors having idols, even, is great to have,” Yamaguchi said. “I think [when] you surround yourself with a great team of people and people that have the same values as you [it] is always something to hold on to.”

Wie West defined how social media played into her role as a new mother with a 1-year-old daughter, where she felt a similar pressure to that in her career; “It’s a transition and much like kind of mental health and being an athlete, in a lot of times, it’s the stigma where you have to be tough,” Wie West said. She also discussed the importance of compassion towards mental health where a lot of mothers from all walks of life can experience guilt within the balancing act, something she also experienced as a mother who decided to continue playing golf; “Every week I got “oh who’s watching the baby or who’s home with the baby?” and it just kind of annoyed me because I knew that male athletes never get asked this question,” Wie West said as the audience applauded in collective agreement.

When asked about her two older daughters and their paths, Yamaguchi explained the importance of letting them pave their own way, “You’re going to go through some really challenging tough times when you hate your sport, but if there’s a love under there you’re not going to get through it,” Yamaguchi said. Although her youngest is still discovering her path, her eighteen year old found her passion within the theater arts, something Yamaguchi sees as a perfect fit for the storyteller within her.  

West shared her methods of dealing with the pressures of life, especially those that come with professional sports. “Athletes [are] very metric driven; it’s how you do a tournament, how many times you win. But for me, I think when I went down that path, I struggled mentally and emotionally. I think the things that really helped me were little attainable goals,” West said. “One mentor said to me, think of what you really want to do, like your big, big dream. It doesn’t have to be something specific but a big dream. Now, everything you do in your life has to be working towards that.”

Yamaguchi spoke about some of what she considers professional shortcomings. Specifically, she referenced the US Figure Skating Championships before the 1992 Winter Olympics where she came in second place for the third year in a row. Yamaguchi’s performance made her believe that she had a low chance at the world championships, and she questioned her passion and ability. External pressures led her to bouts of unhappiness, but she still felt inspired to find her turn around. “When I thought about what drew me to skating, [I had] to begin with that love and try to find that again,” Yamaguchi said. “When I kind of shut out everything else, I was determined to actually smile and have fun even in training, because apparently before, I wasn’t. And I had the best competition of my life.” 

Yamaguchi won her first world title within a month and eventually received her first perfect score from a judge after questioning herself and persisting. “I think if I didn’t change my perspective of why I was doing what I was doing and really take ownership of it again, I wouldn’t have won the Olympics,” she said.

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