Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, outlined her expectations for the ladies’ event in PyeongChang. She also discusses Karen Chen, who she has a close relationship with, and Chen’s feelings going into the Games.
Plus, Yamaguchi said she’s open to potential changes being made to the judging system in the future.
What is the ladies’ competition going to come down to?
Well, it starts with the short program. As we saw with the men, and the pairs, it’s going to come down to clean short programs to set you up for the long and keep you staying in striking distance of a medal – or gold even. Then it’s just consistency. It’s just who’s going to go out there and want it. Everyone’s chasing Yevgenia Medvedeva [an Olympic Athlete from Russia], and she’s been so dominant. Her closest rival is her training mate Alina Zagitova. I think those are the two that people will be chasing.
Do you think Medvedeva is at all vulnerable?
She is a two-time world champion so she’s got experience. She’s skated under pretty intense pressure. You know, the Olympics are always different. Anything can happen, and she has proven time after time that she’s pretty solid under pressure, pretty laser focused, so we’ll see. I don’t see weaknesses in her at all or any vulnerability. I know she had the injury, kind of was slow to come back, lost to Alina at Europeans. In the team competition, she looked amazing. And I think she’s still the one to beat.
What are your overall feelings on the team event?
Mixed feelings. I think it’s great to have a team event. It gives skaters another opportunity to win another medal, especially collectively as a team. I think it’s a bummer for the whole team, that the country can’t take part in it because you have several skaters left off, not getting a medal. I think it should be at the end of the event. In skating, traditionally, the individual events are premier events. Who knows, that may change at some time. But you don’t want to take away anything from those individual events or perhaps suck energy out of the skater. It’s just a different world. It’s just odd that there’s no other skating event at the world-level that has the team event before all of their individual events.
Or as a standalone entity, really.
I think the format can be played with. I’m not sure everyone wants to see short and long again, maybe make it a technical. Here I am going into all of this “change the rule!” A technical, or yeah, artistic number would be really cool. Just one number from each of the disciplines on the team. Treat it differently somehow.
By now, we know about your mentorship of Karen Chen. She told media that she met with you before departing for the Olympics. Any details you want to share?
I’m just happy and proud of her. What she’s been through. To continue to have that focus and the dedication and belief to accomplish her dream, really which was to go to the Olympics. She had asked “Oh, is it going to feel different? What does it feel like at the Olympics?”
It does feel different. I’m not going to lie. But it’s mostly different because it’s so exciting. You feel pride and honor representing your country more than you do at any other event. It’s seeing other athletes and other disciplines and venues and being exposed to all of that. So, you’ll still be nervous, but you’ll also feel like you’re just a part of something so much bigger than just the skating competition and it’s really special. And I said, you’ll also feel that you have the support of an entire country behind you. It’s Team USA: you will feel that when you compete, which is always nice.
Is there anything to the ladies’ event being last, and having to wait so long to make your Olympic debut?
It’s just traditionally always been like that. I think you go in trying to prepare for it. I remember in ’92, it was amazing to take part in the Opening Ceremony. My coach had really planned it out nicely where it was like, “Okay, fine, you can go experience the Opening Ceremony, but then, you know…” I think I had maybe a day or two practice in Albertville and then we left and went to Megève, and it was just me and her. I think Midori [Ito, of Japan, the eventual 1992 silver medalist] had just been there and left. I came in and it was just three or four nice, quiet training days, relaxing, good food up there. I was with my mom and sister, it was pretty fun. We relaxed. It was nice. It was kind of just like a nice getaway, and then going back a few days before competition started, and then getting intense and feeling the eyes on you.
What goes faster, covering an Olympics or competing at one?
Probably competing at one. Because you’re so narrow-focused, and you just have your team and, well, your team’s kind of out of whack a little bit at the Olympics. It’s just like training, eat, sleep, training, eat, sleep – and that’s it. And you’re resting a lot. At least I was, just getting ready! It really flies by in a flash, and it’s like over and you’re like whaaat!?
Do you feel like you’re doing a lot more homework now?
Definitely. When I competed – and mind you it was a different judging system, the 6.0 [system] – I hardly knew how the system worked. I would just like see my scores, see the ordinals, like first, second, first, whatever it was and be like “Okay, yay!”
People would always know who the judges were, who the officials were. I didn’t look at any of that. I didn’t even want to know who’s judging me. The judges would sit down, I wouldn’t even look at them… Maybe to a fault because you’ve got to perform for them, but I just kind of skated and did my thing. And now, the system’s different. It’s much more complicated, and as an analyst, I have to explain and help the viewer understand a little bit. So it’s been fun to dissect it. It’s still, even as an insider, very confusing. Well, not confusing, but it’s just a lot. You almost need an advanced math degree too really, when you get into the factoring and all that, it’s just like, What? Okay.
How do you simplify it for the common person?
You simplify it by saying, “Okay, these are the important numbers. Basically, it’s base value, quality, ‘grade of execution’ – which is, a lot of fudging can take place there – and the component mark, artistry as a whole, and then added all together.” I mean that’s the easiest way to explain it and not get too caught up in protocols.
And I hear they’re going to change it again. Or they’re going to experiment with changing it. It’s a work in progress. I think the intent is good, but it’s just finding the right [balance]. It’s all the subtle differences that they make with the rule changes affects the direction the sport’s going in. So we’re really just waiting to see what they come up with next. It’s hard because the sport is always going to advance, and it’s always going to evolve. And that’s what you want them to do. And yes, I know there’s concern with pushing the limits and staying healthy… I think that’s the biggest problem in the sport right now, especially with what the guys are doing now, and even the girls, it’s just what, the longevity of a competitor, how is that, may continue on with the level of skating that it is right now.
Do you think people skating now understand the system they’re judged under?
Yeah. I mean, I think in a lot of ways, skaters have to think so much more in this day. I mean, we skated and it’s just like try to turn your brain off, have your plan and do it. And I feel like skaters now, it’s so strategic and points are always at the back of their mind. For us it’s like if we fall once it’s like get up and finish strong and maybe the judges won’t remember it. And now it’s just like every single little point is just critical. And I think that’s another thing that just kind of weighs in on the mental side of the sport right now.
We’re big on anniversaries here at NBC Olympics. Do you have plans for your anniversary coming up, just four years from now?
Oh, that’ll be my 30th! No, I don’t have any plans. For my 20th anniversary, my family did a surprise anniversary party and it was at the rink I trained at up through the Olympics. It was really nice and so many family and friends were there, my coach and even my dressmaker came. It was pretty fun. I don’t need anything like that. It’s just cool. I see Scott [Hamilton] is celebrating his 34th and it’s Dick Button’s 70th. It’s fun to look back. You’re like, “Oh, that was cool! I still can’t believe that happened.”
Are there still days where you’re in awe of it all?
Yeah, I think there’s definitely days where you just thank your lucky stars. I’ve always felt fortunate and lucky that that happened to me. My life would be so different if it had resulted in something else. It’s just like literally six and a half minutes, seven minutes, and it had such an impact on my life, so I just I’m just grateful every day.
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