It’s hard to believe, but it’s been two decades since Kristi Yamaguchi, then a pony-tailed 19-year-old with precise jumps and budding artistry, won Olympic gold in Albertville, France.
“It doesn’t feel like 20 years, that’s a lifetime ago. “It maybe feels like 10. A lot has happened, obviously,” Yamaguchi said at a New York City stop on a recent tour to promote her second children’s book, "It’s a Big World, Little Pig."
Younger fans may know Yamaguchi best as the season six winner of "Dancing With the Stars," but during the 1990s and the ensuing decade Yamaguchi built a résumé unequaled by any female professional skater, including a decade of headlining Stars on Ice; four world professional titles; and countless other shows and professional wins. Through it all, she often executed three or four different triple jumps a night.
Married since 2000 to retired NHL defensemen Bret Hedican, Yamaguchi and her family, including daughters Keara Kiyomi and Emma Yoshiko make their home in California’s Bay Area. Asked if she follows the current skating scene, she laughed.
“I was at  nationals most of the week,” she said. “Of course I watch.”
Here’s her take on how the sport has changed.
You executed a triple Lutz-triple toe combination in Albertville, something no senior lady in San Jose attempted.
It was great to be part of the generation that pushed ladies’ figure skating to another level technically. Now with the new IJS [judging] system, the strategy is so different. There are a lot of other things [besides triple-triples] skaters have to worry about. It’s such a numbers’ game you almost have to play the system the right way, in order to win.
It’s not just about putting together a nice program, it’s how many Mohawks do I have, how many three-turns and arm movements out of my jumps do I have. So I think it’s progressed in that way, but you’re only going to see the women do so much athletically.
You had five different triples in your programs, even though the Salchow gave you headaches. Now, skaters like Carolina Kostner — who didn’t perform a triple Lutz this season — can leave out problem jumps.
We couldn’t do that back then! I had to try the Salchow. Midori (Ito) was doing seven triples in the free skate. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, they were doing five different triples, so you kind of had to have that variety. Now it’s different. You can tailor it. Skaters can get the same amount of points by doing something else. You can do a triple toe double loop double loop or something.
How would you have liked competing under the IJS, vs. 6.0?
Obviously all of us old school ones liked it how it was — it worked for me, so why change it? I’m sure if I had to compete under IJS I would have found a way to make it work. I’m not sure I love watching it. Everyone’s programs look the same to me. The pacing is the same, there’s no change, really, between dynamics of fast and slow.
Are you sad to see those professional competitions of your day go by the wayside?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Dick Button’s World Professional Championships was such an honor to be invited to. Ask any of the skaters, it was more nerve-wracking than the actual worlds sometimes. You had your peers judging you, some of the coaches and some of the skaters you grew up watching. So it was pretty intense.
Competitions like that really added legitimacy to professional skating. They encouraged us, as professionals, to keep our skating skills up. You’re not necessarily seeing that anymore with the newer generation of women professionals.
Originally published in April 2012