Golden Girl

There is a room in Kristi Yamaguchi’s Alamo home that makes mere mortals drool: An entire wall is filled with trophies, including her many international skating awards, her husband Bret Hedican’s Stanley Cup (he played for the 2006 NHL champion Carolina Hurricanes) and perhaps the most impressive, a large glass sphere honoring Yamaguchi as the 2008 winner of TV’s Dancing With the Stars.


Yet many nights, the wall is obscured by a pull-down screen, and Yamaguchi, Hedican and their two daughters huddle in the plush sofas to watch the Disney Channel, Peanuts or something equally entertaining.


The symbols of professional success, it seem, come second to family time.


It has been 18 years since Yamaguchi first skated into our hearts, a diminutive and graceful little thing who hailed from Fremont, and who went on to capture the Gold Medal in Women’s Figure Skating at the 1992 Winter Olympics. She was known for her big jumps and bigger smile, and she quickly achieved that rare status reserved for young Olympic stars, that of “America’s Sweetheart.”


But unlike many Olympic heroines, Yamaguchi didn’t rest on her laurels. She went on to a sterling career as a professional skater, gathered key endorsements, started a charitable foundation, became a sought-after public speaker and even went on a TV reality show. And won.


In all that time, her smile hasn’t changed, and she still looks like the 20-year-old who captured the world’s attention in Albertville, France. But these days, instead of triple lutzes, she’s leaping into carpools and volunteer activities, trying to juggle the busy lives of Keara, 6, and Emma, 4.


She and her family moved back to the Bay Area last year, after spending seven years in Raleigh, N.C, where Bret played. No one is happier to have her back than her mom, Carole Yamaguchi, who now has all three of her kids and six grandkids nearby. Grandma is often at her daughter’s home, helping with the kids while Yamaguchi juggles public appearances and professional activities.


At the forefront of those activities is the Always Dream Foundation, the organization Yamaguchi founded in 1996. The foundation has been an active fundraiser and supporter of children’s charities in the Bay Area, including annual Christmas toy drives. It sponsored two large-scale events in Hawaii, where able-bodied and disabled children competed side by side in an Olympic-themed camp.


The Foundation’s latest project is the Always Dream PlayPark, a playground created for kids of all abilities. It opened in Yamaguchi’s hometown of Fremont in late December.


But now that the fanfare of the park’s grand opening is over, Yamaguchi is off to Vancouver, B.C. to be the on-air skating analyst for NBC during this month’s Olympic Winter Games.


Bay Area Parent recently caught up with Yamaguchi to talk about her life now, 18 years after finding gold. Not surprisingly, this busy mom puts one thing before all others: her family.


BAP: How has being a mom changed you?


Yamaguchi: I’m more settled. I’m happier and more focused in my life, not as worried about my career and my activities. Once you hold the baby in your arms, your instincts kick in, and you automatically put the baby first.


Who gives you advice?


I knew I was always close to my own parents, but I didn’t realize how often I take pages out of their playbook. Growing up, we were a really close family, and I want that for my girls.


Both you and your husband are in the public eye. How do you keep your kids “normal”?


We just try to have as normal a lifestyle as we can. We take the kids to school, we eat together as a family, keep to normal routines. It helped that we had our careers early on, because now we can focus on the girls.


Are you happy to be back in the Bay Area?


Yes! I mean, we liked Raleigh, but it’s just so nice to be here near family. The kids can see their cousins, grow up with them.


How is it having your husband at home more?


Great! It’s like one long off-season! When I had Keara in 2003, Bret was traveling, and I was a full-time mom. It was hard to do that without family around. Now, not only do we have extended family, but Bret is around a lot more. That’s been wonderful. He shuttles the girls around on days I know I’ll be traveling or busy with the foundation. That’s a luxury I’ve never had before. He’s currently doing an Internet start-up, so I hope he doesn’t get so busy that I never see him!


After the Olympics are over, what will your focus be?


Work-wise, my biggest focus will be the foundation, trying to come up with innovative ways to create a giving campaign. I want to do more here in the Bay Area community. Another thing on the horizon is perhaps creating a line of women’s apparel.


Since this is Valentine’s month, what advice do you have for busy parents for keeping a marriage strong?


We have no great secret, just a normal marriage. But we try to make time for each other, which is hard when we’re going different directions. But I’ve learned to pick my battles, compromise and take things one day at a time. I’m lucky. He’s a great dad, and a wonderful husband.


Peggy Spear is editor of Bay Area Parent.
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