Olympians Ohno, Yamaguchi and the Shibutanis Discuss What it Takes to Lead With a “Champion” Mind

Kristen Nemoto Jay

Olympic medalists Kristi Yamaguchi, Apolo Ohno, and Alex and Maia Shibutani meet to discuss what it takes to lead with a champion mind. (Photos courtesy of AARP API Community Facebook page)
Olympic medalists Kristi Yamaguchi, Apolo Ohno, and Alex and Maia Shibutani meet to discuss what it takes to lead with a champion mind. (Photos courtesy of AARP API Community Facebook page)

It’s not common to hear the words “fail” or “mistake” in the same sentence as an “Olympic athlete,” but according to Kristi Yamaguchi, Apolo Ohno and Alex and Maia Shibutani, you can’t have one without the other. On Thursday, Dec. 16, AARP AAPI Community hosted “Leading With a Champion Mind,” featuring the four Olympic athletes who discussed what it takes to maintain a healthy mind, including being resilient and present during times of hardship and challenges.

“Change can be scary,” said Yamaguchi, Olympic gold medalist and founder of the Always Dream foundation, a nonprofit that helps underserved children in early childhood literacy. Although Yamaguchi credits winning an Olympic gold medal as one of the highlights of her life, being only 20 at the time of winning, she knew that she wanted to find an identity outside of the ice rink and a legacy that also helped future generations reach for their highest potential. When she formed the Always Dream foundation, Yamaguchi had challenges and worries about whether her nonprofit would succeed. Through trial and error, she continued the program, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this April. “There is going to be risks, and it is going to be scary at times, but I think it’s stepping off the curve or being a little uncomfortable is when you have your biggest successes, and I think it’s being willing to put in that risk and to be OK with failure if it comes because you know as athletes we all know that that’s part of it. It’s part of growing and learning and making you stronger.”

Ohno, the most decorated U.S. male Winter Olympian of all time and moderator of the discussion, agreed and added that failing is a part of life.

“Reflecting on those things that have happened in the past and using them to metabolize those failures in a way that help us project out in the direction that we want to go in a positive perspective, that seems to be what I’ve been resonating with; especially now more than ever.”

The Shibutani’s, who twice won the bronze medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, added that with a strong support system, such as each other and their family members, they could bounce back from adversity and challenges that have come up in their lives. This has helped them to build a resilient mindset.

“Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, there are going to be hurdles along the way, and it’s not always easy and positive,” said Maia Shibutani. “I think we’ve always been very grateful that we have each other … We’ve been very grateful that everything that we’ve been doing has been us following our dreams, and so, there’s [a] vulnerability that comes with realizing that there are challenges along the way. Having each other and a great family support system has been amazing.”

Apolo Ohno.
Apolo Ohno.

“Resilience implies a reaction to a setback,” continues Alex Shibutani. “Something that you don’t anticipate that didn’t happen or go exactly the way that you wanted it to. But especially with the sports that we do, falling and failing are very negative impacts on results, and to have to do it under a microscope … I think taught all of us to move forward into everything else that we do.”

The four athletes discussed having a strong support system, whether it be a coach, parents or mentor, as a top factor in all of their successes — someone to help console and be that beacon of hope during times of uncertainty. Yamaguchi paid tribute to her coach, Christy Ness, who started to train her when she was just 9 years old. Although she was young at that time, Yamaguchi noted that Ness made it a point to give her the “tough love” that she needed, reflecting that Ness would emphasize the value of hard work and that may require being uncomfortable most of the time.

“It was her way of getting me mentally ready for when the pressure was on,” said Yamaguchi. “Kind of like putting in the hard work now rather than pay later. It’s those values that I took with me beyond skating.”

For Ohno, his father helped him strive to be better; he arrived in the states from Japan with no money to his name and could not speak a word of English. Through his father’s struggles, it deeply inspired him to become the Olympic athlete that he was destined to be.
“He’d wake me up at four in the morning to go to an empty school or church parking lot to go rollerskating,” laughed Ohno. “And then taping a miner’s light to my helmet because that’s how he thought that I would get better by doing more work. And I think that sort of mental toughness is excellent.”

Ohno then continued to thank his father and those who came before him as he’s constantly reminded that they didn’t have the resources that the current generation has now. Therefore it’s imperative to show gratitude for what he’s been given because opportunities he’s received growing up didn’t come naturally to many people, including his father, who was a single parent and worked 12-hour shifts as a hairdresser to be able to support Ohno.
The Shibutani siblings attributed their success as two-time Olympic bronze medal figure skaters to their coach Marina Zueva who allowed them to be themselves.

“She recognized and valued that we were different,” said Maia Shibutani. “She encouraged us to embrace what made us unique. She gave us the power to be creative and realize our own strengths and so having that type of partnership with her was incredibly helpful.”
This past year has spurred many challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. Ohno asked how everyone has been coping with the uptick in violence while in the national spotlight.

“I think it’s about stepping up for our collective community,” said Alex Shibutani. “[To] use our voices to bring attention to the situation because so many people have been and may continue to be unaware [of the rise in anti-Asian incidences]. I think conversations are important, and this is off of the work of generations and generations of activism and work put in by so many people … connecting with people and sharing positivity and doing our part to balance the scale.”

Maia and Alex Shibutani show off their Olympic bronze medals at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea.
Maia and Alex Shibutani show off their Olympic bronze medals at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea.

What was a collective moment and consensus as to the sign that times are changing for the better now than ever before is that society is becoming more accepting of talking about mental health. Ohno, Yamaguchi and the Shibutani’s all agreed that mental health had become a more accepted topic to discuss, slowly but even within Asian culture. They said that in itself is an accomplishment that needs to be acknowledged and continued in its momentum to further help others get through challenging times.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help,” said Yamaguchi. “A lot of times we try to take things on ourselves. We are afraid to bother someone or ask for something, but I am certainly not where I am because I did it on my own. All along the way, there’s always been someone there as a support system. Surround yourself with some quality people, and you’ll learn quality.”

A young Kristi Yamaguchi practicing on the ice rink.
A young Kristi Yamaguchi practicing on the ice rink.

Ohno also acknowledged that in times of strife, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help and advice but also to know that you are the one who will live with your decision.

“What’s between your own two ears is sometimes held sacred to yourself, and you can’t expect other people to see the world that you see it, and that’s fine,” said Ohno. “I do think it’s important for all of us to realize that as we play and go throughout this game of life, and the changes and the mental health stigma associated with what’s actually happening now, we’ve come a really long way. We as athletes have the capacity to show we’re really strong but that we’re also human. You can still be an incredibly skilled performer but also not have to shield yourself and wear this poker face throughout your entire career.”

Go to AARP’s API Community Facebook page to watch the full online discussion.


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