“Who is a role model to you?” 

This was a question I remember being asked for the first time in the 5th grade. And it was daunting. You see, at the end of the year there was a huge project that all the kids got to do before going to middle school. We were supposed to pick someone, a famous person, and transform ourselves into them. From the hair to the clothes, even the makeup occasionally, we were to embody this icon in our short lives and present a sort of biography about that person to all the other students, teachers, and even parents. In a way, this project was to ingrain in our young little minds the type of people we wanted to grow into, or at least in the 6th grade. While my classmates’ picks ranged from Benjamin Franklin to J.K. Rowling, I had no inkling of who to pick because there was no one I felt connected to.

So I went to a place where any answer could be found, a place where scholars and philosophers could spend relentless hours lamenting the secrets of the universe. I went to my school library. 

Rows upon rows of books lined the shelves, and it was clear that some were a lot more overlooked than others as those in the back corner were still in pristine condition. There were no tears or rips from being smushed in school bags all week, no accidental stains from the greasy cafeteria food. These books were untouched. And I felt the secrets they had would reveal the answer of who could possibly be a role model for me. Getting on my hands and knees, I crouched down on the rough tweed carpet and I reached. My hand, seemingly with a mind of its own, brushed over spine after spine until it settled on a thin hardcover book on the second to bottom row. Its cover was adorned with a beautiful young girl with raven-black hair and bright red lips. She was wearing a black and gold sparkly dress that contrasted against the snow white ice, and posed in such a way that she seemed to glide across the cover. I cracked open the book and quickly became enchanted by what I saw. The girl was photographed doing all these twists and turns. She danced in the air and her costume would sparkle in the light. Her smile shone just as bright as the shiny gold medal adorning her dress. I had to learn more and I began to read the text to the side. I felt that I was beginning to learn about someone important. Here was someone so graceful, so poised, and so strong. Here was someone that I felt made me feel seen in my culture. Here was probably one of the first people to make me proud of where my family came from. She was someone who had people all over the world watching her and I felt this was the first time I saw someone in the spotlight look like me. 

And so, for my presentation, I chose gold medalist figure skater, Kristi Yamaguchi.

Even now, ten years after that presentation, Kristi Yamaguchi continues to inspire. To mark the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Mattel has decided to model a Barbie doll after the Olympian and her 1992 Winter Games look as a part of their Inspiring Women Collection. Yamaguchi’s doll marks the second time an Asian American woman has been incorporated into the series, following Anna May Wong’s doll in 2023. For all the little girls out there, this is huge!

I remember I chose to be dressed as Yamaguchi not just for the sparkly Target leotard and skirt I got to wear, but because I was excited to have a figure that closely resembled me. Yamaguchi understands the power that this has. In a 2024 interview with NBC earlier in May she states, “I think it’s important to see representation. I think growing up with Barbies and playing with them, you really did, as a child, use your imagination and create them to be whoever you wanted them to be… I think the more important and impactful stories you can maybe feed their minds with is really, really great.” While many rely on calling for more representation in the media, Yamaguchi marks a foothold representation for all Asian Americans in sports.

While the athletes in the Asian American community today such as Nathan Chen, Suni Lee, and Chloe Kim are praised for their hard work, skills, and natural talent, that was not the case when it came to Yamaguchi entering the Winter Olympics. Yamaguchi came on to the scene at a time when Japanese hate was high in the states, as American automobile businesses were failing and Japan’s flourished. Additionally, by entering a predominantly white European sport, many endorsers felt perhaps that Yamaguchi might not have the look they would want to advertise even after her spectacular win. A Washington Post article references several headlines which range from “To marketers, Kristi Yamaguchi isn’t as good as gold” to remarks on how “Yamaguchi ‘is definitely suffering because of her Japanese face and her Japanese name.’” But Yamaguchi proved her critics all wrong, showing what it meant to have an Asian face front and center in newspapers. The skater persevered in the spotlight and when asked about how she made her mark on the sport, on the world she simply replied, “I didn’t go away.”

Yamaguchi’s award of her Barbie doll may never have the same weight to what it means to have an Olympic Gold medal, but it matters just as much in a different way. A whole new generation of kids can begin to understand the strength of the Asian American community, and the sacrifices that came before them. It is the first step for kids to make their own discoveries of the world and find inspiration. In her own words for USA Today, Kristi Yamaguchi writes, “It starts with having a wild imagination and role models whom you can look up to.”


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