Asian-Americans Accomplish Great Feats at the Winter Olympics

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Illustration by Minh Hua

Jessica Gang
Staff Writer

This year at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Asian-Americans have shown up in full force. At the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, there were 12 Asian-Americans competing for Team USA, the most to have ever qualified. This might not seem like an overwhelmingly large number, but seven out of the 14 figure skaters who competed for Team USA were of Asian descent.

The success of athletes like skater Nathan Chen, ice dancers Maia Shibutani, Alex Shibutani, and Mirai Nagasu, and snowboarder Chloe Kim has felt like a breath of fresh air, especially since Asian-Americans have never had high visibility in the sports world or in mainstream American pop culture as a whole.  

This Olympics is all about records, and Asian-Americans have broken many of them. Eighteen-year-old skater Nathan Chen (widely considered to be one of the strongest contenders on Team USA to medal) fell short of expectations with a disappointing first few performances in Pyeongchang, but he made up for that with an astounding six quads in his free skate. This feat has never been accomplished before.

Mirai Nagasu also became the third woman (and first American) to land a successful triple axel at the Olympics, and snowboarder Chloe Kim is the youngest woman, at just 17 years old, to ever win a snowboarding medal.

It’s hard for anyone to not be awed at the magnitude of these achievements, but these accomplishments hold a special significance to me as a young Asian-American woman. I’ve never cared that much about the Olympics, but this year I find myself tuning in to more events that feature Asian-American competitors because it feels like a win for Asian-American athletes is a win for all Asian-Americans.

For example, since returning home from Pyeongchang Chloe Kim has become the poster child for athletes everywhere. She’s given interviews to “Good Morning America” and the “Today Show,” she’s been featured on the “Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon, and she’s even become the newest face of the iconic Kellogg’s Corn Flakes cereal box, which sold out after just seven hours.

In large part, Kim’s popularity stems from the fact that she is a young, relatable athlete who just happens to be Korean-American. For a long time, Asian-Americans in media have been stereotyped as nerdy or somehow “foreign,” which has negatively influenced general perceptions of all Asian-Americans.

When I see Chloe Kim, I see someone who looks like me, being embraced by mass media. It feels like a watershed moment in my young adulthood; the media has not painted this young Asian-American as stone-faced and competitive. Instead, they’ve shown that young Asian-American adults can be trash-talking, food-loving athletes, who love McDonald’s as much as anyone else.

Asians from around the world have long been achieving incredible feats at the Olympics. Countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia have made strong showings at both the summer and winter Games, but there’s something personally fulfilling about watching Asian-Americans succeed for me. I like listening to Chloe Kim talk about how her dad immigrated from South Korea and worked from the ground up, juggling his career and their growing family. He still found time every weekend to make the six hour drive up to Mammoth Mountain with her.  

Maybe part of the reason I identify with Kim is because her father reminds me of my father, who immigrated to America fresh out of college and worked tirelessly through graduate school, always thinking of the family and the livelihood that he’d left behind. Or of my mother, who went to medical school by day while taking English classes by night.

I will never be a teenage Olympic gold medalist like Kim, but in terms of cultural heritage, she and I share an understanding that is specific to our Asian-American background.

In an interview given to reporters immediately after Kim won the halfpipe gold, her father emotionally called her his “American Dream.” I’m sure that to my parents, I represent at least part of their American Dream — their desire to give their daughter opportunities that they never could have dreamed of for themselves.

While preparing to write this article, I stumbled upon a video of Kim talking specifically about her parents, saying that she couldn’t imagine having to make the same sacrifices that they did. Listening to her describe their story with such obvious love and respect felt like listening to something I had tried to put into words for my entire life. I’m sure that many young Asian-American men and women might feel similarly.