Changed the Game: Before Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan, there was Tiffany Chin

Jack Baer
·6-min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.


Take a quick look at the figure skaters who represented Team USA at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, and you will see a milestone.

The top finishing American woman in the team event: Mirai Nagasu, the daughter of Japanese immigrants in Los Angeles. The top American man: Nathan Chen, the son of Chinese immigrants in Salt Lake City. The ice dancers: Maia and Alex Shibutani, the daughter and son of musicians of Japanese descent. Behind them: Vincent Zhou (son of Chinese immigrants), Madison Chock (daughter of a father of Chinese and Hawaiian descent), Karen Chen (daughter of Taiwanese immigrants).

In total, half of the entire U.S. figure skating delegation was of Asian descent, a record according to the federation.

That representation did not happen by accident.

Throughout the years, American figure skating has often found its greats in the Asian American community. You probably know about Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. You may not know about the woman who came before, the one who directly inspired Yamaguchi while making history of her own and planting the seeds of history for years to come.

(Original Caption) Missouri: Tiffany Chin, women's Single Champion at the U. S. Figure Championships, Kansas City, Missouri.
Asian American ice skater Tiffany Chin. (Getty Images)

Chin's talent didn't shield her from racial remarks

When Tiffany Chin made her U.S. Figure Skating Championships debut in 1982, she was a 14-year-old Chinese American girl in an otherwise all-white field.

Here's how Chin recalled growing up in an environment where white champions were the norm to Jeff Yang of HuffPost:

“I remember when I was growing up,” she said, “a little girl told me, ‘You’re really good, but you know you’ll never be a champion. Figure skating champions have blonde hair and blue eyes, and you don’t have either.’”

To the figure skating world, Chin's ancestry was a novelty. Her coach recalled to The New York Times how an announcer tried to make a "China Doll" nickname stick. A Chicago Tribune article notes how her mother — who was heavily involved in her daughter's training — was known by many as "the Dragon Lady," before positing that a lady tiger was a more appropriate metaphor. The Los Angeles Times deemed the California native "an exotic beauty."

That was figure skating in 1982.

Chin was a clear prodigy, winning the 1981 World Junior Championships and placing fifth in her first trip to the senior national championship in 1982. The skating world was excited to see her arrival. It was further excited when she captured bronze in 1983 and silver in 1984. As a teenager, she could be seen landing a triple axel in practice, a half-decade before Japan's Midori Ito became the first woman to land the jump in competition. Chin's ability can be felt even now, as Nagasu compared her own historic triple axel to Chin's, calling the latter "absolutely gorgeous."

When the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo rolled around, Chin was perched as the future of American skating. She shattered expectations by finishing fourth at the age of 16. Then, 1988 was penciled in as the year she would become a household name.

That development continued the next year, when Chin became the first Asian American to win the senior title at the U.S. Championships. She didn't just win, though; she swept the competition, placing first in all three categories.

A bronze-medal finish at the World Championships in both 1985 and 1986 would follow. Competing alongside her was Debi Thomas, a national and world champion and the first African American to ever win a medal at the Winter Olympics.

The figure skating world was finally diversifying at the top.

Kristi Yamaguchi: 'She blazed a trail for me'

Among the many watching the rise of Chin was Yamaguchi, who was 12 years old when Chin made her Olympic debut. Eight years later, Yamaguchi became the first Asian American figure skater to win Olympic gold, and the first American since 1976.

As Yamaguchi recalls, watching Chin star in the figure skating world showed her it was possible for her, as well:

“I had many role models coming up as a skater. One of them was U.S. champion Tiffany Chin. I identified with her Asian American heritage. That connection made an impression that I could be like her.

“She blazed a trail for me to follow,” explains the two-time World Champion and U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame inductee. “I hope we as Asian Americans can continue that in all walks of life.”

It's not hard to find similar language about Yamaguchi among modern figure skaters.

The end came too soon

As exciting as Chin's good times were, the bad times hit her hard.

A muscle imbalance in her hips, knees and ankles was blamed for her curious physical decline, causing her mother to hold her out of training for three months, according to the Los Angeles Times. Chin reportedly could not even cross her legs at the time. Chin also told the Times she dealt with significant depression during her career:

“It wasn’t only when I was skating bad,” she said. “Sometimes it was when I was skating well, too. It’s not always such a happy sport. You always try to make everything so pretty and graceful and easy and joyful, and a lot of times it’s not.”

In 1987, a physically limited Chin finished fourth in the U.S. Championships and failed to qualify for the World Championships. Facing significantly long odds to make the 1988 Olympics, Chin announced her retirement from competitive figure skating at 20 years old.

In 1988, the year Chin's star was supposed to rise around the world, she reached the end of the line. Chin soon signed a seven-figure deal with Holiday on Ice and enrolled at UCLA.

She left behind a figure skating world that still had few people who liked her. An Asian American sense of otherness persisted, most exemplified by MSNBC's infamous "American beats out Kwan" headline. But Chin, who now works as a figure skating coach, was still the first in a line of Asian Americans that would eventually dominate the American field, now one of the most non-white contingents for Team USA in the Winter Olympics.

Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.
Changed The Game: Female athletes who paved the way.

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