Four Decades Of Asian American Figure Skating Pioneers

A young Kristi Yamaguchi. Photo courtesy Don Willis.

In 1991, Kristi Yamaguchi and Natasha Kuchiki made history at the World Championships in Germany. It was the first time two Asian American skaters had won medals at the same major ISU  Championship. The following year, Yamaguchi became the first Asian American skater to win an Olympic gold medal. In the decades that followed, skaters like Michelle Kwan, Nathan Chen, Mirai Nagasu, Kyoko Ina and Maia and Alex Shibutani have amazed us with their incredibly special talents on the ice. Decades before their successes, several lesser-celebrated Asian American skaters paved the way for future generations. In today's blog, we'll explore some of their stories.

Ed and Carmel Bodel with Barbara Jean Stein and Ray Sato. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine

In 1955, Raymond 'Ray' Sato made history as the first Asian American skater to win a U.S. title, when he took the Silver Dance title with partner Barbara Jean 'Bobby' Stein. Ray was a thirty-two year old Californian who roller skated in his spare time and supported his skating with a job as a sales clerk at a supermarket. He continued to ice dance competitively for almost two decades, amassing an impressive collection of cups and medals at Pacific Coast and summer competitions. In the late fifties, he partnered two future (consecutive) U.S. Champions -  Diane Sherbloom and Yvonne Littlefield. Over a decade after winning the U.S. Silver Dance title, he won the senior dance event at the first Arctic Blades Invitational Championships in 1969 with Eleanor Curtis. Ray was a member of the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club for thirty-seven years and served on the club's board for fifteen of those years. He turned professional in 1973 to coach young skaters and sadly passed away in 1990. 

Mitsuko Funakoshi. Photo courtesy City Of Vancouver Archives.

In 1964, nineteen-year-old Joanne Mitsuko Funakoshi made her professional debut as a featured soloist at the Ice Capades of 1964's show in Honolulu, Hawaii, skating to Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2". George Eby, President of the Ice Capades told reporters, "I have been in the ice show business for nearly 25 years and I believe Mitsuko is one of the most exciting young skating stars I have ever seen. She has the grace, beauty and talent to thrill every audience."

The Sansei daughter of Japanese immigrants Willie and Kinu Funakoshi, Mitsuko was born in Chicago. She moved to Los Angeles when she was two and started skating at the age of eleven at the Culver City ice rink. Her family would shuttle her back and forth from Pacific Palisades to Hollywood so she could train four to six hours a day until the commuting became too much and they moved to Hollywood. Studying under Peter Betts and Bob Turk, she earned the USFSA's silver medal in 1963. That same year, she became a certified USFSA judge - the youngest in the country at the time. She enjoyed knitting and collecting gold charms from each city she visited on tour and was one of the first Asian American women in history to be featured as a soloist with the Ice Capades.

Wen-An and Torrey Sun. Photo courtesy Colorado Springs "Gazette-Telegraph" Archives.

Wen-an-Sun, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Chinese-born eye doctor from Ames, Iowa defeated Mary Lynn Gelderman - future coach of Elaine Zayak - by five ordinal places and 1.06 points to claim the novice women's title at the 1967 U.S. Championships in Omaha, Nebraska. Sun also competed in pairs with her older brother Wen-chu Torrey Sun, winning the 1966 Midwestern senior title. The Sun siblings trained in Colorado Springs.

Wen-an Sun (left) and Torrey Sun (right)

Wen-an and Torrey Sun weren't the only Asian American skaters to make an impact in the late sixties and early seventies. Portland's Christy Ito won the novice women's title at the 1967 Pacific Coast Championships in Berkeley, California. Berkeley's own Lynn Yonekura claimed the junior women's title at the same event in 1963. Debbie Takeuchi won the juvenile girls event at the 1968 Southwest Pacific Championships and took the silver in the junior women's event at the first Glacier Falls Invitational in Paramount, California in 1969. Famed fashion designer Vera Wang struck gold at the North Atlantic Figure Skating Championships and won the silver medal in junior pairs at the 1968 Eastern Championships with her partner James Stuart.

Peggy Porter, Christy Ito and Sally Berens at the 1967 Pacific Coat Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Audrey (King) Weisiger, best known for her achievements as a coach and choreographer, won a pair of bronze medals in the U.S. novice and junior events. In her March 2013 interview with Allison Manley on The Manleywoman SkateCast, she recalled, "My father grew up in Europe. I'm Chinese by background, but I’m one of those American Chinese that don’t speak very fluent Mandarin. My grandfather was an ambassador from China to several European nations, and my whole family were outdoor winter sports buffs... I skated kind of a groundbreaking program to Madame Butterfly in 1969. It was one of those moments that was unexpected, I was a first-year junior lady and I was only 14. That may seem old by today’s standards, but back in the day you had to do your figures first, so it was pretty unusual to have young kids get through all eight figure tests and get into senior before they were 15 or 16 years old. So I was the new kid on the block, and my coach, Jerry Renault, choreographed this fantastic, beautiful, sensitive piece for me that got me a standing ovation at Nationals in 1969. I think I’m remembered for that moment because people were not expecting this young girl to come out and do that."

Left: Ginger and Archie Tse. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine. Right: Ginger and Archie Tse in a lift.

In #TheSk80s, a small but extremely talented group of Asian American skaters began wracking up accolades at the Sectional and National levels. Ginger and Archie Tse won the U.S. junior pairs title in 1984.

Christina and Keith Yatsuhashi

Another sibling pair - Christina and Keith Yatsuhashi took home a bronze medal in ice dance at the World Junior Championships in 1983. David Liu and Alex Chang both competed nationally in the eighties and later went on to represent Taiwan at the World Championships. 

Suggie Oh

At the 1983 U.S. Championships in Pittsburgh, Suggie Oh struck gold in the novice women's event, moving up from fifth after figures with a superb free skate that featured three double Axels and a triple toe-loop. At the age of eleven, she was the youngest competitor in any discipline at that year's Nationals. Suggie started skating at the age of four and trained in California at the Santa Barbara Figure Skating Club with coach Terry Tonius. The year after she won the U.S. novice title, her family moved to Los Angeles, and she began training at Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank. In 1984, she won the junior women's event at the Arctic Blades Invitational and Southwest Pacific Regionals. At the Arctic Blades event, another young Asian American skater, Loreen Koshi, won the senior pairs event with her partner Doug Williams.

Left: Winners at the 1982 Arctic Blades Invitational. Suggie Oh is second from left, next to a young Debi Thomas. Loreen Koshi and Doug Williams are in the top right. Photo courtesy Suggie Oh. Right: Suggie Oh at the 1983 U.S. Championships. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Suggie's skating career ended prematurely in 1985 when the financial toll of the sport became too much and her parents divorced and filed for bankruptcy. It all might have gone so differently. Suggie recalled, "Post-Nationals, I was invited to visit the figure skating club in Seoul, Korea where I was offered the opportunity to represent South Korea in the future instead of the U.S. Had the judging system in those days been similar to today's ISU system, perhaps it could have been something to consider; however, under the good ol' 6.0 system, competing for a country that was unknown in the sport of figure skating at the time would have been akin to skating suicide, so it was never in question that I would represent the U.S. had my skating career progressed on the international level." Suggie never experienced any overt discrimination during her skating days. She remembered, "I think I was too young to recognize if there had been any discrimination for being one of the few Asian Americans in a predominantly white sport. I don't recall anything blatant, such as name-calling or slurs. I have no idea if my parents might have experienced anything negative, but if they did, they never mentioned it to me. Growing up in Santa Barbara, which was also predominantly white back then, I only remember the amazing support I received from members and coaches at the ice rink as well as among my friends and teachers at school. For example, during Nationals, I received many encouraging and congratulatory telegrams (remember those?) from numerous members of the Santa Barbara Figure Skating Club both before and after the results of the event. Upon winning Nationals, my school ran an article about me, the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table chose me as the 1983 Athlete of the Year, the local news station ran a TV spot, and I even received a congratulatory letter from the California Senator at the time, Gary K. Hart. I suppose back then it was big news for a relatively small city, and folks were very supportive, regardless of race/ethnicity."

In June of 1983 in Sun Valley, Idaho, Berkeley, California's George Takashi Yonekura made history as the first Asian American person to be elected as President of the USFSA. His road to the top of the largely white American skating administration was a really big deal. During World War II, he and his parents Katsuzo and Masako were among the thousands of Japanese American families interned at The Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. It was in this 'camp' that he met and married his wife Margaret Wakayama in 1945.

George T. Yonekura. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

George first became interested in skating in 1958, when his daughter Lynn took up the sport. He was first elected to the USFSA Executive Committee nearly a decade later, after having served for many years on the board of the St. Moritz Ice Skating Club. He also served as an international judge and America's Team Leader at both the 1978 and 1979 World Championships. Off the ice, George was President of Blaco Printers, Inc. He used his connections to create and print World Team booklets as well as test and competition forms. It was during George's term as USFSA President that Tiffany Chin made history in 1985, as the first Asian American figure skater to win a U.S. senior title and a medal at the World Championships.

Tiffany Chin in 1985. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

Like Suggie Oh, Tiffany Chin made the big move from her hometown (San Diego) to the Toluca Lake district of Los Angeles. Before the 1982/1983 season, her mother Marjorie had driven her to L.A. two or three times a week to train with Frank Carroll. After the move, Tiffany began training with John Nicks at Costa Mesa in Orange County. When she won her first U.S. senior medal at the 1983 U.S. Championships in Pittsburgh, "Skating" magazine praised her for making "history by being the first Oriental ever to qualify for the U.S. World figure skating team." The following year, she became the first Asian American skater to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics. She finished in the top three in both of the free skating events but missed a spot on the podium because of a disappointing twelfth-place showing in the school figures. The first American woman to attempt a triple Axel in practice, Tiffany was a skater far ahead of her time.

Ida Tateoka. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Tiffany Chin wasn't the only Asian American to make history at the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo. Ida Tetsuko Shimizu Tateoka solemnly studied the skaters in the men's event, making history as the first Asian American judge to serve at the Olympics. Ida grew up in California but moved to Utah as a result of World War II. She had taken up skating while living in Los Angeles and was one of the founding members of the Utah Figure Skating Club in the early fifties. She took up judging in 1953 and was mentored by World judges Margaretta Spence Drake and Edith Shoemaker. It took her ten years to work her way up from a trial and low test judge to the national level, and another ten to become a World judge. While she was judging, she continued to skate three times a week in Salt Lake City. She also served on the USFSA Board Of Directors and on the Pacific Coast Judges Committee. In "Skating" magazine in 1983, she recalled, "Judging is a lot of work and there are many people working to improve their judging and climb ahead... The best rewards, however, have come from watching the young novice skaters work and improve. Scott Hamilton, Elaine Zayak, and Rosalynn Sumners I have known for many years. I have known Rosalynn since she was seven, so you really follow the skaters. In the last fifteen years, I have judged seven Nationals and watched our skaters as they fulfilled their goals."

Through a modern lens, it's not always easy to appreciate that skaters of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage haven't always been well-represented in the sport. As we sift through history, we celebrate the trailblazers who have paved the way for a sport that has become much more diverse and inclusive as the years have passed by. There's always more work to do to promote inclusivity in figure skating.  Make no mistake - that's something we all play a part in.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of "Jackson Haines: The Skating King" and pre-ordering "Sequins, Scandals & Salchows: Figure Skating in the 1980s", which will be released this fall where books are sold: