Bay Area Olympic skaters share their dreams
By Jennifer Blot
Brian Boitano has forged a reputation as something of a celebrity chef, dissecting recipes on national television and whipping up meals at charity events around the Bay Area. At Yerba Buena ice rink, however, he’s still the dazzling Olympic gold medal skater who’s been sharing tips and tricks with San Francisco middle school kids for nearly two decades.
Through his nonprofit Youth Skate, Boitano works with up to 100 students a month, many of whom come from low-income households and attend the city’s lower-performing public schools. On average, three-quarters of the kids have never skated and nearly as many have no idea there’s a rink in their hometown. It’s not unusual for students to show up panicked at the prospect of balancing on metal blades.
“When kids come to skate, you notice a change within an hour,” Boitano says. “In the beginning they’re hanging onto the rail and can’t stand up. By the end, they’re off the rail and doing little tricks like gliding on one foot. They leave feeling really good about themselves and feeling like they want to come back and do it again.”
Boitano works out three to four times a week at Yerba Buena Ice Skating & Bowling Center, a short trek from his Russian Hill home. But for kids without much spending money, skating can be a costly sport, he admits. A couple of hours at the rink is a more expensive proposition than a matinee or shooting baskets at a local playground. Even for Boitano, who grew up in Sunnyvale, ice skating was a major commitment of resources.
He stumbled upon the sport at age 7 while tagging along with his older sisters to an ice rink party. After a year of consoling himself by roller-skating up and down his driveway and pestering his parents — who figured out that a trip to the Ice Follies at Winterland fueled, rather than placated, his passion — he began skating with a coach twice a week. “I wanted to do more and more and more,” he recalls. “It was the same feeling that I get now: It’s limitless.”
Boitano went on to become a household name after winning a gold medal in the men’s singles competition at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Ice skating — along with California’s rollerblading craze — became increasingly popular in the next few years and Boitano became involved in a number of kids’ skating events before founding Youth Skate in 1998. Ironically, the art of skating is often secondary to his goal of helping kids gain confidence and adopt an alternative to cell phones and video games.
“It keeps them occupied and off the couch and is giving them an option to exercise instead of being in front of the computer all the time,” he says.
Boitano acknowledges the obstacles kids face today. On one hand, they’re often overextended and overbooked, getting shuttled to several sports a week. Yet many of the kids he meets have little, if any, structured exercise in their lives. Through Youth Skate, Boitano has spread his infectious love of skating to thousands of kids, providing them with encouragement as well as passes for a return visit to the rink.
Linda Leaver, Boitano’s coach since childhood, helps out at the sessions. “Every Youth Skate Tuesday, Brian turns into the Pied Piper,” she says. “The kids from the San Francisco Unified School District are in awe of his spins and they love chatting with him and trying their very best for him.”
At the end of the skating lesson, students are introduced to some of the ideas behind former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. Boitano says the pyramid stresses the importance of loyalty, fitness and alertness and how they can help kids in life.
Though he now juggles multiple commitments as a chef and skater, Boitano hasn’t ruled out plans to expand Youth Skate beyond San Francisco. In the back of his mind, there’s the hope that he’ll see himself in one of the kids, admitting: “You never know, we could discover a talent that didn’t even know about skating and may go on to become a competitor.”
She’s been on cereal boxes and collector plates, Christmas tree ornaments and snow globes. But while some childhood heroes disappoint, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi has continued to inspire and impress since winning gold — and becoming America’s sweetheart — at the 1992 Winter Olympics.
Early in her career, Yamaguchi signed autographs with the words “always dream,” a mantra that prevailed as she went on to achieve numerous milestones, from headlining Stars on Ice and
Dancing with the Stars to authoring three children’s books and creating a women’s active wear line. But perhaps her greatest achievement is the Always Dream Foundation, the nonprofit she created with the initial goal of helping kids in underserved communities, with a recent emphasis on early childhood literacy.
As Yamaguchi celebrates her foundation’s 20th anniversary this year, she credits her parents with stressing the importance of being community minded. They were also instrumental in connecting her with Dean Osaki, a former United Way executive who became Always Dream’s co-founder. Osaki recalls, “I’d gotten to know the family and Kristi’s mom Carole asked me, ‘Do you think Kristi can create her own charity to make a difference?’”
Their first fundraiser was an inline skating event at Golden Gate Park in 1996 featuring ice skating legend Peggy Fleming and 49er Ronnie Lott. Later, Yamaguchi’s generosity benefited kids in her hometown, Fremont, where she built the Always Dream Play Park, a public playground featuring special activities for handicapped kids. Then there was the foundation’s “Fulfilling Dreams” program, which solicited wish lists from local children’s charities and resulted in donations of sports equipment for afterschool programs, food for homeless shelters, and a computer learning center. And though most of the focus was local, Yamaguchi sponsored youth leadership camps in Hawaii and shipped 1,000 pairs of new shoes to kids affected by Hurricane Katrina.
“Kristi always connected with kids,” Osaki observes. “It really is an authentic desire to make a difference. She also realizes how fortunate she was to have a very supportive, loving family. In the Olympics, you have that one opportunity to shine and by good fortune, she won gold. It took a village to get her there and this is her opportunity to give back.”
Yamaguchi often taps into the generosity of friends in the professional sports community. “Ronnie Lott has been a huge mentor,” she admits. “He really took me under his wings and encouraged me to start a foundation and supported it from the beginning. He’s been a hero of mine.”
Olympic gold medal figure skater Scott Hamilton will emcee Always Dream Foundation’s upcoming gala at the Palace Hotel. Past events have included appearances by Brian Boitano, Jonny Moseley and Yamaguchi’s husband, retired professional ice hockey player Bret Hedican.
Today, the Always Dream Foundation focuses almost exclusively on early childhood literacy through its “Always Reading” program, inspired by Yamaguchi’s success as a children’s book author. In 2011, with input from her young daughters and a love of porcine characters dating to a childhood favorite, Charlotte’s Web, Yamaguchi wrote the New York Times best seller Dream Big, Little Pig! Invitations to read the book in local classrooms, and the reactions of early readers, were an impetus for Yamaguchi herself to dream bigger.
With help from her sister, Lori Yamaguchi, who’s executive director of the Always Dream Foundation, the program now reaches kindergarteners at 17 schools — approximately 1,600 students — in California, Arizona and Hawaii, all of which are classified as Title I, serving a high number of low income families.
With partners Raising a Reader and myON digital books, classrooms are provided with tablets preloaded with e-books as well as book bags that students borrow for several days at a time. The bags have been critical for the kids who live in homes without books and, as Yamaguchi discovered, even some parents have improved their reading skills.
“Our focus will always be the underserved schools, where we can create the love of books and the love of reading in our youngest students to help them develop those literacy skills early,” Yamaguchi says.