Amid renewed fears and familiar aches, Asian Americans celebrate Olympic wins

Stories of Asian American excellence on Team USA are on full display in Beijing.

February 17, 2022, 5:05 AM

In a gravity-defying first run, Chloe Kim secured a gold medal in women's snowboarding halfpipe at the Winter Games this year, soaring above the snowcapped venue on the outskirts of Beijing with an American flag on her sleeve.

The following day, Nathan Chen glided across the ice to Elton John's "Rocket Man" and earned Team USA a gold medal in men's singles figure skating with a heartthrob-inducing performance that immediately became a viral sensation.

For many Asian Americans watching the Olympic Games this year, there is still awe at crowds cheering names like "Kim" and "Chen" when rooting for Team USA -- and in seeing the athletes' stories of Asian American experiences, often left out of U.S. history books, headline the big-money advertisements broadcast between events.

PHOTO: Nathan Chen of the United States skates during the men's singles skating free skate on day six of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium, on Feb. 10, 2022.
Nathan Chen of the United States skates during the men's singles skating free skate on day six of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium, on Feb. 10, 2022.
Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

"There is a deep pain that comes with the perpetual foreigner stereotype, which is that no matter how much you've done for this country, no matter how long, how many generations you've been here, the bigoted, prejudiced idea that you are still a foreigner," Amanda Nguyen, an Asian American activist and community organizer, told ABC News. "To see someone like Chloe Kim wear the American flag and win on the world stage is really sweet in the sense that we absolutely belong, we deserve to take up space."

In the shadow of Olympic glory and global visibility, however, Asian Americans in New York City held a vigil this week for Christina Yuna Lee. Lee was fatally stabbed over 40 times in her Chinatown apartment Sunday in a gruesome attack law enforcement believes was at random. Asian American lawmakers and advocates say the horrifying slaying renews shockwaves of fear and rage in their communities, and pours salt on the old wounds for Americans who feel they are often reduced to a second-class status in the U.S.

PHOTO: Members of the Korean American Association and others hold a rally and news conference near the building where Christina Yuna Lee was murdered in the early hours of Feb. 13 after she was followed home on Feb. 15, 2022, in New York City.
Members of the Korean American Association and others hold a rally and news conference near the building where Christina Yuna Lee was murdered in the early hours of Feb. 13 after she was followed home on Feb. 15, 2022, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As Asian American athletes dominate in a Beijing beset by diplomatic boycotts, their victories bring new joy to communities at home that have suffered through two years of race-based attacks and biases linked to the coronavirus pandemic's origins in China. With Asian American excellence on full display at the sports world's biggest arena, advocates are imploring those at home to not only celebrate with them, but to give credence to their community's pain and be a part of the push to end the violence.

Athletes pay tribute to Asian American trailblazers seen and unseen

PHOTO: American figure skater Michelle Kwan performs during the women's figure skating long program at The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan on Feb. 20, 1998. Kwan won a silver medal in 1998 and a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
American figure skater Michelle Kwan performs during the women's figure skating long program at The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan on Feb. 20, 1998. Kwan won a silver medal in 1998 and a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Simon M Bruty/Getty Images, FILE

When Asian American athletes like Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi first began to leave their mark on the figure skating world a generation ago, their successes came with painful reminders of "the way it is," as one advertiser put it in a 1992 Associated Press article, describing Yamaguchi's endorsement potential at the time as "definitely suffering because of her Japanese face and her Japanese name."

Though quickly deleted and apologized for, the now-infamous MSNBC headline "American Beats Out Kwan" published in 1998 still inflicted a familiar sting for many Asian Americans who have had their "American-ness" called into question.

While the impact may be unintentional, these sorts of familiar xenophobic aggressions Asian Americans experience have been historically linked to painful realities. Yamaguchi's mother was born incarcerated in a Japanese American internment camp -- even as her grandfather fought for the U.S. Army during World War II.

PHOTO: American Kristi Yamaguchi became the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, placing first in the women's singles event in figure skating in Albertville, France on Feb. 21, 1992.
American figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi performs during the women's free program at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France on Feb. 21, 1992. Yamaguchi became the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, placing first in the women's singles event.
Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Kwan and Yamaguchi still went on to forge new pathways for Asian Americans through athletics, ones that the next generation remains incredibly grateful for. Shortly after making history as the first Asian American man to win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating last week, an emotional Chen paid tribute to the trailblazers.

"Growing up, being able to have characters like Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi ... it was really amazing to be able to see people that look like me and do such amazing things in the sport," the 22-year-old Salt Lake City native told ABC News. "And now within Team USA, you know, we have so much diversity. You have so many Asian Americans that are doing so well."

Kwan, who recently gave birth to her first child, congratulated Chen in an Instagram video featuring her newborn daughter. The former Olympian, who was recently nominated by President Joe Biden to be U.S. ambassador to Belize, thanked Chen for representing "our sport, Asian Americans and the entire country so well"

In addition to Chen, this year's U.S. figure skating team features four more Asian American athletes -- Karen Chen, Madison Chock, Alysa Liu and Vincent Zhou. Chen said he hopes this representation continues to inspire "the next generation of athletes." Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, Chock and Zhou were all part of the U.S. team that took silver in the team event.

It was really amazing to be able to see people that look like me and do such amazing things in the sport.

Also behind every Asian American athlete taking home gold this year is the story of their parents, and of American experiences and struggles that are not often represented in mainstream narratives in the media.

Kwan's parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong and ran a Chinese restaurant in Torrance, California, during her childhood. Serving Americans versions of Asian food was a common vehicle of economic mobility for many Asian American families -- including the parents of former Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu, who became the first American woman to land a triple axel in the 2018 Winter Olympics. As Nagasu landed the history-making leap at the Pyeongchang Games, her parents were working the dinner rush and missed the live broadcast. When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened her parents' business, however, Nagasu understood the sacrifices they made to support her skating and began fighting to keep it open.

"I definitely learned my parents' work ethic from watching them work so hard at the restaurant. I mean, my skating was important to all of us and it was a family effort," Nagasu told Olympics.com in 2020 as she raised awareness for the pandemic's impact to restaurants like the one her parents ran.

Michelle Hanabusa, a former competitive skater who now works in the fashion industry, told ABC News that the reason she got into figure skating as a child "was because of Michelle Kwan."

"Not only did she have the same name as me, but seeing another Asian American out there on the TV screen, you didn't really see a lot of that at that time," Hanabusa said. "Seeing someone who was so incredible, and she just like, touches you right in the heart every time she performed, I think those were the moments where I was like, 'Wow, I would love to be like her one day.'"

Hanabusa trained at the top level alongside Nagasu before she said her Olympic hopes were derailed due to injuries. In 2020, as Hanabusa watched her community suffering, she co-founded the nonprofit organization Hate Is A Virus with the goal of inspiring fellow Asian Americans to fight for justice and work to dismantle racism.

"I'm so proud to be Asian American and that they are repping for the Asian American community, and there's just so much that we can celebrate," Hanabusa said of watching Asian American athletes at the Olympics this year.

"I think it also gives these athletes a platform to really talk about and share our stories," Hanabusa added. "The more we know about our history, the more we know about the experiences that we go through and being able to talk about these nuances, it really does help the holistic understanding of our community."

PHOTO: U.S. Olympian Chloe Kim, center, poses for a photo with her family at the USA House at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 14, 2018, in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
U.S. Olympian Chloe Kim, center, poses for a photo with her family at the USA House at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 14, 2018, in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images, FILE

Major companies are now capitalizing on these fresh stories of the American dream, a noticeable shift from a past when marketers shied away from highlighting Asian American experiences.

In interviews, Jong Jin Kim has said he immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 with $800 and an English-Korean dictionary. He bought his daughter, California-born Chloe, her first snowboard on eBay in a bid to lure his wife onto the slopes with him.

In an emotional clip for Proctor & Gamble, the now two-time Olympic gold medalist pays tribute to her father and the sacrifices he made to support her snowboarding career. The ad features a young Chloe Kim chasing her father through the aisles of an Asian supermarket and the home videos he made of her shredding the snow as a child.

"Love you always, dad," Chloe Kim wrote when sharing it on Twitter. "Couldn’t have taken this wild ride without your and mom’s constant love and support."

As Hanabusa cheers the athletes on, she said she hopes those at home don't forget the suffering Asian American communities have endured, especially throughout the past few years of the pandemic.

"We can't just go and love them on screen for 10 minutes and then ignore what's been going on within our communities," she said. "Celebrate all of these wins, but we can't forget that at the same time, we are often targeted and victimized and marginalized."

While her Team USA bio describes her as "arguably the greatest female snowboarder of all time," Chloe Kim herself spoke out about the racism she experienced since childhood in an emotional op-ed for ESPN last year.

"Just because I'm a professional athlete or won the Olympics doesn't exempt me from racism," Kim said. "I've experienced it since I was a child."

PHOTO: Gold medallist Chloe Kim of Team USA celebrates during the women's snowboard halfpipe final flower ceremony at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Genting Snow Park on Feb. 10, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.
Gold medallist Chloe Kim of Team USA celebrates during the women's snowboard halfpipe final flower ceremony at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at Genting Snow Park on Feb. 10, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

So far, Hanabusa's Hate Is A Virus has raised $1 million to distribute to local and national community-based organizations that focus on providing services for Asian American communities.

"Celebration is the opposite of erasure," Hanabusa said. "So it's not just about positivity, but it's also about sharing how deeply we are hurting and that we are currently dealing with trauma."

For Nguyen, whose viral video last year imploring media outlets to cover crimes against Asian Americans was linked to President Joe Biden's denunciation of the violence, elevating stories of Asian America is a first step toward finding solutions.

"I think at the heart of the hatred and violence we're seeing is ignorance, and so one of the big initiatives that I and my fellow activists are rising and pushing for is AAPI education," she told ABC News.

She is now asking supporters to be a part of a pledge to learn about the history of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the U.S., and has garnered more than 40,000 signatures on a Change.org petition seeking to mandate AAPI history lessons in American schools.

PHOTO: American Nathan Chen reacts after a nearly flawless performance in the men's single figure skating final in the Capital Indoor Stadium at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 10, 2022, in Beijing. Chen won the gold medal.
American Nathan Chen reacts after a nearly flawless performance in the men's single figure skating final in the Capital Indoor Stadium at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 10, 2022, in Beijing. Chen won the gold medal.
Richard Ellis/UPI/Shutterstock

Nguyen told ABC News that her parents both arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam, and seeing the daughter of Asian immigrants win big for Team USA affirms a sense of belonging for many tuning in at home.

"It also creates a community of solidarity, that despite where we come from, we still have a piece of this American promise to us," she added.

Nguyen's parents, like Kim's parents -- and so many more Asian American parents and grandparents -- came to the U.S. in search of a better life for their families but find the stories of those that look like them often relegated to footnotes in U.S. history books.

"Chloe is a shining example of living up to the American promise," Nguyen said. "So what we ask of all of our fellow American brothers and sisters is that they live up to the creed of this country, too."

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