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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Lorenzo DeStefano is a Honolulu born photographer, filmmaker, film editor and writer who explores the hidden lives of those who are often overlooked in society. He wrote and directed Shipment Day, a stage play that ran at O‘ahu’s Mānoa Valley Theatre. It tells the true story of his feisty cousin Olivia who contracted leprosy at age 18 and was exiled to Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 13, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Lorenzo DeStefano Audio

 

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Transcript

 

Having gotten leprosy and having struggled against the Board of Health, and the autocratic, dictatorial nature of fear and stigma, and having Patient Number 3306, I mean, just short of stamping it on your arm, you know, changed her, changed everybody who was caught up in that fear.

 

Patient Number 3306 was his cousin, and Lorenzo DeStefano wrote a play about her life. Meet this Hawai‘i-born photographer, filmmaker, film editor, and writer who explores the hidden lives of those who are often overlooked in society, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Growing up in Hawai‘i, he was Larry Stevens.  Now, he is Lorenzo DeStefano, having gone back to the Italian origins of his family name.  Today, DeStefano lives in Ventura, California, but during the early years of Hawai‘i’s statehood, he was an island kid living in the O‘ahu neighborhoods of Kāne‘ohe, Wai‘alae, Kaimuki, and Waikīkī.  Lorenzo DeStefano tells his stories through different types of media.  He produced and directed a documentary film titled “Hearing Is Believing”, about Rachel Flowers, a blind musician and composer.  And more recently, he wrote and directed a stage play called “Shipment Day”, the true story of his cousin, Olivia Robello Breitha, who developed leprosy at age eighteen and was exiled to Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i.

 

[scene from “Shipment Day”]

 

That’s when he began taking scrapings from around that spot on my arm.  He went deeper into the flesh than I ever thought he would.  I tried really hard not to scream, and I didn’t.  I almost passed out.

 

LORENZO DESTEFANO

 

Jason, everything sounds good?

 

[OFF STAGE]

Sounds great.

LORENZO DESTEFANO

Yeah, that line with Lauren was okay; we got it?

 

[OFF STAGE]

Yeah.

 

My dad came from Brooklyn.  I think he came to Hawai‘i in the late 40s.  He worked at KGU as a radio announcer.  I don’t know if he spun music, or talked.  I know when he did go to KGMB.  Was it Channel 9, I think that was, a CBS affiliate.  He had a show uh, called Larry Stevens’ Matinee, and he played movies, screen movies of his choice, I guess.  They had a library of movies.  And then, between the breaks, he’d be sitting there with a cup of coffee, and he ran this thing called the Trading Post, which was sort of an early QVC type thing.

 

Really? 

 

Where they sold things.  And he’d say, like, you know: Mrs. Wong in Kāne‘ohe has a bunkbed she wants to sell for five dollars; if you’re interested, call 5671.

 

That’s interesting.  I’ve heard that since on the radio.

 

Yeah; I don’t know if he invented it, or it was something that he was assigned to.  But he got to be known.  But here was this guy smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, and he’d say: Well, now back to the movie.  And then he played Charlie Chaplin’s song, “Limelight”

 

And he started off as a DeStefano, changed to Stevens.  So, you were born a Stevens.

 

Yeah.

 

You changed your name back.

 

Yeah.  Well, he was Severio DeStefano.  You know, this was the 40s, when we were at war with Italy, and you know, there was a lot of bias about immigrants anyway.  Jews, Italians, Germans; you know, a lot of people changed their name.  And he changed his name to Stevens, Lawrence Stevens.  So, I was born Lawrence Peter Stevens.  I just changed it back a long time ago to Lorenzo DeStefano.  I didn’t change my name, I just went back to what it was before, you know, before he had changed it.  And he approved of that.  You know, he says: Yeah, times are different now.  And I understood why he did it.

 

And your mother from Kalāheo, Kauai was a Silva.

 

Yeah.

 

And she turned out to be kind of a business dynamo.

 

Well, she’s the eldest of three.  They were orphaned when my mom was nine, when her parents died.  What I think that instilled in my mom, being the oldest of three, she was gonna make something of herself.  She wasn’t gonna be tagged as this orphan, this second-class citizen, you know.  So then, she got secretarial skills, and really made something of herself.  And I think when most women were maybe just homemakers and happy with that, she was that, plus she worked for Bishop Realty in the early 60s and throughout the 60s as one of the top brokers with Vi Dolman and people like this who were around at those times.  Really dynamic women, who were sort of in the business world.  Looking back, I feel honored and privileged to have been brought up here.  You know, lots of diversity, growing up without fear of the other people that looked differently or acted differently than you, multiculturalism.  I think, like anyone who was around then, life was slower and simpler.  The 50s was sort of maybe a fantasy period of tranquility.  You know, then I started to grow up.  Some of my first jobs were, I was a busboy at Rudy’s Italian Restaurant on Kuhio Avenue, and I sold koa wood bowls on Lewers Street.

 

On the sidewalk?

 

Yeah; yeah.  And then, I worked at a candy store making candy.  You know, I had two or three jobs.

 

Where was that?

 

On one of those side streets.  Then I went to Punahou for a year, until they suggested that maybe I’d do better elsewhere.

 

What was the reason for that?

 

Well, I was not applying myself, you know.  They were pretty strict, as they are still.

 

So, you were disappointed, or did you want to leave?

 

I wasn’t as disappointed as they were.  You know.  I think they were disappointed, but you know, my folks never really pushed me. They just wanted me to be myself. I guess they were kind of ahead of the times.  They weren’t really autocratic about—you know.  ‘Cause they both made made themselves, reinvented themselves from where they came from.

 

 

Lorenzo DeStefano finished his formal education at Kalani High School in East Honolulu.  Deciding against a college degree, he says he felt comfortable teaching himself, as he did during his teen years when he taught himself photography, namely street photography, capturing candid chance images of strangers.

 

I think my folks bought me Time Life books on photography.  It was like about eight or ten books, which were great books, you know.  I think I wasn’t the only one to get turned on to photography by those books and the great photographers in there.  Black-and-white, color, nude; all the stuff that was fascinating, you know.  And then. I saved my money from bus-boying and all that stuff.  And a friend of the family went to Japan and brought back a Nikon for me and some lenses.  And I just started shooting, you know.  It was really a sense of discovery for me.  And so, I got into these places.  I actually went into Leahi Hospital and shot a behavioral unit for kids. You know, emotionally disturbed kids.

 

I remember that unit.  There were also patients with tuberculosis there in your time, too.

 

Yeah.  But again, I had full access, you know.  Now, you know, you have to fill out forms, even if you could get in.

 

As a teenager on your own, no parent accompanying you or other friends, you just went on your own, and got in?

 

Yeah.  I got in my car, and went and did it.  And then, you know, like I remember shooting a Young Republicans rally at Kapi‘olani Park, and you know, seeing the different kinds of people.  It was, I guess, the Nixon days, and people with the flag.  And I thought they were rather curious people, you know.  I think the important thing is, as a photographer or writer, whatever, you have your own politics and your own values, you know, what you believe in, that either agrees with who’s in power, or doesn’t agree with who’s in power. But when it comes down to your work, you should be pretty much nonjudgmental, you know, about it. ‘Cause that lessens the power, I think, of what you’re doing.  Your job is not judge so much as a photographer, as to show, you know, whether it’s a play, or a novel, or whatever.  It’s to observe, translate, express, but not take sides.

 

Lorenzo DeStefano’s curiosity with still images progressed into a hunger to learn all he could about motion pictures and film editing.  He said that as a teenager, he saw the musical movie “Cabaret” more than a dozen times at the former Cinerama Theater in Honolulu.

 

The fourteen times I went to see Cabaret, I did that for a reason.  Because Cabaret was a brilliant film.  I’m not such a big fan of musicals, but there were great songs in there by Kander and Ebb, you know, the songwriting team.  But the way the film was put together was stunning to me.  You know, it was editing as impressionistic.  It wasn’t just shot over shoulders and, you know, sort of the standard TV type of editing, or even movies, mediocre kind of exposition.  It was very creative.  But I was convinced by that film I wanted to learn that craft, and I couldn’t do that here, you know.  There was no film school here at the time.  And so, I went to the mainland and eventually found myself in L.A.  And I found ways to get into the game, you know.  I basically lied about the experience that I’d had, and I got a job as an assistant editor at National Geographic.  We used do their editing down there.  And the first day in the cutting room, I got the job.  It was like three hundred week; it was like pretty good at the time.  People now are not making three hundred a week, you know.  Hundreds of thousands of feet of sixteen-millimeter film shows up from Africa of elephants.  Just elephants, you know.  And I’m going: What am I supposed to do with this?  And the other assistant, who I still know—she’s in New York, says: You don’t know much, do you?  I said: No, not really.

 

So, I did a couple of those National Geographic specials, you know, and I learned quickly, you know.  But I was always looking to get in the union—this was a nonunion job, so I could work on features, you know, movies.  So, it took me a couple of years.  You know, basically, what I did was, I had about ten editors whose names I had collected over a year or two whose movies I liked, you know. But I didn’t know how to contact them. This was not internet days, you know, where you can just find people pretty easily.  So, I called the Editors Guild, the union, and another group called American Cinema Editors, where these people belonged, and I basically posed as an assistant to a producer, a known producer.  And I’d read the trades, you know, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, and find out what movies were almost in preparation to go into production. And so, I’d call up and I’d say: I’m—and make up a name, you know.  I’m revealing all this stuff now.

 

Intrepid; intrepid job-hunting.

 

I’d say: I’m assisting this producer, a real producer.  And they’d say: Oh, say hi to him.  I said: Okay, I will.  I didn’t know the guy.  But I said: You know, we’re looking for editors for this picture, and there was a real movie that’s in the trades.  I said: I need phone numbers and addresses for these guys.  You know.  And they gave ‘em to me.  So then, I’d write letters to these people.  And I’d say: You know, I’m willing to do anything, sweep up, whatever. And I wrote to about ten people, and it was amazing, about eight of them got back to me, either phoned or wrote a note. Six or so of them took me to lunch. Ended up working for four of them over the years.  Two of them were Oscar-winning editors, you know.  Richard Halsey, who won an Oscar for “Rocky”, was a big influence on me. I worked for him for four years. Bill Reynolds, who won four or five Oscars for “Sound of Music”, and bunch of films was another one.  You know, these are guys who had done it all, you know.

 

How long did it take to get to where you wanted to be, which was actually editing?

 

About five years.  Yeah.  First movie I edited by myself was “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, with Helen Hunt and Sarah Jessica Parker.  And then, I cut about ten or twelve movies after that.  And then, I got on a TV series at Warner Brothers called “Life Goes On”, which was a show with Patti Lupone.

 

That must have been really long hours.  Were you doing a weekly show?

 

Yeah.  It was a network series on ABC.  It was on film, shot for eight days.  You know, it was a drama, family drama.  It was about a family with a young Down Syndrome child.  It was kind of a cutting edge, breakthrough series in a lot of ways.

 

I think you’ve compared film editing to writing.

 

Sure.  I learned that later, you know, that the final drafts of a script in the case of film is in the editing room.  You know. Where the script is now thrown away, and now it’s the film that was shot from the script, and then it’s free, you know, open season on how you’re gonna turn this into a film using all the techniques available.  Not just editing, but sound and music, and other things.

 

When you were editing fulltime, did you say: I have found exactly where I want to be, and this is where I’m gonna stay, this is me.

 

Yeah, I did have that feeling.  I think I chose well, in terms of my personality, you know. A lot of editors make great directors, you know.  David Lean was a film editor, “Lawrence of Arabia”.  Hal Ashby won an Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night” as an editor, went on to direct “Harold and Maude”, and “Being There”.

 

Did you have that aspiration to be a director?

 

I did; yeah.  But I was, you know, daunted by it, you know.  Editors don’t often make good directors, ‘cause it’s an insular kind of personality.  Directors tend to be more outgoing and jump right into the fray, you know.  And editors tend to—not to stereotype, but tend to want a more private controlled atmosphere.  And the set is not a controlled atmosphere; it’s basically chaos, you know.  And so, it took me a while to embrace the chaos, you know.

 

What did you direct?

 

Well, I did my own things, and then I did documentaries starting in the 80s.  Music films; I’m sort of a failed musician, you know.  So, I worked that out by making films about musicians.  I’ve done three of them so far.  And then, I directed on “Life Goes On”.  That’s when I got into the Directors Guild and worked actually in a studio situation.

 

I would think egos would come even more into play when you’re directing on a set.

 

Well, in that case, it was good, because people knew me.  The actors all knew me, and the crew knew me from being a producer and a supervising film editor.  And so, I was a friend, you know, I was part of the team already.  So, that was helpful. But yeah, that was a step, you know, of confidence-building.

 

In Los Angeles, Lorenzo DeStefano worked his way up the ranks as a film editor, later becoming a producer and a director.  He would eventually branch out on his own as a documentary filmmaker and writer.  During one fateful visit to Hawai‘i in the late 1980s, DeStefano learned of a family secret: a relative who had been exiled long ago when leprosy was a much-feared and little-understood disease.  DeStefano set out to meet his forgotten cousin, Olivia Robello Breitha.

 

Well, first of all, I should say she’s one of the most amazing people I ever got to meet, you know.  And the fact that she’s family was even more of a revelation.

 

What was the connection to her?  How were you related?

 

My mom and her mom, their mothers were sisters.

 

I see.

 

So, they were first cousins.  Yeah; yeah.  Portuguese girls from Kalāheo.

 

How did you meet her?

 

Finally, my mom told me about this cousin of ours who had leprosy, who was in Kalaupapa.  And I went over there to meet her.  And I hiked down the trail, and she wasn’t home.  I didn’t check first; I just figured she was there.  She was in Honolulu.  So, I missed her the first time.  But then, I met her Christmas of ’89, and we spent, you know, seventeen years ‘til she died in 2006, being very close, you know.  Especially after my mom died in ’96, ten years between then and Olivia’s death, Olivia who’d never had kids, you know, who loved children.  I wasn’t a kid anymore, but anyway, we bonded. You know, I like to call her the Rosa Parks of leprosy.  You know, she’s a simple woman, like Rosa Parks was.  Rosa Parks was a maid, you know, who took the bus back and forth to White people’s houses to work, and who wasn’t gonna change her seat.  Came a day when she says: I’m not doing this.  And then, we know what happened from there. She and others kicked off a whole movement, you know.  Olivia said: I’m not my disease, you know, I’m not my condition; call me by my name, Olivia.  And I really respected that.

 

So, did you remain on the mainland and go back and forth to see Olivia?

 

Yeah; m-hm.  I did, and she came there.  She went to the UN in ’97 with Bernard Punikaia and Catherine Puohala, and a lot of other patients that were being acknowledged.  It was World Leprosy Day or Month, the World Health Organization. And so, they got to meet Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the UN, and get medals.  And I still have her medal at my house.  And she got together in New York City, the only time she’d been.  And so she traveled, you know.  Like a lot of patients from decades of isolation, when they were able to travel, they just got out of Dodge and went all over the world—Belgium, and you know.  So, not everybody wrote a book, but she did.  And so, I think she made the best of the disease, I think.  She took the disease and said: You’re not gonna beat me down, I’m gonna beat you, and I’m gonna become what I’m gonna become, despite you, you know.  And she did. And you know, she made some enemies along the way.

 

She was feisty.

 

Yeah; she was not about to be pushed around, you know.  When she died in 2006, you know, I was in mourning for her, and I didn’t come to Hawai‘i for seven years after that.  My mom was gone, my dad, her.  There was really kinda no reason.  I’m gonna come here and get a tan?  You know. What am I coming here for?  And I came back in October of ’13 to put her gravestone.  I had a gravestone made in California with a picture of her and John, her husband, and it says: Together Forever on it.  It’s a nice little stone with the dates that they were married, and when they were born and died.  And took that over to Kalaupapa in October of ’13.  And that was the first time I’d been back in seven years.  And it sort of reminded me of what Hawai‘i meant to me, you know.

 

At what point during the seventeen years you really got to know Olivia did you decide: I want to do a play on this?

 

I didn’t.  Never.

 

Not at all during the seventeen years?

 

No, because it was happening, you know.  She would say; she says: Don’t ever make a movie about my life.  I said: Fine. You’re not so special, I’d say.  She’d say: Wait a second; what are you talking about?

 

Lorenzo DeStefano says that his cousin Olivia Robella Breitha taught him the value of fighting oppression, and to never lose sight of your quest for dignity. DeStefano decided to tell the early part of Olivia’s life story and her encounters with the stigma of leprosy through a one-act play he wrote and directed called “Shipment Day”, which was staged at Mānoa Valley Theatre in Honolulu, in late 2018.

 

She described to you what her life was like before she contracted the disease. And your play shows that, what it was like.

 

M-hm.

 

She was an eighteen-year-old, expecting to be married soon, and still living with her parents.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

And very Portuguese household.

 

M-hm.  Yeah. Well, that’s in her book, as well as stories that she told me and stuff.   But it’s very much in her book in the early chapters.

 

What was the hardest thing about writing your Olivia play?

 

It really wasn’t difficult.  You know.  It wrote …

 

It wrote itself?

 

I won’t say wrote itself.  I mean, it was a one-act play, twenty minutes, and we did it at PlayBuilders of Hawai‘i, which is a local play development program run by Terri Madden.  It’s a terrific program that they have here.  And we won Best Play, and Ku‘ulei Shafee won Best Actress, and William Hao won Best Actor for this little twenty-minute thing we did.  And that’s what got Mānoa Valley Theatre interested in the full version.  And so, they asked me to write a full version.

 

[scene from “Shipment Day”]

It was in that moment that I became a stranger, leaving a home and people that I loved.

 

Inclusion is important.  And yet, people’s fears, you have to deal with them in a creative way. And that’s what’s great about cinema and theater, you know, is that you get people in the dark, and you kind of own them for a little while.  It’s a privilege, you know, to have people, especially when they bought a ticket, you know. And you need to honor that, the fact that they did choose to leave the house, when they really don’t need to leave the house anymore.  They can switch on anything they want.  So, to take that privilege of having them show up, and trying to maybe transform them a little bit, or … I don’t want to use the word educate so much, ‘cause that implies they’re not educated.  But to show them, expose them to something that they maybe weren’t expecting, you know; so that a controversial character, even someone who’s completely divergent from their belief system.  You know, if you’re a Democrat, and you take a Republican type character and make them human, that’s good.

 

Is there one paramount lesson or piece of wisdom you take away after having known Olivia for so long?

 

You know, basically, it’s like, don’t give up to the tormentors, you know, in your life.  You know, not everybody’s in an extreme situation like that, you know, where you’re really incarcerated.  Self-belief, you know, pride.  Not that kind of pride that’s boastful pride or anything like that, but inner strength, you know.  Yeah; she was strong, super-strong person.  Yeah.  That, I guess I take away, you know.  I guess I was drawn into those worlds, hidden worlds, which I think looking back—I don’t look back a lot, I try to look forward.  But looking back, I guess there’s a kind of continuity there, you know, of discovery, finding out what’s unseen or what’s overlooked, you know. And I think there’s a commonality there throughout everything I’ve done.  Which basically comes down to being a curious person, you know.

 

Lorenzo DeStefano is having his play “Shipment Day” translated into both Spanish and Portuguese with the hope of sharing Olivia’s story with foreign audiences. And as curious as ever, he continues to discover hidden stories to bring both the big screen and the stage. Mahalo to Lorenzo DeStefano, former islander, who makes his home in Ventura, California.  And thank you, for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on PBS Hawai‘i.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Everybody loves stories.  We’ve got to find some commonality here.  You know, as people get torn apart by political differences, and ideological differences, those maybe never can be healed.  You know, maybe we’re in a place where it’s getting wider, and wider for people being able to really find any place to relate. And I do firmly believe, and I’m certainly not alone in this, that the arts is one place, if you can get people in.

 

 

 

 

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Transcript

 

So one thing my parents always told my brother and sister and I…I mean, I just remember this, even when we were little, it was like, you can’t rest on your laurels, you know, you always have to continue to you know, earn your keep in a way, and uh, like even as kids, you know, that was something they instilled in us. So, I think it’s great, you’re pushing yourself, you’re trying to accomplish something, and uh, and then you move on and you continue to grow and evolve and see what’s next.

 

Not resting on her laurels pushed this young athlete to keep entering figure skating contests until she knew she’d become good enough to compete at the Olympic level. Kristi Yamaguchi next on Long Story Short.

 

One on one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people, Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox, Kristine Tsuya Yamaguchi, better known as Kristi Yamaguchi, won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating for the United States in 1992. Since then, she’s been a professional ice skater, and author, wife, mother, the 2008 winner of Dancing with the Stars, and a philanthropist. A resident of Alamo, California, she stopped by to talk with us here, on Long Story Short, during one of her frequent trips to Hawaiʻion behalf of her Always Dream foundation. Kristi Yamaguchi always set goals for herself, something she learned to do at a young age after overcoming a birth defect in her legs. Her parents encouraged and supported her along the way, believing in dreams, despite their own experiences as children, forced to live in internment camps.

 

So, I was born in Hayward, California, so that’s a suburb of uh, in the San Francisco Bay area, in the East Bay, and uh, actually, my parents were living in Fremont at the time, but I was born in Hayward. So I grew up in Fremont which was sleepy town back then, and uh, you know, I can’t complain, it was a great, diverse, and um, you know, pretty easy place to grow up in.

 

Your dad was a dentist?

 

He was a dentist.

 

And your mom?

 

Ah, she was a homemaker, she was full-time mom, although she did work part-time as we were getting older in high school. Both my parents did spend time in the Japanese internment camps, my dad’s family was in, Poston, Arizona, and he was about five years old when the family was sent there, um, course his brothers and sisters were more teenagers, so they remember it and you know, probably affected a little more by it, but I think my dad being five, he just kinda like going with the flow and making the best of it that he could…and then, my mom uh, Carol, was actually born in the Amache Colorado internment camp. So she was born, one of the New Year’s baby, they called her, in Amache. So, uh, you know, the families went through that and they did have to start over, you know, once, uh, they were released, and find their way, but I think, you know, it was a huge lesson, obviously, in perseverance, and just, um, you know, a lot of pride in who they were and being American and wanting to assimilate and prove their loyalty, and so, um, so it was interesting time and it’s…funny, not funny, but that generation never really talked about it, and…

 

Have your, have your parents talked about it?

 

Not much, I mean…my mom doesn’t remember, obviously, because she was just an infant, but my dad has opened up a little bit more about it because um, like my sister and I and brother and also now his grandkids are doing school papers, or school presentations on the family and have been interviewing him on different occasions and it’s given him a chance, I think, to reflect a little bit on what he remembers.

 

At the time your mother was born, her father was fighting in the war, with the 100ths.

 

100thInfantry Battalion, so different from like the 442ndand the 100ththat you hear about, but he was in one of the first non-segregated units in Europe, and um, well, basically because he was the only person of color in his unit, and uh, he, yes, he had gone through two rounds of boot camp because while he was in boot camp, the war broke out and they didn’t know what to do with him, and eventually they sent him um, you know, with the 100thInfantry Battalion to um, Europe. We really don’t know much about what that experience was like for him, and I think growing up, uh, the one thing that we do remember, like my brother and sister and I was like, he did have a lot of nightmares at night and there…you know, was, I think still was living with post traumatic stress. I think as we got older we started to realize, you know, through his life experience what he’s been through. But I think one of the proud moments is that we know…he was awarded a battle field commission and was promoted and uh, he was, his uh, commanding officer was actually quoted that he was undeniably one of the best soldiers in their unit and that’s why he received that battlefield commission, so, I think reading that and seeing it in the New York Times was just like, wow, you know, takes a lot of character, a lot of strength, and uh, you know, to really fight for what you believe in and you know, against maybe some, you know, obstacles that are there.

 

That’s amazing, that’s absolutely true. What did he do after the War?

 

So after the War, he was a mechanic. He settled in Gardena, California, and that’s where I know where my mom and her brother and sister grew up and went to school, and uh, he was, I think, also a part-time fisherman, and to this day, my parents won’t eat fish, or my mom won’t eat fish, because she had enough of it growing up, but yeah, I mean, he was just a great dad. I know he provided for his family and uh, husband, and a great grandfather, I just remember having so much fun visiting them and um, you know, enjoying the time we spent together.

 

You were born with a birth defect, malformed feet?

 

Yeah.

 

And here you are later, winning Olympic gold on these feet?

 

On these feet, yes. My mom always described it like this is how my legs were when I was born, they were like uh, just crossed and twisted. I didn’t have, I think, the severe where I had to have surgery, but I did have casts, um, for the first 18 months of my life and then was put into corrective braces, um, and I remember wearing those until probably past the age of like, two or three, because I remember trying to walk with this bar in between my feet, and sliding on the wood floor, so I just discovered that Army crawling was the quickest and easiest way to get from point A to point B, um, but yeah, you know, I think I was just really lucky my parents were proactive at correcting it, you know, so early on and allowing me to have the opportunity to you know, pursue skating.

 

And after the braces came off, you weren’t daunted, you were ready to skate.

 

Ready to go, yeah, I mean, I did ballet, and that was, you know, one area of dance that I really loved and then that led into skating and I think um, you know, when I showed the interest, my mom did ask the pediatrician, is this ok? You know, with her condition? Even though much of the corrections were done at that point, and I think the advice was yeah, I think this is great because it helps with strengthening and coordination, and um, it will be good for her.

 

That’s a great inspiration for those who, who have that corrective work done.

 

Yes, absolutely, and you know, to this day I know, I am still bow-legged, it’s just how, the shape of my legs, and uh, you know, a lot of skaters out there, successful skaters, who are good jumpers who are also bow-legged, so, it’s like, oh in some ways it maybe was even an advantage for the sport I chose.

 

Kristi Yamaguchi started ice-skating as soon as her mother felt she was old enough. Her passion for the sport grew immediately, and soon the rest of her life, and her parents’ lives, started to revolve around her ice-skating schedule.

 

At what point did skating cross your eyes and your heart?

 

I was six years old when I really first started skating and my older sister, Lori, skated for, you know, a couple months and it wasn’t really her thing so she moved on, but I was kind of like, wait, that seemed kinda neat, I wanna try it, and then, I kept asking about it and my mom took us to see the local ice show, and at that point it was like—that’s it. That’s what I want to do. So, she said, ok, when you’re six and old enough, I’ll take you to go skate. And, so I had to wait till I was six and went to try it for the first time and loved it and I think, every day asked when we were going back. And I remember my very first competition, I was about eight years old and um, you know, just kinda not really knowing what’s going on and I went competed in skating and I thought I skated fine, whatever, and um, my mom always reminds me, you were 11thout of 12th. And, it was just like…it was kind of a wake-up call and I didn’t understand, like, how come those girls have these shiny medals and they’re running around wearing these medals, how come I didn’t get one of those? And she’s like, well you have to be top three in order to get those medals, and I think that’s when the competitiveness and the like, hey, I want one of those, what do I have to do to get one of those? Ah, kicked in, and that’s where it started.

 

That requires an incredible commitment from your parents, as well.

 

It’s a huge commitment, but luckily, they didn’t know what they were getting into, they just thought, oh, ice skating, and you know, they saw an activity that I took to, because I did try everything else—gymnastics, soccer…

 

Were you good at all those things, too?

 

No, terrible. And I just, my heart wasn’t in it, but I think when they saw how much I loved skating and how I was improving and really taking to it, um, they said, you know what, let’s go with this and see what happens. So, you know, yeah, I mean, right away they just kind of rolled with it and I was going you know, several times a week and by the time I was in junior high, it was every day, before school, sometimes after school, and competitions on the weekends, at least once a month, probably.

 

How much did you have to give up in social life to pursue skating?

 

There was…yeah, I mean, skaters do not have the normal social life because um, I think I maybe went to one football game in high school, and you know, and I, couple school dances or whatever, but it’s…you know, I was in bed by 7:30 every night because I was up at four and on the ice from 5 to 10 or 5 to 11, every day, so um, training schedule was, you know, early in the morning and then I would rush off to school, and then, um…

 

At eleven o’clock?

 

At eleven, yeah, I did have special schedule through high school where half of my classes were on campus and half of them I did through independent study, so yeah, so in that case, too, it was just not the normal high school schedule.

 

Not really…you’d have to give up…you had to give things up because that’s everything…that’s all, all in.

 

That was all in. It was all in at that point, but for me, it was a choice. I didn’t see it as giving it up, it was like, well this is what I want to do, so…

 

Well, what did you want to do? With…I mean, obviously, you wanted to skate, but what did you want to do with it?

Um, at that point, you know, once I was 15, 16, it was the Olympic goal was there. You know when I first started skating, I just loved to skate and perform, and be in the shows and wear the pretty costumes, but as I got older, and particularly in the high school age, um, competing at the world level was my goal. And um, in 1989, uh, when I was a senior, was my first world appearance and then, at that point, um, I think the prospect of making the Olympic team was getting closer and close.

 

You know, I think for most of us, we’ve had experience competing in, maybe, junior high or high school sports or perhaps, college, but I can’t imagine the level of competition at the Olympic level. Just what kind of focus you need to have and the skill level.

 

Well, you know, it’s practice every day, and like I said, several hours a day at that point, um, and it’s a lifestyle for sure.

 

And what do you fill your mind with?

 

You know, I mean, I was just a competitive person, by nature, and you know, every day in practice I was competitive, even with my training mates, and um, you know, it was just, I knew I had a task at hand and I worked really closely and really well with my coach of uh, from the time I was nine years old through the Olympics, I was with the same coach, Christy Ness, and she was um, probably had one of the biggest influences on my life as a mentor and um, teacher, so learning you know, work ethic and setting goals, and the mindset was always, ok, what is my goal today? What is my goal in the next hour on this session? And there was always something to work towards and um, you know, she made it clear, if you’re working and putting that time in, it’s gonna, you’re gonna get, you’re gonna make strides forward. And so that was always my motivation was like always trying to push myself. She would always tell us, her students, there’s no secret to success, it’s plain and simple hard work. There’s no question, you know, the effort that you need to put in. And there were times that we were training and you know, she would yell out to someone, one of her pupils—don’t be afraid to work hard. You know? Because, you know, maybe one of us was slacking or you know, not putting 100 percent in and it was just like, ok, ok, you know, get the work, and it was true, you know, I think it’s just, you can’t expect results if you don’t put the work in, and as a youngster and a teenager, having that engrained in you, I think, was so valuable because even beyond, you know, after the Olympics, it stayed with me and it was just, you know, not satisfied with just getting through it, but putting the work in. And it could be as simple as, I’m gonna practice this jump ten times this session. And hopefully there’s an improvement and I’m not falling all ten times, but, you know, putting the effort in and or it’s like I’m running through my long program routine twice this session and hopefully without mistakes. So, you know, yeah, it’s, it’s always having a purpose every time you’re going out there.

 

And it’s very um, self-directed, it has to be, right? You’re preparing yourself for this gargantuan competition and challenge so it’s necessarily, solo and self?

 

Pretty much. You know, I think when I was older and um, you know, especially becoming a mom, you…looking back, just like, wow, it really was a pretty self-centered life that I lived. You know, it was an individual sport, I had my individual goals, and it was up to me to just focus in and make that happen and of course, I had a team of people around me…

 

Helping you, and you didn’t have to make room for anybody else, they made room for you.

 

Right, right, exactly, and they were, you know, the common goal was for my success, right? So, um, yeah, there’s a very, very narrow focus through that whole thing.

 

Have you always been able to keep your head in it?

 

No, no, and I think that’s the humbling thing about being an athlete in, in skating, that you’re gonna have some great performances that you’re like, wow, that was it, and that is what you live for, but there are many where you skate off the ice just really disappointed and really wanting to go back out there and do it again, because it’s like, wow, there were just way too many mistakes in there that I know I shouldn’t have made.

 

But you can’t look back, right? You gotta keep moving.

 

Yes, and you take that and you learn from it and hopefully in the next competition, uh, you learn and don’t make those same mistakes.

 

There are many talented skaters, and uh, as you get older and you get ready to uh, to participate in the qualifying, you know, you really don’t know whether you’re that caliber yet, do you?

 

Not really, yeah, I mean, I think it’s just…you’re taking small steps along the way. I mean, you know, people ask, oh, when did you know you were going to become an Olympian? And I’m just like, like, a year before, maybe? And they’re like, really? Like you, you know, up to that point you didn’t believe it or know it? And I’m like, no, you’re just trying to compete in your region and then in the West coast and then nationally and…

 

Could you feel the competition get tighter and tighter as you…

 

Oh yeah.

 

..went up?

 

Yes, definitely, and the pressure and the expectations and um, you know, figure skating being a judged sport, you know, that adds a whole other layer of subjectivity and just like, how am I fitting in, am I doing what the judges like, and things like that, but yeah, I mean, the competition was always close and the U.S. has always been traditionally competitive world, at the world level. So um, the talent pool was just…it was tough to even be noticed in your own country.

 

What was it like approaching that fateful day in 1992 when you won gold at the Olympics?

 

I feel like from ’91 and ’92, it was like walking on eggshells, the whole time, you know, it was just, ok, you have a goal, you have a plan, and it’s just trying to make every step go just how you want it to go. Um, you know, trying to stay healthy, injury free, getting the rest, and eating properly and just, you know, not leaving anything on the table to be an excuse for uh, it not to work out, right? So, um, yeah, it’s like living that…just eat, drink, breathe, sleep, you know, skating. And, you know, you’ll hear that from Olympic athletes all the time, and it’s kind of true, you know, Olympics isn’t every four years for us, it’s every day, and uh, it’s Groundhog Day.

 

So it’s a short game and it’s a very long game, too?

 

Yes.

 

Commentator Scott Hamilton said, you know, you do all these jumps in your routines but people don’t so much notice how hard those jumps are because you, you know, it’s part of a story you’re telling, visually.

 

Mm, mm hm, yeah, so I mean, I think I…was also proud to be a part of the generation that really pushed the sport technically, as well. You know, my biggest competitor in those 90s, early 90s, was Midori Ito from Japan, and she was the first to land, successfully land a triple axel in international competition and so, you know, she pushed the boundaries as um, you know, a figure skater doing the amount of triples that she incorporated and then incorporated the triple axel, Tonya Harding was also doing the triple axel, that ’92 year at the Olympics, so uh, technically, the women that year were really, really pushing beyond what we’ve seen in the past in women’s competition. And so, I had to up my game too and incorporated the triple lutz, triple toe combination, to be…

 

But not the triple axel.

 

Not the triple axel and I tried to master it and it wasn’t mastered at the level where I was comfortable to incorporate it into the competition, so I knew the triple lutz, triple toe combination had to be perfect, and had to be my um, answer to their triple axel, and it put a lot of pressure on me for that particular move, but um, yeah, I knew I had to have it, and it hadn’t been done at the Olympics before um, by anyone, so it was fun to be able to kind of push the envelope that way.

 

And you did, and you won.

 

After winning Olympic gold in 1992 in France, Kristi Yamaguchi went on to become a professional skater, and she married another athlete, former Olympic and professional ice hockey player, Bret Hedican, and they now have two teenage daughters. She also found a way to give back to the community.

 

Every Olympian, after their Olympic career ends, must look at what life looks like then, after spending almost every waking moment consumed with uh, competition and their art, um, did you know what you were going to do after you ended your time with skating professionally?

 

I didn’t. You know, I think um, yeah, so much was spent on skating itself and the career path of a skater, uh, that I wasn’t really, I never really had a plan after that, but I think, you know, I had the natural segue of, you know, I found someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and start a family with, so really, as soon as I got off the road from touring as a skater, we started a family. And that really took over, um, for the next uh, you know, four or five years, just being a mom. But all through that, you know, after, immediately after the Olympics, even while I was touring, there was always a sense of continuing to have a purpose in life and to make an impact um, beyond just being an athlete and you know, my parents had always been very involved in the community, you know, volunteers at school, and at church, and in the community, so, you know, they were like, you know, you’ve been so lucky, what are you going to do now? How are you going to give back? And um, that really uh, inspired me and spurned me to look at, hey what am I passionate about beyond, you know, skating and myself. And it was children. And uh, in 1996, shortly after the Olympics, I established the Always Dream foundation, who was all about um, you know, inspiring the hopes and dreams of underserved children, and I knew that that was uh, going to become my next passion and my next step in life, beyond the Olympics. We’ve been going strong for 23 years and the last eight years, we’ve been focused on early childhood literacy and have uh, a reading program in Kindergarten classroom aged kids, and you know, we’re all about leveling the playing field, because not everyone is given the resources and opportunities or have that at their fingertips growing up, not even books in the home, so how do you develop a foundation for learning if you don’t have books in the home? We are providing the tools for the families and the kids to be able to develop those literacy rich environments at the home, and hopefully give them, you know, the edge they need to have success in school and in life.

 

Kristi Yamaguchi found time during her busy life with family and foundation to compete on Dancing With the Stars in 2008. Reluctant at first, she says that once her competitive spirit kicked in, she was in it to win it, which she did. Mahalo to Kristi Yamaguchi of Alamo, California, a frequent Hawaiʻivisitor for sharing her life story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻiand Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

When we looked to expand our foundation outside of California, this was a natural um, place to desire and um, you know, we know the need is great here and it was the perfect fit for the foundation to come out and um, do it’s work. So, yeah, it’s, Hawai‘i definitely has a special place in my heart and my family’s heart, my older daughter, Keara, is a hula dancer and she’s um, earned her uh, her Hawaiian name and you know, has big dreams and aspirations to someday be at Merrie Monarch.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org, to download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

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