Suni Lee, Jay Litherland and Justine Wong-Orantes’ Tokyo 2020 success reflects long, hard struggle for Asian-American athletes

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“Growing up, I always [said], ‘I’m going to be an Olympian, “Litherland told CNN Sport.” This is one thing I really want to share with everyone: you have to go and you can do it. You can go. Nothing is stopping you. “

American swimmer Litherland has achieved this goal twice, competing in the Rio Olympics five years ago and then winning his first Olympic medal – a silver in the 400m individual medley – at Tokyo 2020.

Shortly after his most recent success, Litherland was hailed as the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal for the United States at the Tokyo Games.

However, the celebrations did not end with him. As the Games progressed, Team USA enjoyed great success, especially among its Asian American contingent.

After Litherland was Lee Kiefer – whose gold medal in women’s individual foil made national history – and Erica Sullivan, who won silver in the first-ever women’s 1,500 freestyle.

Jay Litherland of Team United States competes in the fourth wave of the men's 400m individual medley on day one of the Tokyo Olympics at the Tokyo Aquatic Center on July 24, 2021.
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Then came Sunisa Lee, the first American Hmong – an ethnic group from Laos who helped the United States during the Vietnam War – to compete for the American team, and the first Asian of any nationality to win a gold medal. in the individual gymnastics event. about.

Finally, Justine Wong-Orantes helped the American team win their first ever gold in women’s volleyball.

More than a dozen Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) athletes left Tokyo with medals around their necks, helping the U.S. team reach the top of the medal table after two weeks of rigorous competition in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the Olympic representation of the AAPI is in the spotlight after Tokyo, this success came from less than promising circumstances.

Suni Lee, center, greets from a St. Paul fire truck with her mother Yeev Thoj, left, and sister Shyenne Lee as fans cheer her on during a parade on August 8, 2021 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

AAPI divers innovate

AAPI athletes started making headlines in the late 1940s, when diver Victoria “Vicki” Draves became the first Asian American to win a medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. His teammate Sammy Lee won a medal days after Draves, making him the first Asian American to win a gold medal.

However, both Draves and Lee experienced racism that often hampered their ability to train.

Draves adopted his mother’s maiden name, Taylor, during the competition to avoid potential racial discrimination related to the use of his father’s Filipino surname, Manalo, according to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum. -United.
She also grew up in a low income household where swimming was not a priority.

Lee, a second-generation Korean American, was only allowed to train in his community pool once a week on International Day – the Wednesday before the weekly pool cleaning when non-white children were allowed to swim, the museum said.

Despite these difficulties, both athletes excelled in their performances. Draves became the first woman to win two gold medals in the 3m springboard and 10m platform at the same Olympic Games in 1948.

At the same Games, Lee won bronze in the 3m springboard and gold in the 10m platform. He went on to defend his gold medal in the 10m platform event at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Vicki Draves sits up as she dives into the water to win diving gold at the 1948 London Olympics.

“I saw their pride and I was quite simply surprised”

Forty-four years after Draves’ victories at the 1948 Summer Games, Kristi Yamaguchi made history as the first Asian American to win a gold in figure skating and became the second woman Asian American to win gold in an Olympic sport.

“At the time, I just didn’t think about it because I felt like any other Californian girl, and it was like, ‘Okay, I represent my country and a proud American’,” Yamaguchi told CNN Sport.

“But I think afterwards I felt incredible support from the Asian American community. And I saw their pride and I was just surprised.”

According to Yamaguchi, she was one of two Asian Americans representing the U.S. team at the 1992 Albertville Winter Games, alongside Natasha Kuchiki, who competed in pairs.

Yamaguchi credited 1985 U.S. National Figure Skating Champion Tiffany Chin – a Chinese-American skater who is a two-time world bronze medalist and the first Asian American to win a national singles title – as inspiration.

“[Tiffany] She was a huge role model for me because I think I definitely had that connection to her as an Asian American and someone I felt I could emulate and admire, ”Yamaguchi said.

Lee Kiefer celebrates winning the individual gold medal bout in women's foil against ROC's Inna Deriglazonva on July 25, 2021.

Due to her historic victory in 1992, Yamaguchi is often considered a trailblazer for Asian American athletes, both on and off the ice.

“I saw a performance in Tiffany Chin, and it inspired me. And hopefully the more we see each other there, the more people will believe in themselves,” Yamaguchi explained.

After Yamaguchi’s Olympic gold medal, Asian Americans began to be successful in a plethora of sports, including 1996 Atlanta “Magnificent Seven” gold medalist gymnast Amy Chow, two-time Olympic medalist from Atlanta. figure skating Michelle Kwan and gold medalist snowboarding superstar Chloe. Kim.

Tokyo Dreams – Fulfilled

The Olympic scene has changed steadily for the United States team since Yamaguchi’s time for the Winter and Summer Games.

At the 2012 London Olympics, 18 AAPI athletes represented the US team, with several more in support. The Tokyo Games were held nearly a decade after the London Olympics, but the U.S. team has seen a threefold increase in the number of AAPI athletes since then.
Erica Sullivan won silver in the women's 1,500 freestyle at Tokyo 2020.

Tokyo 2020 has seen more than 50 athletes identify themselves as Asian Americans, according to Gold House – a premier nonprofit collective of AAPI founders, creative voices and leaders.

Asians make up about 7% of the country’s population, making them the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

Still, the AAPI representation among Team USA in Tokyo was around 8.8%, based on CNN’s calculations.

Despite being the only Asian American on the U.S. Women’s Olympic Volleyball team in Tokyo, Wong-Orantes often sees many AAPIs training alongside her in California.

“We’re training here in Anaheim, Calif., So I feel like here, right within our little volleyball community, I see so many Asian Americans,” she said. told CNN.

Among Asian Americans competing for the United States, many openly identified themselves as multiracial.

“Generation changes are happening and we are seeing more mixed athletes,” Yamaguchi said.

For multiracial athletes like Litherland, who is of Japanese and New Zealand descent, it was not difficult to envision his goals when one saw a growing number of successful individuals with backgrounds similar to his.

“I really idolized [five-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Nathan Adrian]”Litherland told CNN.” When you look at someone who has a similar face, you kind of see the resemblance, or you kind of identify with them. “

Although Litherland was born in Japan and holds triple citizenship in Japan, New Zealand and the United States, he wholeheartedly chose to swim on behalf of the American team, although he is also eligible to try the Japanese and Kiwi national teams.

“I am American and I grew up, although my roots are in New Zealand and [Japan], that sounded good to me, “Litherland told CNN.” There is no other country that I would represent. “

Justine Wong-Orantes (in red) celebrates with her teammates in the women's volleyball semi-final between the United States and Serbia on August 6, 2021.

Wong-Orantes, another multiracial athlete of Mexican and Chinese descent, also noticed the diversity among other U.S. team prospects training on the courts.

“If you look across the gym and across the program, we have so many athletes who come from very different backgrounds… It’s our job as current athletes to inspire that and push for that.” , said Wong-Orantes.

Historically, there has been low turnout among Asian Americans in the Olympics and in major sports leagues.

A combination of stereotypes – such as Asians being biologically unsuitable for sports and cultural norms – has often played a role in this case of under-involvement.

However, the current state of representation is slowly changing as the new wave of Asian American athletes challenge the status quo.

And a lot of it is for athletes like Wong-Orantes.

Wong-Orantes may be the smallest on her team at five feet six, but she is widely regarded as one of the best defensive players in the world. , according to NCSA Sports.

“In my sport that can be a downside,” Wong-Orantes said neutrally of his height.

“I would just say it’s not too late and you can still make your dreams come true. And whatever you want to aspire to be, go for it.”

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