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Yamaguchi looks golden

Their Japanese roots trace to the same island of Honshu. Midori Ito and Kristi Yamaguchi, born of similar ancient heritage, are extraordinary figure skaters with modern lifestyles worlds apart.

"We can't communicate, except with sign language and smiles," said Yamaguchi, whose great-grandparents transplanted from Japan to California almost a century ago. "Midori can't handle much English, and I know even less Japanese."

Wednesday night, both Yamaguchi and U.S. teammate Nancy Kerrigan executed short programs without flaws, and, with Ito crashing on takeoff for one of her signature gymnastic leaps, the Yanks stood 1-2. Japan's favored skater wound up fourth, also trailing the European champion, France's 18-year-old Surya Bonaly.

How many little girls who watched these skaters on television turned to parents and said, "That's what I want to be someday"?

Kristi once said that.

"We've all worked years to get to this moment, and right now, in my mind, Midori is still the one we must measure ourselves against Friday night (in the finals)," said Yamaguchi. "She has the power jumps to come back. I don't fear Midori, but I do have huge respect for her."

Ito is from Nagoya, famed for producing 400-pound sumo wrestlers, while Yamaguchi grew up in Fremont, a northern California place that is also home to rap entertainer Hammer.

Ito and Yamaguchi feel a certain kinship, but they speak so differently, live so differently and skate so differently. Yamaguchi, 21, is a silky artist that Ito can't match in style, but Midori can flaunt a killer trump card with explosive, spinning acrobatics.

"My jumps are what make me," Ito said through an interpreter earlier in the week. "Kristi does most other things better, but judges are impressed by the triple (axel)."

Figure-skating judging, an always controversial art, still could pull out the gold medal for the leaper from Nagoya. Gymnastic, Michael Jordan-style athleticism has long been Ito's hammer.

Yamaguchi, a 93-pounder who wears size-1 clothes, has spent two years grinding in practice to achieve the decisive triple axel. The 5-footer often misses by an icy heartbeat, but the jump continues to be Kristi's missing link.

"I'm sure I can," Yamaguchi said regarding the triple axel, "and I will someday. But until I do, there are many wonderfully creative things you can do on the ice."

Ito and Tonya Harding, a U.S. rival of Yamaguchi, are the only women to execute triple axels in competition. Named for a Norwegian skater, Axel Paulsen, it requires an explosive takeoff while skating rapidly forward and then a dizzying 3{ airborne revolutions.

Harding fell Wednesday night attempting the maneuver. Harding is No. 6 at Olympic halftime. Ito, after a bad workout, replaced her trademark triple axel with the easier triple lutz but fell to the ice on her landing.

"I'm very sorry to the Japanese people," Ito said. "My training today was very bad, so my coach and I decided on the change. But I failed."

Ito envies Kristi.

"I will admit," Ito said, "that the look of western skaters is one thing I wish I had. Most of them are long-legged, and so graceful. I wish I could be as beautiful. Kristi and I are both Japanese, but she is as western as I am Asian."

Ito is 4 feet 7 with short, powerful, slightly bowed legs. She's no bigger than a jockey, but I wouldn't bet against Ito dunking a basketball.

In a season of considerable Japan-bashing, the Olympic figure-skating competition becomes a curious fascination in the United States. One skater of Japanese roots is ours, one is theirs. You wonder, will anything but nationalism affect the way Ito and Yamaguchi are received into the TV-watching homes of Jackson, Jacksonville and Jackson Hole?

They're both impressive, and likeable. "It is a goal of mine," Yamaguchi said, "to learn to speak Japanese. My deep background is very important to me."

Ito's parents divorced when Midori was 10, and she became the ward of her coach, Machiko Yamada. They live in Nagoya. "Our ice rink is very old and usually crowded with (recreational) skaters," Yamada said. "It wasn't until Midori became an international skater that she had ample time on good ice to fully develop her full abilities."

Yamaguchi, like Ito, practices the Buddhist religion. Midori said relatives "were touched" by the 1945 American bombing of Hiroshima, but she would not elaborate. Kristi's kin suffered a different brand of World War II devastation.

In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act, and it dripped with bigotry, aiming to block Japanese from migrating to America. Kristi's family was already well established in California, but even they would be victimized after the December 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Kristi's grandfather was yanked out of the University of Southern California. His family lost the flower-growing business they had built in Gardena, Calif., and was sent to an internment camp in Colorado.

Kristi's grandmother was pregnant, and it was amid the outrage and disgust of that American prison for Japanese-Americans that her mom, Carole, was born.

Jim Yamaguchi, father of Kristi, has a similar background but avoids talking about it. Now a Fremont dentist, his parents were stripped of their Gilroy, Calif., ranch in 1942 and likewise sent to a camp.

"My mom honestly can't remember much, having been a newborn in that camp," Kristi said. "My dad never speaks much about it. They're enjoying life today and know looking back to then will bring mostly pain."

Her mother nodded.

"I'd rather not talk of that," said the soft-spoken, highly approachable Carole Doi Yamaguchi. "It is past, and we prefer not to hold grudges. Our view is toward the future.

"We're an all-American family. There are two other children _ Lori (22) and Brett (17) _ and I honestly can't remember any of them dating anything but Caucasians. We're very proud of where we came from, but today, we are Americans first."

Kristi moved away from home in 1988, after high school graduation, which was accomplished with private tutors and correspondence courses. Her skating coach, Christy Kjarsgaard Ness, married a Canadian physician and moved to Edmonton. Yamaguchi followed and has lived and has trained there for four years.

Kristi's future can surely be enriched by a memorable Albertville Olympics performance, but she already has hit six figures in income from endorsements ranging from macaroni-and-cheese dishes to sunglasses.

Her picture also has appeared on tens of thousands of cereal boxes, but Yamaguchi has never seen one in a store.

"They're not sold in Edmonton, and maybe that's best," she grinned. "I'm not sure I'm ready to push a shopping cart down an aisle and see myself smiling from cereal boxes."

She's a nice, unspoiled kid, and if Kristi Yamaguchi ever learns to handle the triple axel, she could become unbeatable on ice skates, even up against the best nights of a leaping Midori Ito.