A Skating Sprite with a Towering Talent, Kristi Yamaguchi Wants to Ice the World Title

updated 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

For eight years, elfin figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, 17, has been rising at 4 A.M. to squeeze in five hours of ice time before going to school. "It hasn't been too bad—I'm used to it," says the 4'11" skating dervish from Fremont, Calif. "It's been an equal trade-off because of what I've gotten back through skating."

For Yamaguchi, the payoff has never been hotter than this year. She was the 1988 U.S. junior champion in both singles and pairs, and at the national figure skating championships in Baltimore last month she was narrowly beaten by defending titleholder Jill Trenary. That performance qualified the youngster to skate for the U.S. at the world championships in Paris this week (March 14-19). Since she also won the U.S. figure skating pairs title at Baltimore, with partner Rudi Galindo, Yamaguchi will go to Paris as the first American woman in 35 years to qualify in two events.

Whatever her private hopes, Kristi is downplaying her chances of winning the world crown. "Really, she has no basic ranking going into this," explains Christy Kjarsgaard, 37, her coach of eight years. "I just want her to do her very best." Ultimately, Yamaguchi dreams of skating on the U.S. team in the 1992 Olympics at Albertville, France. But she doesn't want to seem overconfident. "The Olympics are three years away, and there are always new skaters coming up," she says. "Anything could happen." Her coach is less cautious. "She has a good chance of making the team," says Kjarsgaard. "Kristi trains extremely hard; she's very disciplined and she wants it very much."

A senior at Mission San Jose High School, Yamaguchi started skating at 6, began competing at 8, and in 1983 teamed with Galindo for the first time. "I was looking for someone as small as me," recalls Galindo. who was 4'6" at the time. "She was perfect."

Off the ice Yamaguchi is still the picture of shyness, but under the harsh pressure of competition she becomes poised and self-possessed, engraving the ice with exquisite accuracy, performing electrifying leaps and spins that turn her to a graceful blur.

Yamaguchi credits much of her success to the encouragement of her parents. For years her mother, Carole, 40, a medical secretary, ferried her to predawn practice sessions, and her dentist father, Jim, 50, provided a faithful cheering section. But he doesn't put his wunderkind child on a pedestal, he says, "because, well, Kristi's not much at washing dishes."

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