-1As a young girl I really admired figure skater Michelle Kwan, who at the time was one of the most prominent and respected Asian American athletes in the world. Although I was not an ice skater myself, I looked up to Michelle because I hoped to be just as passionate and driven when I grew up.
Fast-forward to the present, and I find myself in awe of another athlete who happens to be three years younger than myself: Mirai Nagasu. At only sixteen years old, she has already won the short program and overall silver medal at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Most remarkably, her stellar performance booked her a spot on the U.S. women’s figure skating team for the upcoming Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

A recent article in The New York Times used Mirai’s accomplishments to explore how and why many skaters of Asian descent have risen to prominence over the past two decades. Frank Carroll, Mirai’s coach and Michelle Kwan’s former instructor, credits the agility of Asian skaters to certain cultural factors like diet, where Asians often adhere to a diet of rice, vegetables and fish, avoiding large quantities of beef and fat, making them less susceptible to weight gain and more fit for the sport. As Caroll describes, “They have bodies that are quick and light; they’re able to do things very fast.” Mirai also brings up a good point about the pressures Asian teens can sometimes place on themselves.” Asian cultural factors, such as discipline at home, also reflect on the skating rink. Mirai adds, “I think my own thinking is harsher than my mom’s discipline. I think it’s because I’m so hard on myself that I can push myself this far.”

This past week has been monumental for female Asian athletes. In addition to Mirai’s achievements, two Chinese professional tennis players, Li Na and Zheng Jie, fought their way into the semifinals of the 2010 Australian Open—marking the first time in history that two players of Asian descent have made it into the semis of a grand slam. Although they were both recently defeated, their tenacity on the court impressed sports fans across the world. I’ll be keeping an eye on the both of them in the future, and will most certainly be glued to the television screen come Feb. 12, cheering on Mirai in the figure skating portion of the Olympic Games.

Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images via The New York Times