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Still-girlish Kristi Yamaguchi maturing fast


FREMONT, Calif. -- "Hi there!" chirps Kristi Yamaguchi, flashing her lip-gloss-pink smile at the next in line.

At 20, she is perhaps the best female figure skater in the world, and hundreds of fans have come to see her at Macy's.

She has been at it for an hour, perched behind a makeshift desk. In front of the black bustier and miniskirt display in the juniors department, she is writing words of inspiration and drawing a loopy flower after each signature she writes on the glossy 8-by-10s of her winning performance at the World Figure Skating Championships last March.

In her black and white houndstooth blazer and straight black skirt, Yamaguchi sits very tall in her seat, her long, thick hair falling about her shoulders and her size-4 flats crossed under her chair. Yamaguchi exudes calmness and control, like a network anchor or an MTV veejay.

This is not the Yamaguchi who left for Canada a year and a half ago. This is the new, confident Yamaguchi, who gets love letters and marriage proposals from fans.

The confidence and self-awareness have not come easily to the shy middle child who never spoke her mind and let her mother and coach make many of her choices for her.

But getting older, moving out and finally realizing her potential have helped Yamaguchi to skate with more feeling and grace.

This new strength may take her all the way to the Olympics in Albertville, France, in February. The U.S. Olympics qualifying competition will be in Orlando, Fla., in January.

Her coach of 11 years, Christy Kjarsgaard-Ness, and the reason Yamaguchi moved to Canada, says she has seen the change in Yamaguchi.

"She always had the discipline. That was a given," says Kjarsgaard-Ness of Yamaguchi's high school training schedule that had her in bed by 8 p.m. and up before 4 a.m.

But, Kjarsgaard-Ness says, Yamaguchi has something else. Something all top competitors have.

"I didn't know how much was inside her until I watched her in the 1988 World Junior Championships when she won both the women's and the pairs."

Yamaguchi, named the "Up and Coming Artistic Athlete of the Year" by the Women's Sports Foundation in 1988, also won gold medals at Skate America 1990, the 1990 Goodwill Games and the 1990 Nations Cup.

"She's matured tremendously since she's been in Canada," says Kjarsgaard-Ness. "She's more independent and has really taken command of her life. That comes through on the ice."

Yamaguchi still giggles nervously when she's complimented, and she's still quiet around adults. But her self-awareness makes this girlishness charming rather than awkward.

When asked whether any boys have fallen in love with her after seeing her skate, she dodges the issue.

"Oh gosh, I don't know, there've been some fan letters -- it's fun," she says with a big smile that breaks into giggles.

She has had to put off certain things, like a "major serious boyfriend," to keep her life as uncomplicated as possible. "I want to concentrate on skating right now," she says.

Always concerned with being a "normal" kid rather than a skater, Yamaguchi chose to attend Mission San Jose High in Fremont, a suburb east of San Francisco, even though she had to miss a good deal of school for competitions.

"Once I'm away from the rink, I'm a normal person," says Yamaguchi after a recent practice at the Ice Chalet in Foster City. "It's not normal to think skating, skating, skating all the time."

When she's not skating, Yamaguchi goes to the movies (she recently saw and liked "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey"), and she loves to dance in clubs. For reading material? "Fashion magazines. Any of them."

"I'm sure I did miss a lot," she says about having such a rigid schedule during high school, "but I don't look at it that way. I gained so much in skating, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

"Think how many 20-year-olds have traveled as much as I've been able to," says Yamaguchi, whose favorite countries so far have been Japan, Germany, Italy and Australia.

"At first I thought nothing of it, but it's been really neat meeting skaters from other countries."

At her parents' Fremont home, the fine line between sophisticated traveler and plain old kid is clearer than anywhere.

The lavender walls of her bedroom are embellished with George Michael and Depeche Mode ticket stubs, and a Debbie Gibson tape sits on her cluttered desk.

Next to her bed on the floor, 50 stuffed pigs line up in a neat formation.

But scattered throughout Yamaguchi's bedroom are the marks of her grown-up life.

Her mother points to a vase from Bulgaria, a ceramic figurine from Italy and a Soviet hammer and sickle flag. Autographed photos of world teams adorn various surfaces, and a framed, autographed print from skater Brian Boitano has been hung, lovingly, on her wall.

Above the bed looms a black-and-white poster of a greased, well-toned male model in lace-up shorts and biking gloves. Beneath the photo is the word "Determination."

She has always had determination, says her mother. "I don't know where she gets it." She was never the best -- in school or on the rink. But she focused on skating and achieved her goals.

"Maybe she's a little more stubborn than most people. It took her a little longer, but she worked at it until she mastered what she wanted."

Though she never actually said she wanted to be a professional skater, Yamaguchi wanted to skate ever since she saw an ice show at a mall when she was 4. She liked the costumes -- and still does.

"The first time I put on the skates, I just loved it and knew I wanted to do it," says Yamaguchi. "There was never a point where I wanted to quit. Skating didn't come naturally, but I didn't mind working a little harder.

"There's a sense of freedom. You feel the wind flowing, and you're gliding across the ice. It's fun." Then she adds, on a more serious note, "I don't think I'm supposed to be doing anything else."

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