Even on Olympic stage, Asian American women experience racist abuse

Chloe Kim won gold at the 2022 Winter Olympics
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BEIJING (AP) — Across two pandemic Olympics set in Asian countries, Asian American women fronting the Games have encountered a whiplashing duality — prized on the global stage for their medal-winning talent, buffeted by the escalating crisis of racist abuse at home.

The world’s most elite and international sporting event, which pits athletes and countries against each other, underscores along the way the crude reality that many Asian women face: of only being seen when they have something to offer.

“It’s like Asian American women can’t win,” says Jeff Yang, an author and cultural critic. “Asian American female athletes, like most Asian American women in many other spaces, are seen as worthy when they can deliver … and then disposed of otherwise.”

The issue is playing out at the Beijing Winter Games, the third straight Olympics set in Asia and the second held during the unrelenting global coronavirus crisis — and playing out, too, during a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Here, U.S. snowboarder Chloe Kim and China’s freestyle skier Eileen Gu are the latest additions to the list of American women of Asian descent who have been “It Girls” of the Winter Games, joining icons like American figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan.

When Kim and Gu earned their gold medals in Beijing, it was the perfect bow on professional narratives that have been covered incessantly leading up to the actual event. Their star power and talent made them two of the de facto spokeswomen for the Olympics.

Meanwhile, other Asian American women like figure skaters Karen Chen and Alysa Liu of the U.S. team and Zhu Yi of the China team have also been promoted by their national teams and scrutinized — sometimes harshly — by Olympic fans.

Commentators have mocked Yi for falling in the team event, as if she deserved the mistake after giving up her U.S. citizenship to compete for her ancestral homeland. Others are angry that she “stole” the Olympic spot from an actual China-born athlete.

Even the winners struggle to feel fully embraced in America.

Kim, who won the halfpipe at the Beijing and Pyeongchang Olympics, has revealed she was tormented online daily. She says she was consumed by fear that her parents could be killed whenever she heard news about another brutal assault on an Asian person.

There have been more than 10,000 reported anti-Asian incidents — from taunts to outright assaults – between March 2020 and September 2021, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that gathers data on racially motivated attacks related to the pandemic.

“The experience of hate is withering, and it takes a huge mental health toll,” says Cynthia Choi, the coalition’s co-founder. “When we think about the Olympics, it’s really incredibly powerful to have taken place in Asia three times in a row. That context is very significant, and to have Asian Americans and Asians representing the United States in these games is more than symbolic.”

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the country have endured racist verbal, physical and sometimes deadly attacks for two years now, fueled by the pandemic.

Some perpetrators have based their hate on the fact that the virus was first detected in Wuhan, China. Adding to the mix: former President Donald Trump, who regularly talked about COVID-19 in racial terms.

Gu, the daredevil freestyle skier who placed first in the big air competition, said she’d never been as scared as when a man directed a tirade about the coronavirus’ Chinese origins against her and her immigrant grandmother at a San Francisco pharmacy.

The San Francisco native, fashion model and social media figure has also been criticized with anti-China rhetoric for switching from the U.S. team to the China team. Conservative Fox News personalities Tucker Carlson and Will Cain even dedicated a segment to berating Gu, saying she was “ungrateful” and is “betraying her country.”

Those racially charged denunciations have been called out on social media for being hypocritical. Phil Yu, who runs the popular Angry Asian Man blog, tweeted succinctly: “Oh sure, it’s always ‘go back to your country’ but not ‘go back to your country and win a gold medal.'”

The dichotomy of the Asian American woman’s existence is not limited to Winter Olympians, though. In October, Hmong American gymnast Sunisa Lee said she was pepper sprayed by someone shouting racist slurs while driving by in a car. At the time, she was standing outside with a group of Asian American friends in Los Angeles while filming the “Dancing with the Stars” TV show.

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Lesser-profile Olympians from the Tokyo Games like golfer Danielle Kang and karateka Sakura Kokumai spoke about their experiences with anti-Asian hate last summer.

Kang said she’s fought racism all her life and urged for a broader social studies curriculum that could better capture today’s multicultural America.

“I’ve been told to go back to China. I don’t know why they think China is the only Asian country,” said the Korean American athlete. “I also have heard, ‘Do you eat dogs for dinner?’ It’s nothing new to me. However, the violence was very upsetting. But the violence also has been around. I’ve gotten into fist fights. I’ve grown up like this.”

Kokumai, who is Japanese American, was angry to discover that the same man who had harassed her in April with racist slurs also assaulted an elderly Asian American couple.

Equally painful: colleagues’ silence when the incident was reported. She said Japan’s coach called her about it before members of her U.S. team did.

“It was really hurtful that it took so long for my side of the federation to address it,” Kokumai said last summer.

In July, when Lee became the surprise breakout star of the Tokyo Olympics by winning gold in the all-around event and bronze on uneven bars, Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said she felt conflicted about seeing Lee on a pedestal given the way Hmongs have been marginalized.

“I’m really wrestling with this idea that we’re all ‘American’ only when it comes to us being excellent and winning medals for the country,” Choimorrow said. “Asian American women are hyper-visible in ways that dehumanize us and completely invisible in the ways that humanize us.”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”