Six Asian American and Pacific Islander sports personalities you should know
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To mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we profile six Asian American and Pacific Islander sports figures who have contributed to the history and culture of the USA.

(Image, from L to R: Wataru Misaka, Vicki Draves, Natasha Kai, Rajeev Ram, Kristi Yamaguchi, Evan Scott)

May was selected as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the USA to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the USA on 7 May 1843, as well as to observe the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on 10 May  1869, the construction of which majorly involved Chinese workers.

The month celebrates the US's spirit of diversity and inclusion. The US Asian and Pacific Islander population has the fastest growing rate as compared to other ethnic groups and they are widely present across the country. Despite a significant hold of the Asian Pacific population in the US, they have often been at the receiving end of everyday racism and discrimination due to their ethnicity.

Their representation in sport has been limited, as they are burdened to choose economically stable career options as opposed to sport. Here are some exceptions who beat the odds and achieved success in the sporting field with their incredible talent.

  1. Wataru Misaka

In 1947, Wataru Misaka became the first Asian and non-white member of the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Misaka was born in Utah, in 1923 and he went on to lead the University of Utah to a national championship in 1944. Misaka made it to The Knicks, but he played only three games before receiving the pink slip.

Misaka’s Japanese descent created problems for him at the time, due to the American animosity with Japan during the second world war. He experienced racial discrimination, as he was denied access to public spaces and ridiculed for his identity. However, the basketball court was the one place where he was treated equally. Though his teammates and opponents behaved appropriately with him, he often faced racist remarks from spectators. Misaka ended up having a successful career in professional basketball despite the ethnic barriers.

  1. Vicki Draves

Victoria Manalo, also known as Vicki Draves, was a diver and the first-ever Asian American to have won an Olympic gold medal, which she won at the London Olympics in 1948. Born to a Filipino father and an English mother, she adopted her mother’s maiden name in diving competitions to avoid facing race-based barriers. She suffered a great deal of marginalization, evident from her experience of using a public pool, which was cleaned each time she used it.

Winning an Olympic gold medal provided her with an outlet to break the racial barriers and lead a life of dignity. In fact, Victoria made sure other aspirants did not have to face race-based discrimination by opening her own diving school. She was included in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969.

  1. Natasha Kai

Natasha Kai is a soccer player, who played as a forward on the US Soccer Team for Women. She also won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She last played in 2017 for Sky Blue FC in the National Women’s Soccer League, and has also been a part of the Philadelphia Independence of Women’s Professional Soccer. In 2011, Kai was also a member of the first US Women’s Rugby Union Sevens Team.

She started playing at the University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine (2002-2005), and set multiple records during this time. She won many accolades, including three WAC Player of the Year Awards. Kai had taken a year off as an active and young soccer player to explore other options and spend time with family. However, she came back after three years to play for the Sky Blue Football Club in New Jersey.

  1. Rajeev Ram

Renowned tennis player and Olympic silver medalist Rajeev Ram is one of the most prominent Asian-American personalities in sport. He is currently ranked as world’s number 12 in tennis doubles and has won a total of 19 ATP doubles titles, including three Grand Slams. He has also won two singles titles in 2009 and 2015. Ram’s career kicked off in college, as he claimed a doubles title and a team championship in 2003 at the University of Illinois. He witnessed the peak of his career in 2016, when he won the silver medal at the Rio Olympics, in partnership with Venus Williams. Ram was born to Indian parents in Denver and was brought up in Indianapolis.

Ram raised his voice against racism in the US when George Floyd was killed by the police, and expressed his concern about the surge in racial discrimination. He believes sport has the power to bring a change as it does not discriminate on the basis of color, gender, ethnicity or any other identity marker.

  1. Kristi Yamaguchi

Kristi Yamaguchi is an accomplished figure skater who made her mark in the early 1990s through victories at domestic and international competitions. She won the World Figure Skating Championship in 1991, the US Nationals in 1992, and the gold medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. In 1998, she became the first Asian-American to enter the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

Yamaguchi’s great-grandparents moved to the US from Japan, and she has talked about the racism they endured in the US.  In March 2021, as there was a sudden rise in violence against Asians in the US, Kristie emphasized the need to have conversations about combating anti-Asian hate.

  1. Evan Scott

Evan Scott a basketball referee and the first Korean-American to officiate the NBA. He is currently in his first season as a full-time NBA official. He started out as a referee at Radford University in Virginia, and his performance at the university level got him opportunities in Big South, Old Dominion Athletic and Capital Athletic conferences.

Scott was born in South Korea and came to US when he was 4 months old, after being adopted by an American family. Scott has openly spoken about his experiences with racism on the court, including coaches complaining about his decisions and spectators hurling slurs at him.

Breaking barriers

The extraordinary journeys of these sports personalities highlight how racism is not only a feature of the past, but it continues to be a reality in the present, even in the sporting world. Marking Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is important as it allows us to celebrate those who have contributed to the US's culture, despite the barriers they have faced. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US has witnessed a rise in race-based crime against Asian Americans, and it is even more important to celebrate inclusion and the achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.



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