June 11, 2024
Success of Suni Lee, Jay Litherland and Justine Wong-Orantes at Tokyo 2020 reflects long, hard fight for Asian-American athletes

Success of Suni Lee, Jay Litherland and Justine Wong-Orantes at Tokyo 2020 reflects long, hard fight for Asian-American athletes

“Growing up, I always [said], ‘I’m going to be an Olympian,'” Litherland tells CNN Sport. “That’s one thing that I really want to share with everyone: You gotta go and you can do it. You can go for it. Nothing’s stopping you.”

American swimmer Litherland has achieved that goal twice, competing at the Olympic Games in Rio five years ago and then winning his first Olympic medal — a silver in the 400m individual medley — at Tokyo 2020.

Shortly after his most recent success, Litherland was lauded as the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal for the US at the Tokyo Games.

However, the celebrations didn’t stop with him. As the Games progressed, Team USA saw much success, especially among its Asian American contingent.

After Litherland, there was Lee Kiefer — whose fencing gold medal in women’s individual foil made national history — and Erica Sullivan, who won silver in the first-ever women’s 1,500m freestyle swim.

Jay Litherland of Team USA competes in heat four of the men's 400m Individual Medley on day one of the Tokyo Olympics at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 24, 2021.

Then came Sunisa Lee, the first Hmong American — an ethnic group from Laos that aided the US during the Vietnam War — to compete for Team USA, and the first Asian of any nationality to win a gold medal in the gymnastics individual all-around.

Finally, Justine Wong-Orantes helped Team USA take its first ever gold in women’s volleyball.

More than a dozen Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) athletes left Tokyo with medals around their necks, helping the American team reach the top of the medal table after two weeks of rigorous competition amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

If AAPI Olympic representation is in the spotlight following Tokyo, that success has come from less than promising circumstances.

Suni Lee, center, waves from a St. Paul fire truck with her mom Yeev Thoj, left, and sister Shyenne Lee as fans cheer for her in a parade on August 8, 2021, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

AAPI divers break ground

AAPI athletes began making headlines in the late 1940s, when diver Victoria “Vicki” Draves became the first Asian American to medal at the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in London. Fellow teammate Sammy Lee medaled days after Draves, making him the first Asian American man to win a gold medal.

However, both Draves and Lee endured racism that often hindered their ability to train.

Draves adopted her mother’s maiden name, Taylor, when competing in order to prevent potential racial discrimination that came along with using her father’s Filipino surname, Manalo, according to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum.
She also grew up in a low-income household where swimming was not a priority.

Lee, a second-generation Korean American, was permitted to train in his community pool only once a week on International Day — the Wednesday before the pool’s weekly cleaning when non-White children were allowed to swim, the museum stated.

Despite those hardships, both athletes excelled in their performances. Draves became the first woman to win two golds in both the 3m springboard and 10m platform in the same Olympics in 1948.

At the same Games, Lee won bronze in the 3m springboard and gold in the 10m platform. He went on to defend his gold medal in the 10m platform event at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Vicki Draves straightens up as she plunges towards the water on her way to winning diving gold at the London Olympic Games in 1948.

‘I saw their pride and I was just taken aback’

Forty-four years after Draves’ victories at the 1948 Summer Games, Kristi Yamaguchi made history as the first Asian American to win a gold medal in figure skating as well as becoming the second Asian American woman to win gold in any Olympic sport.

“At the time, I just didn’t think much of it because I felt like any other California girl, and it was just like, ‘Okay, I’m representing my country and a proud American,'” Yamaguchi told CNN Sport.

“But I think afterwards, I felt just such an incredible amount of support from the Asian American community. And I saw their pride and I was just taken aback.”

According to Yamaguchi, she was one of two Asian Americans representing Team USA at the 1992 Albertville Winter Games, alongside Natasha Kuchiki, who competed in pair skating.

Yamaguchi credited 1985 U.S. national figure skating champion Tiffany Chin — a Chinese American figure skater who is a two-time world bronze medalist and the first Asian American to win a singles national title — as an inspiration.

“[Tiffany] was a huge role model of mine because I think I definitely had that connection of her being Asian American and someone that I felt I could emulate and look up to,” Yamaguchi said.

Lee Kiefer celebrates winning the women's foil individual gold medal bout against Inna Deriglazonva of the ROC on July 25, 2021.

Due to her landmark win in 1992, Yamaguchi is often attributed as a pioneer for Asian American athletes — both on and off the ice.

“I saw representation in Tiffany Chin, and that inspired me. And, hopefully, the more we see ourselves out there, the more people will believe in themselves,” Yamaguchi explained.

Following Yamaguchi’s Olympic gold medal performance, Asian Americans began finding success across a plethora of sports, including Atlanta 1996’s “Magnificent Seven” gold-medal winning gymnast Amy Chow, two-time Olympic figure skating medalist Michelle Kwan and gold-medal winning snowboarding superstar Chloe Kim.

Tokyo dreams — fulfilled

The Olympic stage has steadily changed for Team USA since the days of Yamaguchi for both the Winter and Summer Games.

At the London Olympics in 2012, 18 AAPI athletes represented Team USA, with several more as backups. The Tokyo Games occurred nearly a decade after the London Olympics, yet the American team saw a nearly a three-fold increase in AAPI athletes since that time.
Erica Sullivan won the women's 1,500m freestyle silver at Tokyo 2020.

Tokyo 2020 saw more than 50 athletes identifying as Asian American, according to Gold House — a premier nonprofit collective of AAPI founders, creative voices and leaders.

Asians make up about 7% of the nation’s population, making them the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the US, according to data from Pew Research Center.

Yet, the AAPI representation among Team USA in Tokyo was roughly 8.8%, based on CNN calculations.

Despite being the only Asian American in the US women’s Olympic volleyball team in Tokyo, Wong-Orantes often sees many AAPIs training alongside her in California.

“We train out here in Anaheim, California, and so I feel like here, just within our little volleyball community, I see so many Asian Americans,” she told CNN.

Of the Asian Americans competing for the US, many have openly identified as multiracial.

“Generational changes happen and we’re seeing even more mixed raced athletes,” Yamaguchi said.

For multiracial athletes like Litherland, who is of Japanese and New Zealand descent, envisioning his goals wasn’t difficult when seeing an increasing number of successful individuals with a similar background to his.

“I really idolized [five-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Nathan Adrian],” Litherland told CNN. “When you look at someone that’s got kind of a similar face, you kinda see the resemblance, or you kind of relate to them.”

Although Litherland was born in Japan and holds triple citizenship in Japan, New Zealand and the US, he wholeheartedly chose to swim on behalf of the American team, despite also being eligible to try out for the Japanese and Kiwi national teams.

“I’m an American, and growing up, even though my roots are in New Zealand and [Japan], it felt right,” Litherland explained to CNN. “There’s no other country I would represent.”

Justine Wong-Orantes (in red) celebrates with teammates during the women's volleyball semifinal between the United States and Serbia on August 6, 2021.

Wong-Orantes, another multiracial athlete of Mexican and Chinese descent, also noticed the diversity among other Team USA hopefuls training at the courts.

“If you look within the whole gym and in the program, we have so many athletes that come from very different backgrounds … It’s our jobs as the current athletes right now to inspire that and push for that,” Wong-Orantes stated.

Historically, there has been low participation among Asian Americans in the Olympics and in major sports leagues.

A combination of stereotypes — such as Asians being biologically unsuitable for sports and cultural norms — often played a role in this case of under involvement.

However, the current state of representation is slowly changing as the new wave of Asian American athletes challenge the status quo.

And that’s in no small part to athletes like Wong-Orantes.

Wong-Orantes might be the shortest on her team at five-foot-six, but she is widely considered to be one of the world’s best defensive players — no small achievement given the average height for women volleyball players is around 5’10”, according to NCSA Sports.

“In my sport, that can be a disadvantage,” says Wong-Orantes matter-of-factly about her height.

“I would just say it’s not too late, and you can still achieve your dreams. And whatever you want to aspire to be, go after it.”