Triumphant Asian American athletes inspire tomorrow’s superstars

Three children playing basketball in black and white photograph (© Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Tie Yang Huang, 13, Won Go, 16, and Gary Tam, 12, play basketball at a playground in Boston on a summer day in 1987. More and more Asian American superstars, including basketball player Jeremy Lin, have inspired Asian American children to enjoy sports and even pursue serious athletic careers. (© Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Whether they are flying down a mountain, passing a ball or landing a complicated spin, Asian Americans are excelling in sports.

“Asian Americans participate in sports broadly, everything from mainstream sports — basketball, football and baseball — to a variety of others, both team and individual,” says Stan Thangaraj, associate professor of anthropology, gender and international studies at the City College of New York. These athletes are finding new entry points into sports, he says, sometimes through their admiration of superstar mentors who share a similar heritage.

Chloe Kim in snowboarding gear, raising her hands (© Lee Jin-man/AP Images)
U.S. snowboarder Chloe Kim during the women’s halfpipe finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics (© Lee Jin-man/AP Images)

Among those role models are recent Asian American Olympians. At the 2022 Winter Games, U.S. snowboarder Chloe Kim (whose parents were born in South Korea) won her second gold medal in the halfpipe at just 21 years old, and figure skater Nathan Chen (whose parents immigrated from China) picked up gold.

Nathan Chen with arms outstretched, holding U.S. flag behind him (© Jae C. Hong/AP Images)
U.S. gold medalist Nathan Chen celebrates after his free skate program at the men’s figure skating event in the 2022 Winter Games. (© Jae C. Hong/AP Images)

At the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics, when American gymnast Simone Biles couldn’t compete, Sunisa Lee (whose mother and stepfather are of Hmong descent and immigrated to the U.S. from Laos) stepped into a starring role and won the all-around gymnastics title. And volleyball player Justine Wong-Orantes (who has Chinese heritage on her mother’s side) helped her team win a gold medal.

Justine Wong-Orantes and Haleigh Washington jumping and hugging (© Manu Fernandez/AP Images)
U.S. volleyball player Justine Wong-Orantes (left) jumps into the arms of teammate Haleigh Washington after their team victory over Serbia in a semifinal match at the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics, held in August 2021. (© Manu Fernandez/AP Images)

“People assume we just broke through,” says Constancio Arnaldo, assistant professor of interdisciplinary, gender and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a second-generation Filipino American. But Asian American participation in sports goes back to colonial times, he says. In the Philippines, for instance, Americans built YMCAs and promoted sports. It is no coincidence that the Philippines’ basketball league is the second-oldest professional hoops league in the world, after the NBA, he points out.

Line of five girls posing with soccer ball on grass field (© Istvan Lettang/Future Publishing/Getty Images)
Zoe Bosanic, 12, center, was born in China with no arms and adopted by an American couple. She competes in karate, dance and soccer. There are many Asian American athletes at the top of their sports who can inspire Bosanic and her friends. (© Istvan Lettang/Future Publishing/Getty Images)

Arnaldo, who loved playing team sports as a child, says Asian American competitors get pleasure and a sense of belonging — whether to a team, a community or — in the case of the Olympics — a country. “Sports has been a way to become part of the American national fabric,” he says.

With more Asian Americans competing at the highest levels, there are more adults who can guide the next generation of sports stars, more leagues to nurture them and even more networking opportunities for those in professional sports careers, Thangaraj says. Kim, skaters Michelle Kwan and Apolo Anton Ohno, and basketball player Jeremy Lin have reached young people around the world through State Department programs promoting sports participation.

Asian Americans have had to deal with many stereotypes such as that they are brainy, “model minorities” who aren’t physically gifted, or that female Asian Americans are delicate and extremely feminine and males not very masculine, Arnaldo points out.

Sunisa Lee standing in front of Olympic rings kissing gold medal (© Gregory Bull/AP Images)
U.S. gymnast Sunisa Lee won the gold medal in the artistic gymnastics women’s all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, held in 2021. (© Gregory Bull/AP Images)

But early trailblazers and recent Olympians alike have worked to break such stereotypes and help others see Asian Americans as more complex and nuanced individuals, Arnaldo says. Basketball player Jeremy Lin, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and who led the NBA’s New York Knicks on an unexpected winning streak in 2012, told the New York Times that his athleticism itself is his reaction to the stereotype that Asian Americans are quiet or passive: “For me, to play basketball at the highest level is going to do more than words can say.”

Today’s sports stars follow many earlier Asian American groundbreakers:

  • Diver Victoria Manalo Draves, whose father was Filipino, became the first Asian American Olympic champion, winning gold medals in springboard and platform diving in 1948. Fellow diver Sammy Lee, of South Korean heritage, also won a gold in platform diving at the same Olympics.
  • Kristi Yamaguchi, whose grandparents on both sides were Japanese, dominated the sport of figure skating as part of a line of Asian American stars. She won an Olympic gold in 1992.
  • Figure skater Michelle Kwan, whose parents are Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, is a five-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist, winning a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002.
  • Apolo Anton Ohno, who was raised by his Japanese-born father in Seattle, raked in eight Olympic medals in speed skating from 2002 to 2010.
  • Tiger Woods, whose mother has Thai and Chinese ancestry and whose father is part Chinese, is arguably among the greatest golfers of all time.
  • Hines Ward, whose mother is originally from South Korea, played for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team for 14 seasons.
  • Jeremy Lin kicked off “Linsanity” (a play on his surname and the word “insanity”) in 2012 when he helped turn the New York Knicks’ string of losses into a seven-game winning streak.

Lin recently told NBC that “society has always tried to say Asians can’t do this. Asians you can’t do that. You hear about the ‘bamboo ceiling.”

“What that moment meant was just being able to compete in the same court, in the same arena. And then to defeat and to overcome and to win. I think that’s what I’m really proud of,” he said.

Jeremy Lin holding basketball, jumping between two defenders (© Morry Gash/AP Images)
New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin, shown here shooting between two Milwaukee Bucks players, took the NBA by storm in the spring of 2012. (© Morry Gash/AP Images)

Lin was a seminal figure in both inspiring athletes and in changing how Asian Americans are viewed, says Thangaraj, author of a book on Asian American basketball players. (Thangaraj grew up toggling between India, where he played cricket, and the U.S., where he played basketball and baseball.)

“It was something we were all jumping to hang onto,” he says of Linsanity. “Cool had not been associated with Asian Americans. It was beautiful.”