A selection of Asian North American athletes inspiring our generation
It isn’t only during the Olympics where we can celebrate Asian North American athletes and their achievements.
As highlighted in a previous Cold Tea Collective article about the Tokyo Summer Games, underrepresentation in professional sports in North America “stems from the model minority myth and the stereotypical belief that people of Asian descent are shorter, weaker, and slower than people of other racial groups.”
That remains the case whether it be on the courts, the field, the ice, or the slopes. It’s why we want to focus on Asian North American athletes who are, or set to be, in the spotlight of the North American sports viewing audience. While we can’t fit everyone here, it includes athletes from multiple sports, different ranges of success, and levels of familiarity.
Most importantly, they represent potential role models for young Asian boys and girls aspiring to be athletes.
Not included is an obvious choice, Jeremy Lin, who is currently competing for the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association. His impact and representation in sports has already been widely documented.
That said, here are some of the Asian North American athletes we’re excited about over these next few months.
Younghoe Koo; football
The lack of Asian players in the National Football League is glaring, so to have Younghoe Koo shine as one of the top kickers in the league is refreshing.
Born in Seoul, Korea, Koo played soccer growing up before moving to the U.S. as a sixth grader. After discovering American football a year later, his journey took him to the NFL. He was undrafted before making his debut with the Los Angeles Chargers to become just the fourth Korean-born player ever in the league. He joined the Atlanta Falcons in 2019 and was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2020 when he made 37 of 39 kicks, including all eight from 50 yards or more.
The 27 year old’s quiet consistency and success at the NFL level has him trailblazing a path for other young Asian football players.
“As an Asian American, I have heard the jokes and name calling. I often dealt with it by ignoring what was said and minding my own business. I don’t have all the answers, but I realize now more than ever that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and that ignoring it won’t help us do that.”
Leylah Fernandez; tennis
A name unfamiliar to the sporting world prior to this year, Leylah Fernandez shot to the forefront during the US Open. As one of the younger players at the tournament, the Canadian tennis teenager defeated defending champion and Japanese American Naomi Osaka, as well as former No. 1 Angelique Kerber, on the path to her first major final. There, Fernandez, who is half Filipino and half Ecuadorian, lost to British teenager Emma Raducanu, who is half Chinese, in a showdown that featured two players of Asian descent.
The Montreal native became a fan favourite during her surprising run on a global stage and is currently the 26th-ranked women’s singles player in the world. Her composure and resilience were also on display during her matches, a result of the sacrifices that her family made, which included her mother moving to California for work to support their family.
During a post-game interview, Fernandez talked about her Filipino culture, and the cuisine made by her grandfather.
“He cooks amazing, so when I get back to Canada and visit him, he’s gonna make really nice dish for the whole family, especially Filipino dishes because I do miss it. I just can’t wait to learn more about the culture in the future.”
Megan Khang; golf
As the first golfer of Hmong and Laotian descent to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, Megan Khang continues to rise in the sport.
A story of resilience that resonates with some Asian Americans, her parents fled Laos (separately at a young age) during the Vietnam War, before entering the U.S. They met in Boston. Megan started playing golf at five years old and by age 10, her dad quit his job to be her full-time coach.
Khang has been close to winning on tour, finishing 4th at the US Women’s Open in 2021. She has also recognized and spoken on how her family’s sacrifices have gotten her to where she is.
“If I can do what I love to help (my parents) not have to worry about anything ever again, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make that happen. My Asian American dream is to give my parents everything they didn’t have.”
Jalen Green; basketball
Jalen Green made history this year when he became the highest-drafted Asian American in the NBA’s history. Selected 2nd overall by the Houston Rockets, the 19-year-old shooting guard is only the third athlete of Filipino descent to play in the league, alongside Jordan Clarkson and Raymond Townsend. And Green is already making noise in his first professional career.
As a junior, Green has won three gold medals with Team USA, including at the FIBA World Cup and the FIBA Americas Championship. He was also named the 2020 Sports Illustrated All-America Player of the Year.
The 6-foot-6 rookie, whose mother is from the Philippines, first visited the country in 2018, as a member of the Fil-Am Sports USA team for a basketball tournament. A year later he returned for the same tournament, participating in the Slam Dunk contest and All-Star Game. In October 2021, Green and Clarkson shared the court for the first time in a historic Filipino Heritage Night in the NBA.
“To come out here and play the game I love, just having the Filipino country on my back, I’m always grateful.”
Rajeev Ram; tennis
Coming off his first ever US Open men’s double victory in 2021, Rajeev Ram continues to climb in doubles ranking in the tennis world, now at the No. 4 spot. At 37 years old, the Colorado native is the highest-ranked male player of Indian descent.
While both his parents come from academics, Ram grew up in the U.S. where he chose the athletic route, beginning his professional tennis career in 2004. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he won the silver medal in mixed doubles with Venus Williams, and currently has four major titles in doubles (two in mixed and two in men’s) to his name.
Nicknamed “Rampras” — which rhymes with his childhood tennis hero Pete Sampras — Ram is able to visit India and family members regularly because of tennis competitions around the world.
“The environment I grew up in and the experiences I have had are a lot different from what [players from India] have. Had I not played tennis, I wouldn’t have had this exposure.”
Natalie Chou; basketball
Natalie Chou didn’t have the privilege of having a large selection of Asian-American basketball role models. But she hopes to be part of that growing list for future generations.
Chou was one of about 30 Asian women playing Division I basketball last year, a total that accounted for less than 1% of players in the sport. The 6-foot-1 guard, who helped the U.S. win a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA U-17 World Championship, is making noise in the sport at the collegiate level and beyond.
The Texas native comes from basketball genes, with her mom having played for the Chinese National Team. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, she used her stage to call out xenophobia and racism.
Nick Suzuki; hockey
In a sport that majorly lacks diversity, Nick Suzuki is among a very short list of players of Japanese descent to have played in the National Hockey League. But at 22 years old, the Canadian forward is already making his mark as a rising star in the league.
In 2021, he was front-and-centre on the Montreal Canadiens during their run to the Stanley Cup Final, leading the team in points during the playoffs.
While Suzuki is fifth-generation, one-quarter Japanese he recognizes the impact he has on young Japanese and Asian hockey players, having participated in a meet-and-greet in 2020 with a Pee-Wee Hockey team from Japan.
“I just want to set a good example for the younger generation. I know there’s a ton of people in Japan with the same last name and the kids recognize it, so it means a lot to be a role model for them.”
Chloe Kim; snowboard
Already a household name in the U.S., Chloe Kim is set to defend her title at the Winter Olympics, where she shot to international stardom only four years ago. It’ll be especially exciting to see what the California native does after spending 22 months away from the sport.
Kim’s father gave up his job to help her pursue her snowboarding dreams. The combined efforts of Kim and her father paid off when at the age of 17, when Kim became an Olympic gold medalist in halfpipe at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. Now at 21 years old, Kim is a six-time X Games gold medalist, a new face of women’s snowboarding worldwide, and a medal favourite come February 2022.
Earlier this year, Kim wrote about her experiences on facing anti-Asian hate on a regular basis, noting that she felt her accomplishments were belittled because of her ethnicity.
“I was nervous to share my experiences with racism, but we need to hear more of these conversations. I’ve received so many messages from people saying they are inspired by me sharing what I’ve been through and that makes me feel hopeful, and like I can still do so much more.”
Eileen Gu; freestyle ski
When nations arrive in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, it’s already a foregone conclusion that Eileen (Ailing) Gu will be making headlines. As one of the host nation’s best medal hopes, the 18-year-old is heavily promoted in the country she has chosen to represent.
In January 2021, the freestyle skier became the first rookie to win three medals at the X Games. She won the exact same medals a month later at the World Championships.
Born in San Francisco, her decision to compete for China, where her mother was born, were met with both online threats and support. Still, she hopes to use sport and her rising influence to inspire young women in China.
“Since I was little, I’ve always said when I’m in the U.S., I’m American, but when I’m in China, I’m Chinese. I preserve it by having friends and being able to communicate with people because that’s the best way to transmit culture.”
The importance of Asian North American athletes
As more Asian faces appear on screens, in political offices, corporate leadership roles, and creative spaces, the same is happening when it comes to sports. Though it’s happening at a slower pace, these athletes continue to excel in their sport and in doing so, inspire future generations of Asian athletes.
This list, of course, is not complete. There are many more Asian North Americans making noise in the sporting world, continuing to be role models and leaders in their respective sports. And there will continue to be more athletes for us to cheer for.
Featured Image from NHL
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