10 Trailblazing Asian American Athletes

From basketball to martial arts, Asian American athletes have been breaking down the barriers of race in professional American sports. These athletes are not only adept at their sport but have paved the way for more Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in their respective sports.

1. Wataru Misaka

Six decades before “Linsanity” took over sports, Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947. He became the first non-white player and player of Asian descent to play in what would become the NBA.

Born in Utah, the Japanese American did not endure the internment camps of World War II and enjoyed a lustrous college career, winning two national titles for the University of Utah. Despite the initial excitement about his budding career, Misaka only played three games for the Knicks before being waived. He later declined an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and instead went back to school to get an engineering degree. 

2. Vicki Manalo Draves

Draves was a competitive driver, who gained recognition at the 1948 London Summer Olympics when she became the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal. She placed first in the women’s three-meter springboard. Draves was also the first American woman to win two Olympic gold medals in both platform and springboard diving.

Growing up Filipino, Draves faced immense racial discrimination that caused her to change her name. After gaining success as a diver, she advocated for Filipino Education Center for Filipino immigrants in the 1960s. In 1969, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  

3. Chloe Kim

Kim made her first Olympic debut at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, winning gold in the women’s half-pipe finals. At just 17 years old, she became the youngest woman to win gold at the Olympics in the half-pipe. The Korean American is a six-time X-Games gold medalist, the first woman to win two gold medals at the Winter Youth Olympic Games, and the current World and Olympic champion in the half-pipe. While Kim is known for being a media darling, the snowboarder wrote a moving op-ed about her experiences with anti-Asian racism.

4. Tiffany Chin

Chin became the first Asian American U.S figure skating champion when she won in 1985. The Oakland-born ice skater also boasts two bronze medals from the 1985 and 1986 World Skating Championships and placed fourth at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. A clear prodigy, Chin swept the competition by placing first in three categories at the U.S championships. She has been constantly cited as a role model for Asian Americans in figure skating, especially by Kristi Yamaguchi.

5. Jeremy Lin

Lin turned heads as the first American of Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA. When Lin joined the New York Knicks in 2011, his high-scoring ability, which lead the Knicks to the playoffs, generated the cultural phenomenon, “Linsanity.” In 2019, he became the first Asian American to win an NBA championship, which he did with the Toronto Raptors.  

6. Michelle Kwan

Kwan is widely regarded as the greatest figure skater of all time. The decorated ice skater is a two-time Olympic medalist, a five-time World Champion and a nine-time U.S. champion. Kwan is known for her consistency and artistry on the ice and has maintained her cultural relevance throughout the years. 

7. Sammy Lee

Lee was the first Asian American man to win Olympic gold at the 1948 Summer London Games, alongside fellow Asian American diver Draves. He was also the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic diving. Despite facing intense racism and discrimination as a Korean American, the diver found much success in diving and would later go on to become an ear, nose and throat doctor. 

8. Troy Polamalu

Throughout his 12-year career in the NFL, Polamalu was the Pittsburgh Steeler’s best defensive back. With his recorded 770 tackles and 32 interceptions, Polamalu helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls. Polamalu is of American Samoan descent and was the 2010 defensive player of the year. 

9. Kristi Yamaguchi

Born with clubfeet, Yamaguchi began skating as a form of physical therapy. The two-time World Champion was the first Asian American woman to win gold in figure skating at the 1992 Winter Olympics. Yamaguchi has been outspoken about racism in her field, as her grandparents were sent to an internment camp during World War II.  

10. Bruce Lee

Lee is one of the most influential martial artists in Hollywood, starring in films like Fists of Fury and Enter the Dragon. Raised in Hong Kong, Lee faced racism and combated negative stereotypes about Asians in Hollywood. Besides ruling the silver screen for several decades, Lee’s career in martial arts has also influenced modern mixed martial arts (MMA). Not only is he one of the biggest pop culture icons of the 20th century, but Lee is also credited with bridging the gap between the East and West and changing the way Asians are represented in films.