Being a professional athlete is a coveted dream for many, but one with numerous barriers to entry that, for decades, have hindered people based on their economic status, sex, and race. And while the sports industry is becoming more inclusive and opening its gates to greater representation, there are still profound gaps. One of these is the low numbers of
Asian American and Pacific Islander athletes, who are underrepresented at both the professional and college levels.
This underrepresentation is twofold for women, whose sporting achievements aren’t acknowledged with the same level of enthusiasm as men. In fact, according to the NCAA database, only
2.1% of student athletes in 2018 were Asian — but this data doesn't include Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiian, or mixed-race students, nor does it show how many identified as Asian American or international students.
On top of that, there are so many
stereotypes and biases about Asian American athletes. There’s the assumption that Asian American students prioritize academics over sports, and that their communities don’t care about or recognize athletic achievements. There’s the baseless belief that they are "less athletic" than other groups. And for those athletes who do garner significant attention, they’re subject to microaggressions or outright racism — like when Mirai Nagasu was incorrectly called an "immigrant" in a tweet praising her performance. Even the term “Asian American” simplifies the myriad of different identities within that community, where there are over 19 different ethnicities represented in 94% of the Asian American population. All this and more culminates in a perception that there is no place in sports for Asian Americans.
But there is an amazing cohort of athletes competing at the highest level in their respective fields, and this is exemplified by these eight
Asian American women in sports who are breaking all the stereotypes. These women are proudly representing their communities, excelling in their careers, paving the way for future generations, and unabashedly illustrating the complexities and nuances of what it means to be Asian American in sports. Lia Neal Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images Lia Neal is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the breaststroke.
“When I was younger, still within my first few years of swimming competitively, I said that I wanted to become the first African American and Chinese swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. As far as I was concerned, I was the only mixed African American and Chinese swimmer, at least that I knew of, so I felt that if anyone were to do that, that might as well be me. I love being mixed and being able to draw from both sides of my family, thus molding me into the person I am today. I grew up with Chinese culture and traditions, so it was especially heartwarming to also see that the Chinese community was supporting me and posting about me in the Chinese newspapers, like
Sing Tao and World Journal, when I became an Olympian.” Mirai Nagasu Richard Heathcote/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images Mirai Nagasu made history as the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics.
"First of all, my current motto to live by is 'I'm breaking up with stereotypes!' I'm terrible at math and I'm a pretty good driver. I haven't gotten into an accident for four years, knock on wood! Every racial minority feels some sort of oppression, so it's important to have a role model to show people that it's possible to break down those barriers. I had that in the form of Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. So for me to successfully go for the triple axel when no one else was even trying it in competition broke down the barrier — not just for Asian American women, but for women as a whole. I came home from the Olympics and all the girls at the rink were starting to practice their triple axels, which in turn, empowered me to keep raising the bar for myself."
Nikita Uberoi Courtesy of Nikita Uberoi Khangoora Nikita Uberoi is a professional tennis player and environmentalist.
"Growing up and not seeing many women [playing sports] from my community made me think that there was a physical disadvantage to being South Asian in the sporting world. Today, I see my Indian background as an advantage to my tennis career. I have been able to combine the mental prowess that my cultural values have given me with my physical skills. Being a South Asian female in sports is my strength."
Maia Shibutani Matthew Stockman/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images Maia Shibutani is an American Olympic ice dancer. She is a two-time U.S. national champion, and the 2018 Olympic bronze medalist.
"Instead of limiting myself to the perceptions and expectations of others, I choose to focus on being the best version of myself. I appreciate the qualities that make me 'different' because those differences have become my strengths. Barriers are broken when individuals embrace and have confidence in what makes them unique and special."
Chloe Kim Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images Chloe Kim became the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding medal when she won gold in the women's snowboard halfpipe in 2018.
"I am so proud to get to represent the Asian American community every time I go out and compete. We're badass, and I hope that the world sees that. It's an honor I wear proudly."
Neha Uberoi Khangoora Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images Neha Uberoi Khangoora is a former tennis player, and co-founder of South Asians in Sports.
"Being a professional athlete meant looking, thinking and acting very differently from those in my community. It meant having to constantly disprove the stereotype that Indians can't be world class athletes. Being a South Asian American professional athlete was uniquely empowering, as I had to be my own role model and carve my own path. And it also meant having the privilege to be celebrated by all Americans."
Ashima Shiraishi TIM KEMPLE/THE NORTH FACE Ashima Shiraishi is a rock climber and North Face global athlete.
“Climbing is a passion of mine that has sparked my life with many moments of bliss and hardships and all of which I’ve experienced with the support of the community. My biggest goal is to test the limits of what is possible as a human during my time on Earth, and thankfully I’ve found climbing as an outlet to pursue that goal. Breaking boundaries of what may be deemed impossible is what I live for.”
Shikha Uberoi Bajpai Courtesy of Nikita Uberoi Khangoora Shikha Uberoi Bajpai is a former tennis player, and co-founder of Indi.com.
"Being a professional athlete has given me a unique perspective on life, encouraged a positive belief of the world, and instilled foundational values of success. However, being a South Asian female athlete, I learned the power of a woman's ability to represent an entire people. I realized that my success on the tennis court can be a metaphor for many who find a piece of themselves win when someone who looks [like] or is like them does. I understood how even a single example of representation can fuel the belief for one person or even a billion to chase down their own dreams. Being a professional athlete is great, but being an Indian American female athlete is representing the greatness in others before they know it for themselves."
Additional reporting by Melanie Mignucci