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A champion figure skater’s new pursuit: fighting racism

Michelle K. Hanabusa

Michelle K. Hanabusa spent 14 years as a competitive figure skater through high school, training with Olympian Mirai Nagasu and twice meeting her childhood sports hero, Michelle Kwan.

“That was such a different chapter of my life,” Hanabusa, a 29-year-old from Southern California, says now.

She co-founded Hate Is A Virus last spring. What started as a grass-roots social media movement to combat xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans, fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, became a nonprofit that has raised more than $400,000. The goal is $1 million.

The money is earmarked for organizations fighting for racial justice and programs that directly support the AAPI community.

Hanabusa, who previously started her own commerce brand, cited a statistic -- 94% of women executives have a background in sport, according to an Ernst & Young and espnW study.

“Perseverance, self-determination and consistency that I learned through my competitive figure skating career has 100% translated to my work ethic today,” said Hanabusa, whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Japan and father is a third-generation Japanese American.

Growing up in Southern California, Hanabusa woke at 4 a.m., six days a week, so her parents could drive her to skating practice from age 6.

Her Olympic dreams faded at 16 due to right hip pain. After seeing specialists, she tried to stand one morning and could not put weight on that leg. Surgery led to a month in bed, strapped to a machine that rotated her leg every 30 minutes.

“It was a pretty brutal experience, but that ultimately led to the conversation of where I want to take my skating career,” she said.

Hanabusa returned to the rink and focused exclusively on showcase skating, which is judged on artistry and entertainment. Unlike Olympic-style skating, jumps are not required. She won her fourth national title in the discipline in 2009, performing to Liza Minnelli‘s “Mein Herr” from the musical Cabaret.

Michelle K. Hanabusa

Michelle K. Hanabusa after a figure skating competition in 1999.

Hanabusa went to college and pursued arts, communications and business. She also joined the USC Figure Skating Club, where Tiffany Chin, who in 1985 became the first Asian American to win a national title in singles, served as a coach.

It evolved into the USC Ice Girls, which performed in shows during hockey game intermissions.

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Hanabusa worked in corporate digital design after graduating in 2013. She later founded UPRISERS, a community-driven clothing brand described as combining “the boldness of MTV in its heyday with the political savviness of an alternative newspaper.” It was officially incorporated as WEAREUPRISERS in 2019.

On March 12, 2020, Hanabusa posted an Instagram note, writing that UPRISERS would do its part to combat a surge in racism amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“As fear and misinformation about COVID-19 has been spreading, that fear has led to hate and racial profiling towards not only Chinese people but Asian Americans as a whole,” she wrote. “This is being felt directly by many small businesses and restaurants in Asian-dominated communities.”

She signed off with the hashtag #HATEISAVIRUS, coined by UPRISERS teammate Kari Okubo.

Hanabusa turned the words into action, starting with a food crawl to support Asian-owned small business restaurants. When Los Angeles went into lockdown, her group found other ways to lend support.

Hanabusa connected with Tammy Cho, founder and CEO of BetterBrave, a nonprofit dedicated to tackling sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. And Bryan Pham, CEO of the Asian Hustle Network, which brings together the Asian professional community and has more than 70,000 members on Facebook.

They turned Hate Is A Virus into a digital platform to raise awareness within and outside the Asian American community.

“Not only have we experienced racism growing up and in recent times, but we were seeing story after story about the hate crimes against our Asian American community fueled by the fears and misinformation around Coronavirus,” Cho wrote. “We were seeing 6, 7, 8-year-olds getting bullied by their peers and the elderly getting brutally attacked in broad daylight.”

They fundraised for those affected by the pandemic, beginning with an event that brought in $15,000 to spread among area small businesses and restaurants.

That included Sushi Kiyosuzu, the Arcadia restaurant owned by Nagasu’s parents. During lockdown last spring, they had to let go all but one employee, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Michelle K. Hanabusa, Michelle Kwan

Hanabusa with Michelle Kwan.

“There’s a great community of people, especially in Los Angeles, the Japanese American community is so well connected,” Nagasu said. “I respect so much that Michelle is able to stand up for the things that she believes in, and standing up for a community where we don’t always voice our opinions.”

When Hanabusa and Nagasu were pre-teens, their parents sat on the bleachers together and chatted while their daughters trained on the ice.

The skaters reconnected after Nagasu’s last competition, the 2018 World Championships. Nagasu underwent the same hip labrum surgery that Hanabusa had a decade earlier and now lives in Boston.

Sushi Kiyosuzu, also aided by the restaurant relief initiative Power of 10, remains open for takeout. Just last week, Kwan messaged Nagasu to say she ordered sushi from the restaurant after an acupuncture session.

“You don’t understand how cool that is,” gushed Nagasu, who, until she was 14, slept in the storage closet of the restaurant when her parents worked at night. “That is a reflection of how strong our community is. The message to support small businesses has been really strong. To see that my own role model, Michelle Kwan, is doing that means a lot to me.”

In February, Hate Is A Virus launched a GoFundMe seeking $1 million this year to support organizations and programs related to mental health, elderly care, AAPI representation, solidarity building and more. They’re nearly halfway to the goal.

“I didn’t know about [Hanabusa’s] background in figure skating until half a year ago,” Cho said. “In many ways it almost clicked into place. It explained so much in terms of her resilience when it comes to navigating these issues. It does take a huge mental and emotional toll to be constantly exposed to this information and also try and unpack and unprocess these situations and then also try to be there for the community.”

There are also contrasts between the solo sport of skating and community activism.

“A lot of times I felt kind of alone on this [figure skating] journey,” said Hanabusa, who counted more than 15 people playing meaningful roles with Hate Is A Virus over the last year. “Culturally, my family dynamic was not necessarily about speaking up for yourself. It was kind of assumed that by continuing to put your head down, do good work and not cause any commotion that things will just work out. So, when I started my journey of entrepreneurship in 2016, I was intentional about doing the complete opposite. UPRISERS came to life as a means to not be silent anymore and stand up, unapologetically, for what we believed in. That was the same feeling I had when Hate Is A Virus began. I just can’t be silent right now. This is really hitting home, and I have to do something about this.”

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