Through 1990, Yamaguchi competed in both singles and pairs (with Rudy Galindo). That year she qualified for the world championships in both events, placing fourth and fifth respectively. Then she dropped out of pairs to concentrate on singles and was rewarded with her first world championship title in 1991.
At the 1992 Albertville Olympics, Yamaguchi led after the original programme, with her Olympic roommate, Nancy Kerrigan, in second place. But Yamaguchi had a history of placing first in the original programme and then falling behind after the long programme. This time she was the first of the leaders to skate. Backstage she was approached, for the first time in her life, by none other than her childhood idol, Dorothy Hamill, who wished her luck and told her to go out and "have fun." Yamaguchi's relatively conservative programme was marred by a touchdown at the end of a shaky triple loop. However, all of the other contenders fell and Yamaguchi won a clear victory.