Black Figure Skaters See Performance as Their Best Way to Express Themselves | Sports



Starr Andrews remembers the looks she received in the locker room during her first figure skating competitions. She remembers the requests to touch her coiled, textured hair.

“The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘It’s because I’m black,'” Andrews, 19, said in a recent interview. “And I wouldn’t want that to be the first thing that came to mind, but I couldn’t help but think about it.”

Andrews, the only black member of the US national figure skating team, still sometimes encounters that unwelcome thought on and off the ice: The mother is taking lessons.

Eventually, however, the ice cream became a place where Andrews would celebrate that difference.

She did this with the most emphasis last summer, at a time when many top athletes were seeing a “shut up and play” reaction after leaving a field or field to support the Black Lives movement. Matter. For Andrews, however, competition was the best way to express himself.

For a virtual event in July, she skated to Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” a country song about racial inequality that was released after George Floyd was murdered by police. Andrews finished his program with a smile and his right fist raised in the Black Power salute.

Videos of her performance have received over 200,000 views online. Fans include Guyton and Michelle Obama, who shared one of the videos and wrote, “To all the black kids who strive for excellence against those who doubt you: carry on. “

Andrews fully intends to do so. So are other black skaters who have stretched creatively, gaining support and recognition in a sport where they have often felt left out.

Take, for example, Elladj Baldé, a 30-year-old Canadian skater who toured the world with ice shows until the pandemic forced him to return home. He quickly co-founded a foundation to help diversify the sport and became a social media superstar after posting videos of himself happily skating outdoors, wearing casual clothes, and doing routines that barely resembled Olympic programs. officials.

Then there’s Joel Savary, a 34-year-old trainer in Washington, DC, who has his own diversity foundation and a self-published book, “Why Black and Brown Kids Don’t Ice Skate.”

One of Savary’s students is Kaitlyn Saunders, who briefly traded in her ice skates for a pair of roller skates last summer and performed at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on a recording of “Rise Up.” by Andra Day, a 2015 song about perseverance. Kaitlyn, now 10, rehearsed the performance as part of the Inauguration Day celebration, this time accompanied live by Day.

These efforts have been widely praised, but whether sport becomes more inclusive depends on its ability to bring about concrete change. To financing. Training and selection of judges. (Baldé, Savary and Andrews say they can’t remember ever seeing another black person evaluate their performance.) And finally, at the heart of what it means to be a figure skater.

A breakthrough then a stopIn 1986, Debi Thomas of the United States became the first black female skater to win a world singles championship. It came seven years after Tai Babilonia, the daughter of a black woman and a man with Hopi and Filipino roots, won a world title as a couple with Randy Gardner.

At the 1988 Calgary Olympics, Thomas finished third to win the first Olympic medal for a black athlete at the Winter Games.

Since then, however, only one other skater of African descent has won an Olympic medal – Germany’s Robin Szolkowy, who won the pairs bronze medal in 2010 and 2014.

Dominated for generations by white European and North American skaters, the sport’s elite levels have diversified mainly thanks to the arrival of stars from East Asia and East America. At the 2018 Olympics, half of the athletes in the U.S. figure skating delegation were of Asian descent. At the world championships in Stockholm this week, the top contenders for the men’s title will be Nathan Chen of the United States, whose parents emigrated from China, and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who won gold at the last two Olympics.

Welcoming a new demographic has not always been warm.

Tiffany Chin, who in 1985 became the first non-white skater to win an American senior singles title, recalled in an interview with the Huffington Post 2018 that at the start of her career, “a little girl said to me, ‘You are really good, but you know you will never be a champion. Figure skating champions have blonde hair and blue eyes, and neither do you.

After Californian-born Michelle Kwan, a gold medal favorite at the 1998 Olympics, was bowled over by her American teammate Tara Lipinski, an MSNBC digital headline said: “American Beats Out Kwan.”

Until recently, sports leaders in the United States did not formally monitor the racial makeup of contestants, judges, and other officials. But after the Black Lives Matter movement took shape last year, American figure skating began to collect such data and created a task force and then a task force to address diversity, equity and inclusion.

US Figure Skating named Savary, the Washington trainer and author, to both committees, based on his book and his work with Diversify Ice, the nonprofit he founded in 2017.

The skating association, said Savary, seemed particularly impressed with the part of his book in which he talked about going into neighborhoods and knocking on doors to see if families would welcome an introduction to the sport. Diversify Ice’s leadership includes Pooja Kalyan, the only Indian-born skater on the US team, and Eliot Halverson, a national junior and novice title winner who identifies as Latinx and non-binary trans.

“While I was in the field working on these issues every day with Diversify Ice, others didn’t see the value in trying to make ice skating fairer for skaters of color,” said Savary. . “It was a full 180.”

A task force recommendation involved the creation of a fund to support promising competitors in memory of Mabel Fairbanks, a black and Indigenous skater who became a leading coach after discrimination led to her being banned. competing in the 1930s. His charges included Babilonia and Gardner in their early years together and Atoy Wilson, whose 1966 Novice Division victory made him the United States’ first black skating champion.

The fund’s first prize, $ 25,000, went to Andrews in January.

The costs of figure skating – Savary estimated that some people spend over $ 50,000 a year trying to reach the elite level – and limited access to the rinks deters many people of all races from practicing it. as a competitive sport. Savary has made affordability part of Diversify Ice’s mission, in the hopes that increased participation will create a comfort zone for skaters of color, who often feel isolated.

But he and Baldé both say the rigid culture of the sport has deterred black participation as much as the price has been paid. The narrow range of favorite music, body types, costumes and dance moves create a feeling of claustrophobia.

The subjective elements of the scoring system, which includes points based on the personal interpretation of the music and the emotional translation of the choreography, create a sticky situation for black figure skaters. Many say they feel pressured to conform to the traditional mold of stars in a sport that neither reflects nor represents their identity and culture.

Baldé, who was the Canadian Junior National Champion in 2008, performed primarily to classical music which is common in the sport. But in his last five years of competition, he’s started incorporating more funk and hip-hop songs from black and brown artists – like James Brown, Bruno Mars, and T-Pain – into his programming.

Welcoming the next generationLike Kaitlyn, Starr Andrews gained a huge following at the age of 9 when she did a show, choreographed by her mother, on Willow Smith’s female anthem, “Whip My Hair”. A YouTube video of the routine has over 56 million views, and it remained Andrews most celebrated moment on the ice until last summer.

The “Black Like Me” program, however, became Andrews favorite.

It didn’t matter to her that when she used it in competition, she finished 13th out of 17 skaters.

“The scores are underwhelming, but that was not the point of the program,” said Andrews. “The purpose of the program was to show that it is difficult to be in sport being one of the very few black people.”


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