Black ice skating legends inspire today’s Olympic hopefuls

“We think representation is so important for these skaters to be successful,” says Savary. Savary didn’t see many black skaters until he started training at the University of Delaware, once a figure skating hub. “Throughout the system, I found there were a lot of black and brown skaters. But you won’t necessarily see these skaters on TV,” he says. In Delaware, Savary finally saw skaters of color skating the way they wanted to skate.

The stories of black skaters like Surya Bonaly, French skating champion, show how individuals can challenge the status quo of sport. The threeThe e-time World Championship silver medalist is best remembered for her free skate in 1998, when she couldn’t complete her routine due to injury, and decided to perform a jump back somersault with a split, landing on a slide. (Backflips had been banned from competitions since 1976, and many saw it as a middle finger for outdated rules and judging.)

Before Bonaly broke through barriers, there was another black skater laying the groundwork for her success: Mabel Fairbanks.

“We all owe a lot to Mabel,” says Atoy Wilson, the first African-American to win a title in a national competition in 1965, who was also coached by Fairbanks. “We [stand] on the shoulders of someone who broke that ice.

In 1966, Atoy Wilson was the first African-American skater to win a national title in figure skating, with the men’s Novice title. (Courtesy of Atoy Wilson)

In 1940s New York, Fairbanks was not allowed to compete because of her skin color. She skated with the Ice Follies and Ice Capades before becoming a coach in Los Angeles in the 1950s. She later coached and mentored pair skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Kristi Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo and Debi Thomas, among others . She was inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1997.

Why don’t more people know about Mabel? Two-time Olympian and five-time U.S. pairs champion Tai Babilonia says she gets asked that question a lot. “If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and it’s my duty to keep [her] the legacy goes,” Babilonia says.

Figure skating is different from other sports. It’s not just about a player’s physical prowess, but how they incorporate dance and artistry into their performance. It’s like storytelling and historically the sport has centered white and heteronormative norms with performances almost always set to classical music; formal or cookie-cutter suits; small feminine women, big masculine men in the service of a fantastic image of carefree perfection. Markers of black culture, homosexuality, or anything non-traditional have been largely absent from the sport.

“It’s still really radical for someone to go out and skate to jazz,” says Dorothy Jones-Davis, mother of up-and-coming 13-year-old figure skater Zuri Davis.

For former trans non-binary skating champion Eliot Halverson, figure skating is liberating, but growing up it was also confusing. “Skating caused me a lot of confusion as a young queer kid and muddyed waters that were already muddy,” says Halverson. They credit queer skaters like Rudy Galindo, the first openly gay figure skating champion, with helping to break gender molds in figure skating. (This year, pair skater Timothy LeDuc became the first openly non-binary athlete at the Winter Olympics.)

There are also economic barriers to entry into the sport. “You have to pay to get on the ice,” explains Savary. Ice skates, sessions, music, choreography, coaches, trips to competitions, costumes: it adds up quickly. When Zuri started skating, Jones-Davis said families would help each other out with used skates and old skates.

So when Savary founded Diversify Ice in 2017 to introduce figure skating to young people of color and began recruiting skaters in Anacostia, a black neighborhood in southeastern DC, he asked residents to skate at Dupont Ice. local arena. The response was, “’We know there’s an ice rink, but it’s only open to figure skaters competing,’” he said. “Some other families across the street didn’t even know it was a skating rink.”

Through his foundation, Savary wants to help redefine who and what a skater can be. It provides budding skaters of color with mentorship, scholarships and a sense of community. “I can see people who look like me and be with people who look like me,” says Zuri, who is now an ambassador for Diversify Ice and dreams of competing in figure skating at the highest level like her idol Starr Andrews. .

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