Starr Andrews remembers the looks she received in locker rooms at her earliest figure skating competitions. She remembers being asked to touch her curled, textured hair.
“The first thing that crossed my mind was, ‘It’s because I’m black,'” Andrews, 19, said in a recent interview. “And I don’t want that to be the first thing that comes to mind, but I couldn’t help but think that.”
Andrews, the only black member of the US national figure skating team, still sometimes encounters this unwanted thought on and off the ice: that in a sport she has loved since she was a little girl watching her, possibly different than her fellow mother takes lessons.
Eventually, however, the ice cream became a place where Andrews would celebrate that difference.
She did it forcefully last summer, at a time when many prominent athletes were staring at backlash after leaving a pitch or field in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. For Andrews, however, the competition was the best way to speak up.
For a virtual event in July, she ran over to Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me”, a country song Racial inequality unleashed after the police murder of George Floyd. Andrews finished her program with a smile and her right fist in the Black Power salute.
Videos of their performance have received more than 200,000 views online. Fans include Guyton and Michelle Obama, who shared one of the videos and wrote: “To all the black children out there who strive for excellence in the face of those who doubt you: carry on.”
Andrews fully intends to do that. This also applies to other black skaters who have creatively stretched and received support and recognition in a sport in which they have often felt left out.
Take, for example, Elladj Baldé, a 30-year-old Canadian skater who toured the world on ice shows until the pandemic forced him home. He soon co-founded a foundation – the Figure Skating Diversity & Inclusion Alliance – and became a social media superstar after posting videos of himself skating gleefully in the wild, wearing casual clothes, and performing routines that barely resembled official Olympic programs.
Then there is Joel Savary, a 34-year-old trainer in Washington, DC who has his own diversity foundation and a self-published book, “Why Black and tan children don’t skate. “
One of Savary’s students is Kaitlyn Saunders, who briefly swapped her skates for a rolling pair last summer and performed at Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza to a recording of Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” a 2015 song about perseverance. Kaitlyn, now 10, repeated the performance As part of the inauguration day celebration, this time will be accompanied live by Day.
These efforts have been widely recognized, but whether the sport becomes more inclusive depends on its ability to make concrete changes. To finance. For the training and selection of judges. (Baldé, Savary, and Andrews say they can’t remember ever seeing another black person assess their performance.) And finally, to the core of what it means to be a figure skater.
A breakthrough and then a stop
In 1986 Debi Thomas from the USA became the first black woman Skater wins an individual world championship. It happened seven years after Tai Babilonia, the daughter of a black woman and a man of Hopi and Filipino roots, won a couples world title with Randy Gardner.
At the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary, Thomas finished third and won the first Olympic medal for a black athlete at the Winter Games.
Since then, however, only one other skater of African origin has won an Olympic medal – Robin Szolkowy from Germany, who won bronze in pairs in 2010 and 2014.
Dominated for generations by white European and North American skaters, the elite levels of the sport were mostly diversified by the arrival of East Asian and East Asian-American stars. 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, Nathan Chen from the United States, whose parents emigrated from China, and Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan, who won gold in the last two Olympics, will be the top contenders for the men’s title.
The reception for a new section of the population was not always warm.
Tiffany Chin, who became the first non-white skater to win a US senior singles title in 1985, remembered one Interview with the Huffington Post 2018 So early in her career a little girl said to me, ‘You are really good, but you know that you will never be a champion. Figure skating champions have blonde hair and blue eyes, and neither do you. ‘“
After California-born Michelle Kwan, the gold medal favorite at the 1998 Olympics, was upset by her US teammate, Tara Lipinski MSNBC digital heading declared, “American Beats Out Kwan.”
Until recently, those in charge of sport in the United States did not officially monitor the racial makeup of competitors, judges, and other officials. After the Black Lives Matter movement took shape last year, US figure skating began collecting such data and established a working group and then a task force to look at diversity, justice and inclusion.
U.S. Figure Skating named Savary, the Washington coach and writer, to both committees for his book and work with Diversify Ice, the nonprofit he founded in 2017.
The ice skating association, Savary said, seemed particularly impressed with the part of his book where he talked about going into the neighborhood and knocking on doors to see if families would welcome an introduction to the sport. Diversify Ice executives include Pooja Kalyan, the only skater of Indian descent on the US team, and Eliot Halverson, a junior and novice national title winner who is Latinx and Trans Nonbinary.
“While I worked on these topics every day through Diversify Ice on-site, others didn’t see the value in making ice skating fairer for skaters with color,” said Savary. “That was a full 180.”
One of the task force’s recommendations was to set up a fund to support promising competitors in memory of Mabel FairbanksA black and indigenous skater who became a prominent trainer after being discriminated against resulted in her being banned from competition in the 1930s. Her protégés included Babilonia and Gardner in their early years together as well as Atoy Wilson, whose 1966 victory in the Novice Division made him the first black US skating champion.
The fund’s first award of $ 25,000 went to Andrews in January.
The costs Savary estimated that some people spend more than $ 50,000 a year to reach the elite level – and limited access to ice rinks keeps many people, regardless of race, from engaging in competitive sports. Savary made affordability part of Diversify Ice’s mission in the hopes that increased participation creates a comfort zone for color skaters, who often feel isolated.
But he and Baldé both say that the rigid culture of sport has deterred black participation as well as the price tag. The narrow spectrum of preferred music, body types, costumes and dance moves creates a feeling of claustrophobia.
The subjective elements of the scoring system, which include scoring based on personal interpretation of music and emotional translation of choreography, create a delicate situation for black figure skaters. Many say they feel compelled to conform to the traditional form of stars in a sport that does not reflect or represent their identity and culture.
Baldé, who was the Canadian junior national champion in 2008, performed mainly with the classical music usual in sport. But in his last five years of competition, he began to incorporate more funk and hip-hop songs by black and brown artists like James Brown, Bruno Mars and more T-Pain – in its programs.
After Baldé withdrew from the competition in 2018, he took part in the show tours and became a choreographer and judge for the Canadian reality competition series “Battle of the Blades”.
Encouraged by his fiancée Michelle Dawley, a dancer and choreographer, he began posting videos of himself in early December. The settings include frozen lakes and random ice sheets near his home in Calgary, Alberta. He does backflips, which are forbidden in competition, where figure skating jumps have to land on one foot. He also does moonwalks, C-walks, and Milly Rocks. His flannel shirts flutter in the wind.
If competitive skating took on such diversity, it could undo decades of falling TV ratings.
For a video, Baldé wore a Chicago Bulls jacket and ran an elegant routine with snow-capped mountain peaks as a backdrop and samphas “(nobody knows me) like the piano” as accompaniment. It had more than 2.6 million views on Instagram after celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith and Complex reposted it.
When creating the videos, Baldé felt a freedom that he had never experienced before.
“If I were represented as a young skater, if skating included black music and black styles and movements, I could have found my truth and my authenticity much earlier,” he said. He imagines he’d been more confident and wondering if he’d had better results in his competitive career.
“The only thing I know for sure,” he said, “is that it would have allowed me to be myself for the time I was in my career instead of trying to adapt.”
Hug the next generation
Katrice Saunders, Kaitlyn’s mother, initially wondered if the family would be able to handle the costs and other demands of figure skating. Then came offers of help from seemingly every corner of the black community of sport.
Savary’s Diversify Ice Foundation donated money for coaching and equipment. Baldé made an effort to work on Kaitlyn’s choreography.
The family has also heard of Babilonia and Surya Bonaly, a black skater from France, whose daring programs enthusiastic audienceif not jury, in the 1990s. The limitations of her career raised some of the most important questions about racial bias in sport.
Bonaly, 47, who now works out, offered video conferencing software classes for $ 5 this summer Kaitlyn Saunders attended.
Andrews and her mother, Toshawa Andrews, were especially helpful, said Katrice Saunders. The overall effect, she said, is a protective feeling that we are all together.
Like Kaitlyn, Starr gained a huge following when she was 9 years old when she did so an exhibition performance, choreographed by her mother, to Willow Smith’s girl power hymn “Whip My Hair”. A YouTube video of the routine has more than 56 million views and remained Andrew’s most famous moment on the ice until last summer.
However, the “Black Like Me” program has become Andrew’s favorite.
She didn’t care that she finished 13th out of 17 skaters in competitions.
“The results are disappointing, but that wasn’t the point of the program,” said Andrews. “The aim of the program was to find out that being one of the few black people in sport is difficult.”
Patrice Peck is a freelance journalist. She was a figure skater for three years.