With Captivating Performances, Black Figure Skaters Strike More Than Gold

As the Black Lives Matter movement advanced, the ice became a platform for athletes like Starr Andrews.

—Rikki D. Wright/The New York Times

Starr Andrews remembers the stares she received in locker rooms at her earliest figure skating competitions. She remembers the requests to touch her coiled, textured hair.

“The first thing that popped into my mind is, ‘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 popped into my head, but I couldn’t help but think that.”

Andrews, the lone Black member of the U.S. national figure skating team, sometimes still encounters that unwelcome thought on and off the ice: that she might be seen as different from her peers in a sport she has loved since she was a little girl watching her mother take lessons.

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

She did it most emphatically last summer, at a time when many prominent athletes were staring down a “shut up and play” backlash after walking off a court or a field in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. For Andrews, though, competing was the best way to speak up.

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 the police killing of George Floyd. Andrews ended her program with a smile and her right fist raised in the Black Power salute.

Videos of her 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 kids out there striving for excellence in the face of those who doubt you: Keep going.”

Andrews fully intends to do that. So do other Black skaters who have stretched creatively, gaining support and recognition in a sport where they have often felt excluded.

Take, for example, Elladj Baldé, a 30-year-old Canadian skater who was touring the world with ice shows until the pandemic forced him back home. He soon co-founded a foundation to help diversify the sport, and became a social media superstar after posting videos of himself joyously skating in the wild outdoors, wearing casual clothing and doing routines that barely resembled the formal Olympic programs.

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

One of Savary’s pupils is Kaitlyn Saunders, who briefly traded her ice 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 accompanied live by Day.

These efforts have been widely acclaimed, but whether the sport becomes more inclusive depends on its ability to make concrete changes. To funding. To the training and selection of judges. (Baldé, Savary and Andrews say they can’t remember ever seeing another Black person assessing their performances.) And ultimately, to the core of what it means to be a figure skater.

A breakthrough and then a haltIn 1986, Debi Thomas of the United States became the first Black skater to win a singles world championship. It happened seven years after Tai Babilonia, the daughter of a Black woman and a man with Hopi and Filipino roots, won a pairs world title with Randy Gardner.

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

Since then, though, only one other skater of African descent has won an Olympic medal — Robin Szolkowy of Germany, who got the bronze in pairs in 2010 and 2014.

Dominated for generations by white European and North American skaters, the elite levels of the sport have been diversified primarily through 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, 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.

The reception for a new demographic was not always warm.

Tiffany Chin, who in 1985 became the first nonwhite skater to win a U.S. senior singles title, recalled in a 2018 Huffington Post interview that early in her career, “a little girl told me: ‘You’re really good, but you know you’ll never be a champion. Figure skating champions have blond hair and blue eyes, and you don’t have either.’”

After the native Californian Michelle Kwan, the gold medal favorite at the 1998 Olympics, was upset by Tara Lipinski, her U.S. teammate, an MSNBC digital headline declared: “American Beats Out Kwan.”

Until very recently, leaders of the sport in the United States did not formally monitor the racial composition of competitors, judges and other officials. But after the Black Lives Matter movement took shape last year, U.S. Figure Skating started collecting such data and established a working group and then a task force to address diversity, equity and inclusion.

U.S. Figure Skating appointed Savary, the Washington coach and author, to both committees, because of his book and his work with Diversify Ice, the nonprofit organization he started in 2017.

The skating association, Savary said, seemed especially impressed by the part of his book in which he discussed 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 skater of Indian descent on the U.S. team, and Eliot Halverson, a winner of junior and novice national titles who identifies as Latinx and trans nonbinary.

“While I was on the ground working on these issues every day through Diversify Ice, others didn’t see the value in trying to make ice skating more equitable for skaters of color,” Savary said. “This was a complete 180.”

One recommendation from the task force involved setting up a fund to support promising competitors in memory of Mabel Fairbanks, a Black and Indigenous skater who became a prominent coach after discrimination led to her being barred from competition in the 1930s. Her protégés included Babilonia and Gardner in their early years together and Atoy Wilson, whose 1966 victory in the novice division made him the first Black U.S. skating champion.

The first award from the fund, $25,000, went to Andrews in January.

The costs of figure skating — Savary estimated that some people spend more than $50,000 a year to try to reach the elite level — and the limited access to rinks deter many people, regardless of race, from pursuing 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 that the rigid culture of the sport has deterred Black participation as much as the price tag. The narrow range of favored music, body types, costumes and dance moves creates a sense of claustrophobia.

The subjective elements of the scoring system, which includes points based on personal interpretation of music and emotional translation of choreography, create a delicate predicament for Black figure skaters. Many say they feel compelled to conform to the traditional mold of stars in a sport that does not reflect or represent their identities and cultures.

Baldé, who was the Canadian junior national champion in 2008, performed primarily to the classical music that is common in the sport. But in his final five years of competing, he started incorporating more funk and hip-hop songs by Black and brown artists — like James Brown, Bruno Mars and T-Pain — into his programs.

Embracing the next generationLike Kaitlyn, Starr Andrews gained a huge following at age 9, when she did an exhibition performance, choreographed by her mother, to Willow Smith’s girl-power anthem, “Whip My Hair.” A YouTube video of the routine has more than 56 million views, and it remained Andrews’ most celebrated moment on the ice until last summer.

The “Black Like Me” program, however, has become 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 disappointing, but that wasn’t the point of the program,” Andrews said. “The point of the program was to get out that it’s hard to be in the sport being one of the very few Black people.”

The New York Times

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