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The Incredible Black Women of the Figure Skating World

When I was 13 years old, there was something playing on TV that particularly caught my eye. I was sitting on the couch, aimlessly flicking through the channels, when I landed on the 2014 Winter Olympics. The event was figure skating. The beautiful Kaetlyn Osmond glided across the ice and landed what the commentators called a “triple lutz”. Everything was so foreign to me, as I had never skated as a kid, but the skaters were all so beautiful and incredibly talented that I was instantly drawn to this glittery sport. 

My interest in figure skating soon died down, but was awakened once again when the 2018 Winter Olympics came by. Flash forward two years and I am still just as enthralled. However, over the years, I couldn’t help but ask myself a question: When the words ‘figure skating’ or ‘ice princess’ come to mind, what do I see?

Remember Her Name – Mabel Fairbanks

Mabel is a pioneer in the sport of figure skating. She was born in the early 1900s in New York City and became fascinated by the sport after watching a movie about Sonja Henie. In her day, her practice rink was the outdoor rink in Central Park. She was incredibly, incredibly talented, but the skating club in the city would not take her in because she was black. 

This would’ve stopped a lot of people in their tracks, admitting their defeat and giving up. However, Mabel was quite unique. She didn’t let the judgment of other people control her decisions. Instead, she let her love for skating do all the decision making. She continued to skate, and was eventually allowed to skate at the club after the manager noticed her persistence. She travelled all over the nation and some parts of the globe skating, but found that when she returned back home, people were still against her joining any skating clubs because of the colour of her skin. To pave way for herself and other black figure skaters, she applied for individual memberships to the United States Figure Skating Association without informing them that they were black. This opened the door for many young black skaters, and Fairbanks eventually became a coach and teacher herself. 

She taught quite an impressive mix of students, ranging from Natalie Cole to Scott Hamilton, who was an Olympic medalist in men’s singles. She opened doors for young black figure skaters and showed them that they had a place in the sports world. Without her, the figure skating world would not be the same. 

She’s a Queen – Debi Thomas

Debi Thomas was one of the best figure skaters of the 1980s. She was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, and began her skating journey at the age of 5. As she grew older and developed as a figure skater, she also studied engineering at Stanford! Engineering! At! Stanford! As if training as a Team USA athlete wasn’t incredible enough. 

In 1986 she won the US Figure Skating Senior Championships and then went on to win the World Championships. This would eventually lead way to the 1988 Calgary Olympics where she was the obvious frontrunner to take the gold medal. She won the bronze medal at the Olympics and then won the bronze medal at the 1988 World Championships. 

At those very Calgary Olympics, both Thomas and her main rival, Katarina Witt, chose to skate to the same music in their long program – Carmen. Their rivalry and competition was dubbed the Battle of the Carmens. 

Thomas was also the first African-American woman to win a US national title and was the second American to win medals at the World Championships while being a full-time college student. After she completed her engineering degree, she pursued medical school at Northwestern University and became an orthopedic surgeon. 

This incredible woman not only proved to young black girls that pursuing greatness in a sport that favours whiteness is possible, but she did so while pursuing a higher education in STEM. Her name is seldom mentioned, in comparison to the other great ladies of the 80s’ figure skating, but she deserves every ounce of recognition. 

Elegant Strength – Rory Flack

Rory Flack encountered the great Mabel Fairbanks, whom we touched on earlier, when she was 13 years old. It was Fairbanks who convinced Flack to keep on skating, despite the racism that Flack was subjected to. Flack was also a figure skater in the 1980s, but had to retire from competitive skating in 1991 due to a back injury. Flack was the first ever African American woman to execute a backflip on the ice, and was also known for her strong russian splits in her routines. 

Flack did wonders for the professional world of skating. For example, when she wanted to skate for Broadway on Ice, she even choreographed a whole section of it. She also starred in Ice Capades, Nutcracker on Ice, and was eventually convinced by Mabel Fairbanks to open her own production company called “The Color of Ice Production Inc”. After this big step, Flack created, produced, and choreographed the first ever all African American skating production called “Ebony on Ice”. Although this production did well, her revamped production by the name of “Soul Spectacular on Ice” did even better. It had sold out shows, and opened with the words, “The ancestors couldn’t have foreseen this.” 

She did so much extensive work for the performing side of figure skating and made figure skating elegant and also fun. Her performances were always very energetic and filled with power, considering backflips and russian split jumps were considered the norm. Flack worked so much on proving just how incredible black figure skaters are and always made sure that they were given a platform to present themselves creatively. Keep her name in your mind too. 

The Girl who Deserved a Gold Medal – Surya Bonaly

Surya Bonaly was born in Nice, France in 1973. She started off as a gymnast, but it didn’t take long before she began figure skating. Thanks to her past in gymnastics, she was built differently than most figure skaters and was much more muscular. 

Due to her muscular body and dark skin, she was often times given poorer scores and did not fit the “ice princess” mold. Bonaly was most known for doing backflips on ice, much like Rory Flack, but she landed them on one foot. To this day, she is still the only woman to ever do a backflip AND land on one foot at the Olympics. She did this at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. 

Bonaly was a nine-time French champion and won the World Championship silver medal three times, but never managed to snag gold for the World Champs or the Olympics. Many people thought this was unfair, and she was often compared to Tonya Harding, who was also often given unfair scores due to the fact that she did not fit the traditional mold of a figure skater. 

Bonaly is such an iconic modern figure skater, and despite her incredible athleticism and hard work, is barely given any credit or recognition. It goes without saying that her lack of gold medals is most definitely an imbalance of power and fairness. Keep her in mind when thinking of the incredible women of figure skating, and women in sports in general. 

In a sport that is dominated by Caucasians, many black female figure skaters are neglected and not given the credit they deserve. An obvious example is Surya Bonaly. She did backflips on ice while landing on one foot, but she still isn’t considered one of the figure skating greats. In lieu of International Women’s Day and Black History Month, let us shine a spotlight on the beautiful black female figure skaters who deserve all the recognition in the world. 

Jasmine Yan

Waterloo '23

Hey, it's nice to meet you! I'm a student at the University of Waterloo studying SDS and psychology. When I'm not writing for HerCampus, I sing, play the piano, and spend an embarrassing amount of time scrolling through Pinterest and TikTok.
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