‘We don’t look like them’: Black figure skaters face barriers to entry from a young age

Figure skating has long excluded Black athletes. The disparity can be seen from youth competitions all the way up to Team USA.

Olivia Alexander, who has skated since preschool, performs at Diversify Ice's Juneteenth fundraiser in 2021.Kayla Steinberg

Before figure skating practice, Michael Baker would ask his mom to let him out of the car before they got to the entrance of the ice rink.

“He would say, ‘Mommy, why don’t you just drop me here?’” Shirley Brown, Baker’s mom, told NBC News. “And I knew exactly why he was doing it.”

They still haven’t replaced their beat-up 2007 Toyota Rav 4, one in a long list of sacrifices made to support Baker’s skating. Brown has delayed her retirement. They can’t go on vacation.

Baker, 17, dreams of one day competing in the Olympics. But even if he has the talent to make it, the family worries the cost may hold him back.

Michael Baker.Courtesy Shirley Brown

Baker started skating at 13, when he signed up for lessons at a mall on his birthday. A coach saw that Baker had talent and offered to teach him.

“In the beginning, it was very, very, very tough,” Brown said. “I find that it’s an elitist sport. You’re not welcomed by some of the parents. We don’t look like them.”

Baker is the only Black skater training at his rink in New Jersey.

From formal gatekeeping to high barriers to entry, the sport has a long history of excluding Black figure skaters. There aren’t any Black skaters on the U.S. team competing at this year’s Olympics, and the last time an African American skater competed at the Games was 16 years ago. There aren’t many Black fans, either. U.S. Figure Skating, the sport’s national governing body, found that only 2 percent of fans were African American. This disparity can also be seen throughout the sport. 

Michael Baker practicing at Montclair State University's ice rink in June 2021. He hopes to make the Olympics someday.Kayla Steinberg

“There’s no Black kids,” said Olivia Alexander, a 19 year old who has skated since preschool. “And if there are, it’s very few.”

Olivia Alexander performing at Diversify Ice's Juneteenth fundraiser in 2021. Kayla Steinberg

A history of exclusion

The first U.S. skating clubs — local organizations that host test sessions, competitions and shows — were founded on the East Coast in the mid-1800s.

“Like many clubs like that in that period, they were exclusionary,” Philip Hersh, a sports journalist who has covered 19 Olympics, said. “They were exclusionary of Jews, they were exclusionary of Blacks, they were exclusionary of a lot of other people.”

The late Mabel Fairbanks was one of those excluded skaters. When she started skating in the early 1900s, she was denied access to rinks and couldn’t join clubs, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, because she was Black and Native American.

But she skated anyway — at free sessions in the park and in nightclubs’ ice shows. And she coached prominent skaters, knocking down the barriers she had faced as a skater.

“Mabel is the woman who paved the way for skaters of all color,” Tai Babilonia, one of Fairbanks’ former students, said. “She would say you’ll have to jump higher, spin faster and shine brighter because you look a little different from the other skaters.”

Babilonia became the first U.S. skater of partial African American descent to qualify for the Olympics, in 1976 and 1980.

Then in 1988, Debi Thomas won bronze, making her the first Black American to medal at the Winter Olympics.

But there still aren’t many Black figure skaters, especially in the upper echelons of the sport. Since Thomas, only one Black American figure skater has gone to the Olympics — Aaron Parchem in 2006.

‘I was the only person of color at the rink’

Today, skaters, coaches, parents and administrators cite the high cost of the sport, racism and a lack of exposure as reasons why there still aren’t more Black and brown skaters.

It costs about $35,000 per year to hire Baker’s two coaches and choreographer. Ice time is an additional $360 for 40 one-hour sessions.

Equipment costs can also pile up. Alexander estimates her boots, ordered from Italy, cost about $800 and her blades, sold separately, cost more than $1,000. Her costumes were each about $1,600, plus $20 each competition for a new pair of tights.

And competition fees, hotels and transportation all add up. 

But cost isn’t the only issue — Black skaters recount the microaggressions they have faced in the sport. When Alexander skated competitively, she said, people would comment that she’s a “natural athlete.”

“Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean I’m a natural athlete,” she said.

Joel Savary.Kayla Steinberg

Joel Savary, a skater turned coach, said he showed up to a competition and was told the rink was closed. And one day at practice, when he was putting on his skates, a woman suggested they weren’t his.

“That was very jarring for a 14-year-old to think someone was calling them out and saying they’re stealing skates,” said Savary, author of “Why Black and Brown Kids Don’t Ice Skate.” “I was then acutely aware that I was the only person of color at the rink.”

When Savary moved from Florida to Delaware to train, he saw other elite skaters of color and wondered why he hadn’t seen any of them on TV.

“You turn on the skating on TV, and you only see the same people,” he said. “Or maybe they show 30 seconds of one skater of color. You blink, you miss it.”

That’s not the case with other sports.

“On TV, they see LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes,” Baker said. “You see people who were trailblazers and people to look up to in the Black community.”

Figure skating, he said, could use a trailblazer, too.

Ready for change

Decades after the first Black American skating trailblazer, Mabel Fairbanks, the sport still grapples with some of the same problems of its past. And U.S. Figure Skating knows it; last year it hired its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Kadari Taylor-Watson.

“We do have issues with the people feeling like they are on the outskirts of this sport because of the institutionalized racism that has been part of this sport since it began,” Taylor-Watson said.

Other organizations are also addressing these issues of inclusion and accessibility. Savary founded the Diversify Ice Fellowship and Foundation, which gives financial support to elite skaters of color and works with schools to introduce skating to Black and brown kids. Figure Skating in Harlem and Figure Skating in Detroit both offer skating and educational training to girls of color.

“We do have diverse skaters throughout the sport,” said Taylor-Watson. “It’s just that they’re not able to matriculate into these higher positions as judges, as coaches.”

She said U.S. Figure Skating has plans to examine membership data to understand why these problems persist — and what it can do differently.

Skaters and parents say they’re ready for change.

“I’m so tired of the talk,” said Brown. “I want to see some action. I want to see some brown faces on the ice. Make it more accessible.” 

Baker believes sponsorships could help defray the costs. Savary would like to see more Black and brown skaters on TV. And Alexander wants to see education.

“What is the sport going to do?” said Alexander. “Are you going to educate the coaches about the discrimination and the unintentional racism that they exhibit?” 

Baker skates almost every day, pushing himself to get better and better in the hopes of making the Olympics someday. 

He is trying to get to a point where people say, “‘Wow, this kid can jump,’” said Brown. “And they’re more fascinated by his technique. So they don’t see the color anymore.” 

Baker wrote a poem about skating called “Defy the Odds.” In it, he lists some of the criticisms he has heard over the years — that he’s too tall and too old and that he’ll never be an Olympic champ — and wonders if he should even dare to dream: “If only they would believe and see beyond the mold. See the dream. See the possibilities. See me!”

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