Black figure skaters face barriers to entry from an early age

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

“He was like, ‘Mom, why don’t you drop me here? “” Shirley Brown, Baker’s mother, told NBC News. “And I knew exactly why he was doing it.”

They still haven’t replaced their 2007 Toyota Rav 4, one of the many sacrifices made to support Baker’s skating. Brown delayed his retirement. They can’t go on vacation.

Baker, 17, dreams of one day competing in the Olympics. But even though he has the talent to do it, the family fears the cost will hold him back.

Michael Baker.Courtesy of Shirley Brown

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

“At first it was very, very, very difficult,” Brown said. “I think it’s an elitist sport. You are not welcomed by some parents. We don’t look like them.

Baker is the only black skater to train at his New Jersey rink.

From formal gate control to high barriers to entry, the sport has a long history of excluding black figure skaters. There are no black skaters on the US 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. US Figure Skating, the sport’s national governing body, find that only 2% of fans were African American. This disparity is also found across sport.

Michael Baker is training at the Montclair State University rink in June 2021. He hopes to one day compete in the Olympics.Kayla Steinberg

“There are no black kids,” said Olivia Alexander, a 19-year-old who has been skating 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

America’s first skating clubs – grassroots organizations that hold test sessions, competitions and shows – were founded on the East Coast in the mid-1800s.

“Like many clubs like that in those days, they were exclusive,” said Philip Hersh, a sports journalist who has covered 19 Olympics. “They were excluding Jews, they were excluding black people, they were excluding a lot of other people.”

The late Mabel Fairbanks was one such outcast skater. When she started skating in the early 1900s, she was denied access to rinks and could not join clubs, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, because she was black and Native American.

But she still skated — during free sessions in the park and in nightclub ice shows. And she coached top skaters, breaking down the barriers she had faced as a skater.

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

Babilonia became the first American skater of partial African American descent qualify for the Olympic Games in 1976 and 1980.

Then in 1988, Debi Thomas won bronze, making her the first black American to win a 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 went 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 lack of exposure as reasons why there are still not more black and brown skaters.

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

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

And the competition costs, hotels and transportation all add up.

But cost isn’t the only issue — black skaters are telling stories of the microaggressions they’ve faced in the sport. When Alexander skated competitively, she said, people called her 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 for a competition and was told the rink was closed. And one day in practice, while he was putting on his skates, a woman suggested they weren’t his.

“It was very shocking for a 14-year-old to think someone called him and said he was stealing skates,” said Savary, author of “Why Black and Brown Kids Don’t Ice Skate.” “I was then fully 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 on television.

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

This is 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 also need a pioneer.

Ready for change

Decades after the first black American skating pioneer, Mabel Fairbanks, the sport still grapples with some of the same issues from its past. And American figure skating knows it; last year he hired his Senior Director of Diversity, Equity and InclusionKadari Taylor-Watson.

“We have issues with people who feel on the periphery of this sport because of the institutionalized racism that has been part of this sport since its inception,” Taylor-Watson said.

Other organizations are also addressing these issues of inclusion and accessibility. Savary founded the Diversifying the Ice Scholarship and Foundationwhich provides financial support to elite skaters of color and works with schools to introduce skating to black and brown children. Figure Skating in Harlem and Figure Skating in Detroit both provide skating training and education for girls of color.

“We have diverse skaters across the sport,” Taylor-Watson said. “It’s just that they’re not able to register for those higher positions as judges, as coaches.”

She said USA Figure Skating plans to look at member data to understand why these issues persist — and what it can do differently.

Skaters and parents say they are ready for change.

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

Baker thinks 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 coaches about the discrimination and unintentional racism they show?”

Baker skates almost every day, striving to get better and better in hopes of one day qualifying for the Olympics.

He’s trying to get to a point where people are like, “Wow, this kid can jump,” Brown said. “And they are more fascinated by his technique. So they no longer see the color.

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

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