You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Rebellious, Back-Flipping Black Figure Skater Who Changed the Sport Forever

Chris Cole/Getty

In the 1980s and '90s, competitive figure skating enthralled me. The sport’s balletic arm movements and glittery-glam unitards, along with its powerful leaps and dizzying triple axels, guaranteed that I’d be seated in front of a TV during every Winter Olympics of my childhood. But not even in my most far-fetched girlhood fantasies did I ever imagine myself on the ice. Early awareness of my athletic limitations aside, figure skating just never seemed like a sport that was welcoming to black women and girls. If it were, I reasoned, more of us would’ve taken it up. Instead, I only recall seeing three black women figure skating on an Olympic level in my two decades of fandom: Tai Babilonia (who is of black and Filipino heritage), Debi Thomas, and the French Surya Bonaly—and none of them seemed to have an easy go of it. Babilonia battled substance abuse, after withdrawing from the 1980 Olympics due to her partner’s injury. Thomas was saddled with a late-career reputation for being “unsportsmanlike,” following the 1988 Olympics. And Bonaly—the brownest, strongest, and most convention-flouting of the three—was penalized for her daring.

On Friday, ESPN debuted Rebel on Ice, a documentary short that detailed the highs and lows of Bonaly’s career. Part of Eva Longoria's Versus series, which focuses on athletes whose cultural impact transcends their success in sports, the 13-minute segment featured interviews with sports journalist Christine Brennan, various skating coaches, actress Retta (who directed the film), and Bonaly herself. But with its short runtime, Rebel On Ice could barely scratch the surface of the sport's history or Bonaly's unique place within it. For girls like me, Bonaly’s skating career wasn’t just admirable because she was one of very few black girls to make it to the top competitive tier; it was remarkable because she did it on her own terms, refusing to tamp down her flashiest moves or her mercurial, post-performance temperament.  

Just after the film’s opening credits, over black and white footage of white women in long dresses, Brennan muses on figure skating’s lack of diversity. "Figure skating goes back to the 1800s but for most people it really came into its own in the 1900s,” she says. “The sport wasn't as diverse then as it is now [and] certainly needed to work on its diversity. There’s no doubt that once Debi Thomas had retired, that there was no one who looked like Surya Bonaly."

In the first half of the 20th century, figure skating needed to do more than "work on its diversity." It needed to eliminate the blatant, de rigueur discrimination that barred black athletes in most U.S. sporting fields from participating.

Mabel Fairbanks—who, in 1997 became the first African American woman inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame at the age of 82—was never allowed to skate competitively. Though she's credited with breaking the sport’s color barrier, having toured with an overseas company and started her own integrated skating school upon return to the states, Fairbanks had to circumvent the segregation that barred her entry to practice rinks and to all U.S. competitions. She developed her own professional ice shows and performed for mostly black audiences in Manhattan before becoming a coach who worked with some of the earliest black competitive figure skaters, including Babilonia and Thomas.

Even after black figure skaters were allowed to compete, other obstacles prevented an influx of aspiring black athletes. The hardest impediment to overcome was expense. In an interview with The Root, Bonaly mentioned the costs associated with training for competitive skating: “It’s starting to be a little better, but back in the day, skating was so expensive. I mean, it’s still an expensive sport. [...] I was lucky because my mom was a skating coach, so it was easier for me, but that’s not the case for everybody.”

A 1989 profile on Debi Thomas in the Los Angeles Times also suggested that the expense of ice skating training was an obstacle Thomas and her family had to overcome:

In figure skating, the underprivileged are all those whose parents earn less than six figures each year. Thomas' mother, divorced when Debi was a small child, earned considerably less than that as a computer programming analyst in Sunnyvale, Calif. But she sacrificed whatever she had to assure that her daughter could pursue her goals.

Not many parents can afford make such sacrifices. According to a Huffington Post interview with Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton, training an Olympic-level figure skater can cost $25,000—and that’s on the low end. For competitive black figure skaters, though, perception among judges and the public was nearly as challenging. It was hard not to stand out as race pioneers in a field of predominantly white competition.

Neither Babilonia nor Thomas seemed interested in having much attention called to their race. In a Manleywoman Skatecast interview, Babilonia distinguishes herself as mixed-race while also maintaining that she didn’t notice any overt racism as a competitor:

Sometimes they’ll [call me] the first black skater [to win U.S. and world titles] and I’ll go, no, no, do your homework. And my [Filipino] dad will say, hey, don’t I count for any part of this? [laughs]. So I just figured out, yes, it’s multi-racial and I’m very proud of that. If there was any talk about it when I was smaller, Mabel buffered us from it. If anyone had anything negative to say about any of us, we didn’t hear it. I just knew I had to go out there and skate my best. And she had not just black skaters, but Latino skaters, Asian skaters, rich, poor, the Hollywood elite, they all gravitated toward Mabel. Mabel kicked down that big rainbow door.

In its 1989 profile, the Los Angeles Times reported that Thomas “wanted to be known as a skater, not as a black skater.” But in 2009, in her own Manleywoman Skatecast interview, Thomas had a lengthier, nuanced response:

There was not, as I recall, any blatant racism, people calling me the n-bomb or anything like that. But you wonder, certain things that people aren’t willing to say or admit. There was a coach at the rink where I skated locally who wouldn’t coach me. He’s not going to flat-out say it’s because you’re a little black kid, but he was too busy to be bothered with me. [...] My mother, even if she was thinking it, would never tell me, you didn’t place higher than that because you’re black. [...] She just said, you’ve got to be better, and I just got better and better. It’s a ladder-climbing thing, and I didn’t feel I was ever held back because of my race. And that’s a good thing, for the sport and for society.

For Bonaly, that ladder seemed insurmountable despite her remarkable ability. A junior champion gymnast who transitioned to skating full-time as a preteen, she was able to perform backflips by the time she was 12. At the 1992 Winter Olympics, during practice, Bonaly decided to showcase this skill in front of her competition. Brennan, the sports journalist, recalled the incident in Rebel On Ice:  “What an introduction to the world and to the world’s media, by doing a backflip right in the face of the Olympic gold medal favorite, Midori Ito. Surya Bonaly, in that moment, really announced herself—and I don’t think it was in a good way.”

In addition to pegging herself as a rebel during that practice session, judges seemed prejudiced against Bonaly. In his Rebel On Ice interview, Frank Carroll, a former U.S. Olympic coach, said, “Even though she was wonderful [and] spectacular and she did great performances, she didn’t look like the ‘ice princess.’” (Until recently, “ice princesses”—skaters who emphasize graceful artistry over raw athleticism—were preferred among judges. A recent ESPN article asserts that this may be changing.)

Retta, who recalls watching Bonaly’s performances on TV as a child, also thought Bonaly’s appearance made her conspicuous on the ice. “She was shorter. She had a ‘black girl’s body,’ [which meant] thicker legs. She was never going to look like the other skaters.”

In the documentary, Bonaly is candid about race. “I don’t know if race made it more difficult, but definitely it made me stronger, knowing that I [had] no excuse [for] making mistakes or being kind of so-so, because maybe I [wouldn’t] be accepted as a white person [would’ve been]. But if [I was] better, they had no choice but to accept it and say, ‘She did so well.’” Bonaly’s comments call to mind the “twice as good” narrative, in which black people aspiring to white-dominated fields have to continually exceed expectations to be as successful as their white peers. 

At a 1992 World Championship competition, when Bonaly believed she had performed as well as her top competitor Yuka Sato, and still came in second, she expressed her displeasure by refusing to share the podium with Sato and tearfully taking off her silver medal; it was an act that cemented her reputation among judges as a rebel and an outsider. By the time she performed a one-bladed backflip at the 1998 Winter Olympics—a move that remains illegal and one that no other skater, male or female, has ever attempted at the Games—it was clear that Bonaly had relinquished any ideas about being accepted on the merits of her spectacular abilities alone.

But that moment also cemented her reputation among another group of spectators: black girls. Retta closed Rebel On Ice by emphasizing why Bonaly’s dynamism was especially meaningful to her: “I don’t know what other people’s impressions were. I just know, as a black girl in Jersey, I thought she was pretty amazing and inspirational. She made me want to put on skates. [...] What she did on ice went beyond the ice. One jump empowered me, and that’s huge.”

In her interview with the The Root, Bonaly recalled watching Debi Thomas’s Olympic performances and feeling inspired; both Thomas and Babilonia relied on Mabel Fairbanks’s history as pioneer to propel them forward. And it isn’t just for figure skaters with competitive aspirations—Thomas, Babilonia, and Bonaly all, no doubt, inspired girls to put on ice skates and go to their local rinks or frozen ponds.

Leesa Cross-Smith, a Kentucky-based writer, recalls watching the Olympics with her mother as a child: “I recorded Surya Bonaly skating in the Olympics and another performance when she did her backflip. [...] I remember being so wide-eyed seeing her do and land a backflip on the ice. I mean, she is amazing. Both she and Debi are amazing,” she said. “I remember my mom telling me about Debi and how she was a black girl out there skating and we were both excited to watch her skate.”

Cross-Smith was inspired to ice-skate, in part because of these women: “I was always the only black kid at the rink. Lots of things are like that here in Kentucky where I grew up. [...] I can't even imagine if there had been another black girl there skating with me, but that would've been really cool.” She also believes representation is just as essential to this generation of black kids as it was to her. “Some girls of color may feel weird or even a little embarrassed for being interested in or good at something they don't see other girls of color doing or being interested in. I think there's even a feeling of almost-betrayal if a black girl likes something that's seemingly set aside for white girls (and vice versa). A little brown girl seeing another little brown girl skating can be so inspiring.”

As recently as 2010, black figure skaters were still being credited with “first” and “only” historical distinctions. Yannick Bonheur and Vanessa James became the first black Olympic figure skating pair that year. Amateur skater Starr Andrews also made headlines in 2010, when a video of the then-nine-year-old skating to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” went viral. Perhaps the most dedicated effort to improve diversity in the field of figure skating comes from Figure Skating in Harlem, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 and committed to encouraging more girls of color to join the sport.

I don’t follow figure skating as closely now as I did when I was a young girl. But watching Rebel On Ice reminded me of how grateful I was for Babilonia, Thomas, and Bonaly back then. Pioneers don’t just impact those interested in their areas of expertise; they shift culture for everyone. They change what we believe is possible. And sometimes, as in the case of Bonaly’s backflip, they make the impossible look easy.