Savary, eventually, could land a triple loop, and now coaches competitive figure skaters. After founding Diversify Ice Foundation in Washington, D.C., where Savary now lives, he’s on a mission to change perceptions of who belongs on the ice.
Figure skating in the U.S. has historically been a sport associated with white, upper-class families. Its high cost of entry has made it harder for would-be skaters of color to get on the ice. And those who do join the sport are rarely seen at the national level. In 2020, Starr Andrews and Emmanuel Savary (Joel’s younger brother, who he coached) were the only Black solo skaters to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. No Black figure skaters competed for the Americans at the Winter Olympics this year.
“We think that representation is so critically important for these skaters to be successful,” Savary says. Savary didn’t see many Black skaters until he started training at University of Delaware, once a hub for figure skating. “Throughout the whole system I found that there are a lot of Black and Brown skaters. But you may not necessarily see these skaters on TV,” he says. In Delaware, Savary finally saw skaters of color skating the way they wanted to skate.
The stories of Black skaters like Surya Bonaly, a champion French skater, show just how much individuals can challenge the status quo of the sport. The three-time World Championship silver medalist is best remembered for her free skate in 1998, when she was unable to complete her routine due to an injury, and decided to perform a backflip with a split, landing on one blade. (Backflips had been banned from competitions since 1976, and many saw her move as a middle-finger to antiquated rules and judging.)
Before Bonaly was breaking barriers, there was another Black skater laying the groundwork for her success: Mabel Fairbanks.
“All of us owe a great deal to Mabel,” says Atoy Wilson, the first African American to title in a national competition in 1965, who was also coached by Fairbanks. “We [stand] on the shoulders of someone who broke that ice.”
In 1940s New York, Fairbanks wasn’t allowed to compete because of her skin color. She skated with the Ice Follies and Ice Capades before becoming a coach in LA in the 1950s. She went on to coach and mentor pairs skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Kristi Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo, and Debi Thomas, among others. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1997.
Why don’t more people know about Mabel? Two-time Olympian and five-time U.S. pairs champion Tai Babilonia says she gets this question a lot. “If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and it’s my duty to keep [her] legacy going,” Babilonia says.
Figure skating is different from other sports. It’s not just about a player's physical prowess, but how they integrate dance and artistry into their performance. It’s like storytelling and historically, the sport has centered white, heteronormative standards with performances almost always set to classical music; formal or cookie-cutter costuming; petite feminine women, broad masculine men in service of a fantastical image of unbothered perfection. Markers of Black culture, queerness or anything nontraditional have been largely absent from the sport.
“It’s still really radical for someone to come out there and skate to jazz,” says Dorothy Jones-Davis, mother to 13-year-old up-and-coming figure skater Zuri Davis.
For trans non-binary former champion skater Eliot Halverson, figure skating is a release, but growing up, it also was confusing. “Skating offered a lot of confusion for me as a young queer kid and muddied the waters that were already muddy,” says Halverson. They credit seeing queer skaters like Rudy Galindo, the first openly gay figure skating champion, with helping to break gender molds in figure skating. (This year, pairs skater Timothy LeDuc became the first openly non-binary Winter Olympics athlete.)
There are also economic barriers to enter the sport. “You have to pay to get on to the ice,” Savary explains. The ice skates, sessions, music, choreography, coaches, travel to competitions, costumes: it adds up fast. When Zuri started skating, Jones-Davis said families would help each other with hand-me-downs and old skates.
So when Savary founded Diversify Ice in 2017 to introduce figure skating to youth of color, and started recruiting skaters in Anacostia, a Black neighborhood in southeast D.C., he’d ask residents about skating at the local Dupont Ice Arena. The answer was: “‘We know that ice rink is there, but it’s only open for figure skaters that compete,’” he says. “Some other families right across the street didn’t even know that that was an ice rink.”
Through his foundation, Savary wants to help redefine who and what a skater can be. He provides aspiring skaters of color with mentorship, scholarships and a sense of community. “I’m able to see people that look like me, and be with people that look like me,” says Zuri, who is now a Diversify Ice ambassador with dreams of competing in figure skating at the highest level, like her idol Starr Andrews.
Watching Davis practice her skate program on the ice rink at the National Gallery Sculpture Garden with Savary, her dream feels in reach. “I think things could have been a lot different for many skaters of color had this foundation been around 20 years ago,” says Savary. “I want to continue to foster that growth, that confidence within all of these skaters.”
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