That Time A Black Figure Skater Set the Ice on Fire
Surya Bonaly is the most accomplished Black figure skater of all-time, but her greatness has been largely overlooked because she did not fit the stereotypical image of an “Ice Princess.”
Her uncanny style and muscular figure differentiated her from the petite white skaters she competed against who were seen as more elegant and graceful.
It is safe to say that Surya is infamous in the figure skating world for acts of rebellion throughout her career. In the 1994 World Championships, she refused to stand on the podium after skating her heart out and placing second.
She notoriously made headlines for removing the silver medal off of her neck during the ceremony to express her disbelief in the results.
Four years later at the Olympics, Surya solidified her image as a rebel and risked disqualification by performing an illegal one-foot backflip during the competition.
She wanted to make a bold and loud statement to the world on a national stage about her abilities and to this day is the only skater to ever land this move.
Interestingly enough, Surya had conflicting beliefs about how her race factored into how the judges and public perceived her. On one hand, she simply thought that if she was better than everyone else, they would have to take heed and give her higher scores no matter her race.
On the other hand, she believed if she had been white, she would have received more endorsements and been a bigger name in the sport.
The notion that Black people have to be better just to be seen as equal is a common narrative within our communities and might, in fact, have been the case for Surya.
While it is clear Surya wrestled with these complex race issues, her worldview may have been colored by her upbringing as a Black girl raised by two adoptive white parents in France and participating in two of the predominantly whitest sports, gymnastics and figure skating, throughout her whole life.
In a way, she was also afforded a certain level of privilege given that her mom was her coach and had access to facilities which allowed them to avoid many hefty costs typically associated with the sport.
These expenses have been a hindrance for less advantaged families and a huge reason why few Black kids are able to participate in figure skating.
With the love and support of her family and inspiration from Debi Thomas, the first Black woman to figure skate professionally, Surya glided her way to astronomical heights and captured the hearts of many young Black girls along the way.
After winning the European Championships five times, placing second in the World Championships for 3 consecutive years, and barely missing making the podium by scoring 4th overall at the 1994 Olympics, her impressive record speaks for itself.
It is important to note that Surya’s contributions to figure skating extend way beyond just her wins and losses. After her signature one-foot backflip stirred controversy, it led to significant discussions about the rigidness of the rules and spawned meaning changes within the sport.
Also, her risky costume and eccentric music choices pushed conventional boundaries and added a new flair that lives on in today’s skaters.
If you want to know more about Surya’s story and rise to prominence, check out ESPN’s short documentary on her called Rebel on Ice.
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