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Black figure skater Surya Bonaly broke down barriers in the sport but was grossly underappreciated

'I think we need to continue understanding our history in the sport, but also looking at how strong someone is like Surya. If she can do this, we can all push through a lot harder.'

Black figure skater Surya Bonaly broke down barriers in the sport but was grossly underappreciated
Cover Image Source: Surya Bonaly of France in action during her technical routine at Yubileiny Stadium during the skating competition at the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Chris Cole/ALLSPORT/Getty Images)

When Surya Bonaly started her ice skating career in the early 1990s, she was the only skater of color at many events in Europe. "I wish there was somebody back in my day who was able to do that for me," the 48-year-old retired Black athlete told TODAY. "You always need someone to be the first to do something. I didn't have that, so in my case, I had to be the one for Europe." Bonaly was also ahead of her time on the rink by introducing an explosive athleticism to the sport. At the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, she became the first-ever woman to attempt a quadruple jump in Olympic figure skating by landing a four-revolution jump.


Even though she landed the jump, it did not count for the scoring as judges deemed her attempt was underrotated by about a quarter-turn. "I did not have the idea of being the first woman to do a quad," Bonaly told TIME. "It was, 'Hey, I can do triples so now what's next?' When you know how to do some elements, you always try to raise the bar and do something different, and not stick to the same things forever. I thought it would be good for me because I was also very athletic, I could just try and work on [quad jumps]." Thirty years later, on February 7, Russia's Kamila Valieva became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics.


"It's amazing to think it took that long for it to happen at the Olympics, that it was 30 years ago that I was really pushing myself to go forward," Bonaly said. Adopted from an orphanage in Nice by white parents, Bonaly went on to become a five-time European champion and a three-time silver medalist at the World Championships. Yet she rarely saw her love for the sport reciprocated. "Being an athletic woman of color, but also in many ways being judged because of her physical appearance and her characteristics in a way that was unfair, to be able to break through all of those barriers and still persist in that spot and accomplish all what she accomplished is remarkable," said Andrea Jordan, the chief operating officer of Figure Skating in Harlem.


"For us, as I think about her meaning to our skaters, representation matters. Young people need to see individuals that look like them on and off the ice," Jordan added. Winning the first of her nine national titles as a 15-year-old in 1989, Bonaly quickly became a star in France. Meanwhile, she strived to hone her quad jump even at the cost of suffering through painful falls in practice. However, the inner fire that drove Bonaly to push the boundaries of the sport went underappreciated by the figure skating culture of the time and judges who prized thin, graceful skaters in solemn dresses.


Bonaly landed seven triple jumps with a triple combination at the 1993 World Championships only to see the gold go to Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul who landed five triple jumps with no combinations. "It was a challenge of being the best and being better than the champion, who was white," she said. "I had to be better than a normal skater. It was a challenge every single day, but in a way, it was just like a real fun goal to reach every night." However, it all became too much at the World Championships the following year when she finished second behind Japan's Yuka Sato after skating a rigorous program.


Tears flowed down her face as Bonaly took off her silver medal in frustration and stood alongside the other two skaters on the podium. "I feel that was the beginning of the judges really wearing her down through this sort of attrition of not giving her what she truly deserved," said figure skating coach Joel Savary. "The feeling that I felt was it paints another negative picture of a person of color. You oftentimes think of it as the angry Black woman stereotype, but honestly, that was the only voice that she really had to share that this was unfair. I think she did what she believed was right, and I think a lot of people of color automatically were just saying, 'This sport is unfair, I'm not going to have anything to do with it.'"


"People watched her and turned to another sport and said, 'I'm going to track and field, where the person who makes it to the finish line first wins, or basketball, where the team that scores the most points wins, not this subjective sport,'" he added. "I think people of color saw that and gravitated to more objective sports as opposed to figure skating, with that subjective artistic merit being such a huge part of it." Looking back at that moment now with decades of perspective, Bonaly does not want it to define her. "I didn't want any excuses," she said. "I didn't want it to be that I didn't win because people are racist or people don't like me. If I didn't win or finish at the top, I probably didn't do enough. My only goal was I need to do more than anyone else."


Bonaly's relentless push for bigger and more acrobatic jumps eventually led to changes in the way the sport is judged. "I think we need to continue understanding our history in the sport, but also looking at how strong someone is like Surya," said Savary. "If she can do this, we can all push through a lot harder." For Jordan, Bonaly embodies what she is trying to teach at Figure Skating in Harlem. "We have a creed in our curriculum for our students, and part of it is, 'I am the dreams of women past, and I’m the hope of those to come,'" Jordan said. "For me, that is what Surya represents—all of the dreams that we’ve had as girls of color that she manifested on the ice, but also the hope of those dreams our girls coming up are going to realize because of trailblazers like her."

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