Why aren’t there more Black figure skaters at the Winter Olympics?

Figure skater Vanessa James competes at the 2018 Winter Olympics
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BEIJING (AP) — Before her own Olympic career began, Canadian figure skater Vanessa James had seen Black Girl Magic on the ice. It was on display at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, when French skater Surya Bonaly leapt into the air, kicked into a backflip and landed on one leg.

Yet despite the move being illegal – both then and now – Bonaly’s tenacity in attempting it has inspired many who have followed her.

“I wanted to do a backflip, but I was always really too scared to try it,” says James, who is skating in Beijing in her fourth Winter Games after representing France in Vancouver and Pyeongchang.

The Salchow, the Biellmann, the Charlotte spiral — these figure skating standards are named after white people from the 20th century. And in a century-old sport that was largely European until just a few decades ago, some wonder: How can more Black athletes make the same lasting imprint on it?

“If you don’t see yourself in the sport, how can you believe that you belong, how can you believe that you can be the best, how do you know that you can be creative or that you’ll be accepted for your uniqueness?” says James, who in 2010 was one half of the first Black French pairs skating duo with Yannick Bonheur.

There are no Black athletes competing in figure skating for the Americans this year, though the U.S. team includes five Asian American skaters, an openly LGBTQ skater and the first gender-nonbinary skater. Mexico’s figure skating team consists of Donovan Carrillo, the lone representative from Latin America.

Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan came to define Asian American representation at the Olympics in the 1990s, while China, Japan and South Korea became more prominent in the early 2000s. And with Nathan Chen headed for a gold medal, and Alysa Liu and Karen Chen on the American team, the pipeline of figure skaters has yet to show signs of slowing.

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James, who skates in the pairs’ event with teammate Eric Radford, is the only Black figure skater competing for any nation in Beijing. She carries not just the hopes of Canadian and French skaters, but also Black girls and women, boys and men across the world who strain to see themselves represented on the ice and slopes during the Winter Games.

Part of the reason, says Elladj Baldé, a Black and Russian professional figure skater from Canada, is that “Black skaters weren’t allowed to be in figure skating clubs (or) in figure skating competitions” during the sport’s early years.

Whether it was Europe’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed and petite figure skating standard or a period of racial segregation at rinks in the U.S., Black skaters who broke barriers in the sport did so with metaphorical weights chained to their skates.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of room and a lot of time for Black skaters to innovate,” Baldé says, “especially if a sport is confining everyone to a certain style.”

Baldé’s unconventional, hip-hop-inflected dancing style has gone viral on social media in recent years, allowing him to leverage the notoriety to push for both change and diversity. The Stake Global Foundation, which he co-founded last year, works to build or rehabilitate ice rinks and exposes Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) in Canada to figure skating.

For consecutive Winter Olympics, the Canadian and French Olympic teams have included Black skaters, which some say is a reflection of Bonaly’s influence. But the American team has struggled to establish a strong pipeline of Black talent.

Historians trace the problem to the stories of Black American skaters such as Joseph Vanterpool, a World War II veteran from New York City who took up professional skating after seeing an ice show in England but was rarely featured outside of all-Black showcases. Mabel Fairbanks, a pioneer whose Olympic dreams were dashed by racist exclusion from U.S. Figure Skating in the 1930s, was by far the most successful of the sport’s Black trailblazers.

Fairbanks later opened doors that were closed to her for generations, including one of her mentees, Debi Thomas. In the 1988 Calgary Games, Thomas became the first Black American to medal at the Winter Olympics. But few others have come close to appearing in Olympic competition after her.

“How did somebody like Debi Thomas have the success that she had, break down the barriers that she did, but yet didn’t that lead to further influx of BIPOC skaters following in her footsteps?” wonders Ramsey Baker, the executive director of U.S. Figure Skating.

It’s a question the governing body had wrestled with for years, in addition to the socioeconomic barriers associated with elite competition. Then, diversity in figure skating became an even bigger focus following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by American police, amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls for racial justice and equity.

As protests over police brutality erupted across the world, the figure skating associations in Canada and the U.S. responded with pledges to answer protesters’ cries and make changes from within. However, both also have faced some criticism from Black athletes who felt the pledges were a ploy for media attention.

Last year, U.S. Figure Skating hired Kadari Taylor-Watson, a Black woman, as its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Her work has included its first diversity census of skaters, judges and other sport officials. Through a working group, the association plans to put tangible action behind the pledge to be even more inclusive of Black skaters.

“We have to think about the 100 years of not just U.S. figure skating history, but the 100 years of U.S. history,” Taylor-Watson says, “and all of the racial turmoil that has been going on in our society that created those barriers.

“We don’t want to invite BIPOC skaters into a community that is not welcoming for them or ready for them.”

James’s participation in the Winter Games coincides with Black History Month, an annual observance that originated in the United States but has been recognized in Canada, Britain and increasingly in other parts of Europe.

Former French Olympic figure skater Maé-Bérénice Méité, who is Black, gave James a shoutout over Instagram ahead of the first day of the figure skating team competition in Beijing last week.

“So to all of you who’d like to support an example of what Black excellence looks like, I encourage you to support my best friend,” Méité wrote to her more than 52,000 followers.

James says the two came up in the sport together. “It’s important to have her support because we see each other when we look in the mirror,” James says. “When she’s on the ice, I see me.”

She and Méité know they are beacons of inspiration for young, aspiring Black skaters. James says she imagines that somewhere, young Black girls are watching the Winter Games and thinking, “I look like her. I wanna be just like her. I can do that. I can be better than that.”

“That’s the key to excellence,” James adds. “It’s not just seeing it once. It’s recreating it and repeating it. We need that. We need to grow.”

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Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”