Mabel Fairbanks was denied the chance to become figure skating champion because of racism. She never made it to the Olympics, but she coached and mentored the first skaters of color who did when she became a coach. She was given minor roles when she performed in ice shows, so she made sure that the black skaters she coached became members of well-known figure skating clubs and had the opportunity to excel. in the sport.
Among the skaters she mentored were the famous Debi Thomas, a two-time American champion who won the world title in 1986 and the Olympic bronze medal in 1988, and the Olympic gold medalist in 1992 Kristi Yamaguchi.
“There wouldn’t be Atoy Wilson or Tai or Richard Ewell or Debi Thomas or any of those people without his tenacity, his aggressive, diplomatic way of being determined to open those doors for us because they don’t weren’t open to him,” Atoy Wilson, the first African-American to win a title in a national competition in 1965, who was also coached by Fairbanks, told the Los Angeles Times. “She was a visionary.
Born in Florida in 1915, Fairbanks’ mother died when she was young, so she moved to New York to live with a brother. Later, she found a job as a babysitter for a wealthy family. While working there, she began to see from the living room window children and others skating on the ice in Central Park. She loved it and wanted to join them.
She knew how hard it could be to be black, but she still decided to buy a pair of skates for $1 at a pawn shop. From the start, no one wanted to teach her, so she started learning on her own by listening to lessons from white skaters, according to the Los Angeles Times. But soon her talents were recognized by coaches like nine-time United States Champion Maribel Vinson.
“Maribel Vinson – every time she came to New York she worked with me,” Fairbanks recalled in an interview. “And she said, now it’s our secret. Don’t tell anyone that I work with you, that I give you lessons. She said, because you’re not going anywhere. They will not allow you to participate in competitions.
Although she knew she could never compete nationally or internationally, Fairbanks continued to skate. And she had to fight to get into some rinks. “They had a sign at the Pasadena Conservatories that said ‘Unsolicited Color Trade,'” Fairbanks recounted. distributed everywhere until they finally let me in.”
Known for her “shiny costumes and golden skates,” Fairbanks caught the eye of some New York City social clubs and performed on a 6-foot-by-6-foot portable ice rink her uncle Wally made for her. She has toured Southern California, Mexico and South America with the show Rhythm on Ice, as reported by The New York Times.
Usually she didn’t get the chance to do her best jumps and spins because “none of the white skaters wanted to be upstaged by someone black,” she told The Times in an interview.
Fairbanks moved to Southern California in the 1940s where she coached many black skating talents. It was Fairbanks that paired Tai Babilonia with Randy Gardner, the future five-time National Couples Champions in the 1970s, in addition to working with other future champions.
Truly, Fairbanks, who was of black and Seminole descent, overcame the odds to become a well-known skater in New York and on the touring circuit. She never got to compete, but became a top coach and opened the door for other young black people to compete in skating. She also became the first African-American woman in the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
“I feel great satisfaction because when I started, we didn’t have any black skaters,” she told The New York Times in 2001. “I wasn’t allowed on the rink, but I fought until I got in.
Fairbanks died in 2001 at the age of 85. The Los Angeles Times writes that “her resting place at Hollywood Forever Cemetery is marked by a plaque engraved with a pair of figure skates and the words Skatingly Yours”, the phrase she would add when she signed autographs.