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Starr Andrews inspiring more figure skaters to be “Black Like Me”

NBC Sports logo NBC Sports 2/25/2021 Karen Rosen
a screen shot of a woman © Getty Images

A video of Starr Andrews skating to “Whip My Hair” when she was 9 years old has an astounding 56 million views on YouTube.

But it’s the 19-year-old’s performance to “Black Like Me,” which she posted online last summer, that attracted an admiring tweet from former first lady Michelle Obama and has allowed Andrews to express her athletic activism.

The program “honors the struggles that African Americans have and still are enduring,” Andrews said, adding that she related to the lyrics in the Mickey Guyton song.

“She says it’s a hard life for people of color,” Andrews said, “because we get racially profiled.”

As the top African American figure skater in 2021 – and the most accomplished of this century – Andrews has a through line back to Mabel Fairbanks, who was denied a chance to compete in the 1930s because of her race.

Fairbanks performed in ice shows and went on to a career as a U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame coach. She died in 2001 at age 85, when Andrews was just 3 months old. But one of Fairbanks’ pupils, Olympian and world pairs champion Tai Babilonia, became a mentor to Andrews in the Los Angeles area when she was a pre-teen.

“She used to tell me all the time about Mabel,” Andrews said, “and some pointers Mabel told her she would relay to me.

“She would tell me to always keep my head up and Tai taught me how to bow – just really small details, but the smallest details make the biggest difference.”

Now Fairbanks’ legacy is making a direct contribution to Andrews’ training – and it could make all the difference in her quest to become an Olympian.

Last month Andrews received the first grant from the Mabel Fairbanks Skatingly Yours Fund, which was established to support the training and development of promising figure skaters who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).

The top award is $25,000, which this year has been matched by U.S. Figure Skating corporate partner Guaranteed Rate for a total of $50,000.

“It just opens a lot more doors for me to get more ice time, more lessons and take more ballet classes and Pilates and off-ice classes,” said Andrews, who has been working on adding a triple Axel and a quadruple jump to her repertoire. “The more technically difficult my program is, the higher I will rise in the ranks.”

Atoy Wilson, the executor of Fairbanks’ estate, believes Andrews was the “perfect choice” for the scholarship, which is named after the way Fairbanks would sign autographs – “Skatingly Yours.”

“Starr is the leading African American person of color in that rank,” said Wilson, who was coached by Fairbanks and became the first Black skater to compete at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1965, and the first Black national champion a year later when he won the novice division.

“We’ve seen her grow and nurture herself into really becoming a very, very good skater,” Wilson said. “And knowing that she’s moving into the world level of skating, it takes a lot of money and it takes a lot of time and initiative with that – and she had it.”

Andrews was sixth at nationals in 2018 and 2020, the top finish by a Black female at the senior level since Andrea Gardiner placed fifth in 2000.

Wilson said that Andrews is not only confident on the ice, “She’s confident with who she is. That performance that she did, the great tribute to Black Lives Matter, I think there’s a consciousness that’s there, and to me that registers an identity that Mabel had about herself.”

Wilson said that if Fairbanks had a hand in coaching Andrews, she would be “ecstatic” and would urge her to give 120 percent.

“She would really be in there, whispering into her ear,” he said. “Derrick Delmore is the coach, but Mabel would be on the side going, ‘Listen kid, you’ve got the talent. Go for it. Be aggressive. Skate like it’s your last performance. Put everything in there.’ That’s the way that Mabel taught us. That was the way that she really integrated her vibrancy into us.”

Related: Figure Skating

Wilson and Babilonia are developing a biopic about Fairbanks, who would give lessons for free if students couldn’t afford them and she saw that they “had the determination and the concentration and that drive,” Wilson said. “She wouldn’t just give it you; you had to show it to her that you had the initiative to do it.”

In 1986, three African American skaters who at one time had been coached by Fairbanks – Debi Thomas, Rory Flack and Bobby Beauchamp – competed at nationals and won medals. Thomas was the senior women’s champion and Flack and Beauchamp made the podium at the junior level.

By the time Andrews came along, however, she saw no African American skaters to emulate. She recognizes that her success can help attract more people of color to the ice.

“Usually when I’m at nationals I have a couple of little Black girls come up to me, and I’m so touched when they say that I’m their inspiration,” she said. “It makes me so happy because I didn’t really see an African American skater at the time when I was watching it on the TV when I was 10, 11 or 12.

“I feel like there’s a lot of BIPOC people out there with a lot of talent, but the sport is just so expensive, it’s really hard to continue. And being subjective, it’s kind of hard to get into it.”

Andrews began skating when she was 4. Her mother Toshawa was an adult skater who wanted to pass on her passion for the sport, and she did.

“I just feel really free when I’m skating and l fell in love with how the wind felt in my face and just everything about it,” Andrews said.

Because of the pandemic last year, Andrews couldn’t practice from March to May. Those three months were her longest stretch off the ice since missing four weeks with an injury.

Andrews had a hard time regaining her stamina and getting her jumps back. After competing often in the 2019-20 season, she had only two in-person events on her schedule in 2020-21. At Skate America, where she placed eighth, Andrews said, “I feel like I kind of forgot what it felt like to compete, so I was more nervous than I usually would be. That was a new feeling for me as well.”

Competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, Andrews faltered in the short program, placing 17th, which was last among the women. She was 10th in the free skate to pull up to 12th overall.

“I think that I was very fortunate to get out and compete and I just have to keep practicing to not have a program like that again,” Andrews said.

She regained her footing in February with a couple of career highlights. On Feb. 7, a clip of Andrews appeared in the Guaranteed Rate Super Bowl commercial and a day later Michelle Obama linked to the “Black Like Me” video, writing “Wow! Thank you @SkatingStarr – this is such a powerful performance. To all the Black kids out there striving for excellence in the face of those who doubt you: Keep going. Keep telling the story of your experience. We see you.”

Andrews said she has no clue how the former first lady became aware of the program, which she put together in three days for the Peggy Fleming Trophy last July. Andrews’ mother and coaches suggested she record it because it was so beautiful. They decided to put it online in the wake of the demonstrations for justice and racial equality, with various versions garnering more than 150,000 views.

Toshawa sent her daughter a screenshot of the Obama tweet while she was getting ready to put on her skates for practice. Andrews then sat in her chair frozen for 5 minutes. “I thought it was fake at first,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it, I mean, Michelle Obama saw my program! That’s so incredible.”

While Wilson said he is pleased that Andrews has been getting recognition, he said his experience shows that expectations are higher for people of color. “The proof of the pudding is out there on that ice,” he said.

If Andrews does make it to the Olympic or world team, Wilson said it will influence younger skaters “immensely.”

“When you see someone of your own kind out there,” he said, “someone who has done brilliantly, it’s always an initiative, it’s always an inspiration, it’s always that moment you say, ‘I can do this. If she can do it, I can do it.’”

Sadly, in the 1930s Fairbanks wasn’t allowed to do it because she was Black.

Andrews said that when Babilonia told her about Fairbanks’ history with racism, “I didn’t understand why [her color] was such a huge deal that she couldn’t compete. Because the sport isn’t just for one person. It’s for everybody.”

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Starr Andrews inspiring more figure skaters to be “Black Like Me” originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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