In 1977, Mabel Fairbanks was the first African American inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. After watching a Sonja Henje movie, she became enthralled with figure skating. Bargaining for a pair of skates two sizes too large in a pawnshop, Mabel illustrated the perseverance and determination which were to become the hallmarks of her life. She stuffed the skates with cotton; gained her balance by walking up and down the stairs in her building; and a 6 foot by 6 foot makeshift rink was constructed in her room by her uncle using tin, wood and dry ice.
When she ventured to the local ice rink, she was denied entry. She continued to hone her skills while returning to the rink repeatedly. Her persistence paid off: the manager finally relented and the rest, as we say, is black history.
She developed into a formidable figure skater but she was barred from joining any figure skating clubs, which was the route to official competition. She also attempted to join ice shows but she was not allowed. Eventually, she traveled with ice shows to the West Indies and Mexico, with the knowledge that "they needed someone to skate in dark countries." Needless to say, she wowed her audiences with her spins and jumps. On her return to Los Angeles, the racial situation remained unchanged, and she continued to perform at nightclubs such as Ciro's and other local showrooms.
After her pro years passed her by, she became a teacher and coach, giving free lessons to those who could not afford to pay. She coached the first African American to win a national title (Atoy Wilson, 1966), and the first African Americans to win the national pairs title (Richard Ewell and Michelle McCladdie, 1972). Included among her students were some of the sport's luminaries such as Kristi Yamaguchi, Tiffany Chin, Rudy Galindo, and a young Scott Hamilton. Her knowledge and insight led to the unlikely pairing of Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, which resulted in this duo winning five national titles and the world championship.
Despite her skills and talent, she was never allowed to take part in official competition. Her tenacity and love for the sport gave her supreme satisfaction as she reflected: "If I had been allowed to go to the Olympics or Ice Capades like I wanted to then, I may not have helped other blacks like I did, and coached such wonderful skaters, and I think all that has been just as important and meaningful."
No jumps were named after her such as the Lutz (as in Alois Lutz) and the Salchow (as in Ulrich Salchow). Her spins—where you extend your leg back and above your head and another where you hold your leg straight up—which are commonplace today were dismissed as "spin variations." Yet she spun around and jumped over the obstacles that racism placed in her way.
Mabel Fairbanks: Breaking Down Barriers
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