About the Mabel Fairbanks Skatingly Yours Fund
The Mabel Fairbanks Skatingly Yours Fund financially assists and supports the training and development of promising figure skaters who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) with the goal of helping them realize and achieve their maximum athletic potential.
Inspired by the ideals and values of U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame member Mabel Fairbanks, annual awards are executed by the joint efforts of U.S. Figure Skating and the Lisa McGraw Figure Skating Foundation. Awards will be given to figure skating athletes who demonstrate and emphasize the attributes of good sportsmanship, commitment, perseverance and determination in striving to be their very best in the sport.
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Mabel Fairbanks: the ‘Grand Dame’ of African American Figure Skaters
By Atoy Wilson
Mabel Fairbanks was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in the early 1920s where her life was subjugated by adject poverty, bigotry and Jim Crow laws. In the early 1930s, Fairbanks and her brothers and sisters moved to New York City as more and more people started to migrate north.
There, at an early age, she was drawn to the sport of figure skating. During the cold winters of the city, she would curiously watch the twirling and gliding skaters from afar in Central Park. After seeing Sonja Henie’s movie One In A Million, she was determined to learn to skate. She took herself to the north end of Harlem with a pair of used, oversized skates, and started to teach herself to skate on small frozen ponds and rivulets.
In her continued desire to practice her skills on ice, she ventured out into the city to find a proper ice rink facility. Time after time she was denied entrance to skate at many of the city’s coveted rinks because of the color of her skin, however, she did not let that deter her.
The manager of the Gay Blades Ice Rink on West 52nd Street noted her persistence and finally let her in, but requested that she only skate during the last 30 minutes of the evening session. Her enthusiasm and dazzling spirit caught the eye of legendary coach and nine-time U.S. ladies champion Maribel Vinson Owen, who helped refine Fairbanks’ skating technique. Fairbanks’ tenacity was finally starting to shatter the race barrier in the city.
Because she was not allowed to compete due to race and bigotry of the city’s skating community, Owen encouraged her to create her own shows and events. Taking that suggestion to heart, Fairbanks soon began producing her own shows at the Gay Blades Ice Rink after closing hours, as well as shows in supper clubs, the Apollo Theatre, and other social venues in and around Harlem.
In the late 1940s Fairbanks left the east coast for California. She quickly gained fame and respect, becoming the coach of the children of Hollywood’s elite, including Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Ozzie and Harriet’s Ricky Nelson and Otto Preminger. She also made guest appearances on the popular KTLA ”Frosty Frolics” TV show.
Fairbanks eventually broadened her training pool to fulfill her deep desire to coach young competitive skaters of all races, with her primary focus on helping nurture and support African American figure skaters. Some of those talented students include Atoy Wilson, Richard Ewell and Michelle McCladdie, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Bobby Beauchamp, Leslie Robinson, and many others. Along with inspiring, mentoring and knowing figure skating greats the likes of Peggy Fleming, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi, Rudy Galindo and Debi Thomas.
Her coaching style helped her students not only to become great champions, but also become upstanding individuals. Even though she never stood on a podium as a champion, Fairbanks took great pride and satisfaction in her students who did.
Fairbanks coached until she was 79 years old. In 1997, Fairbanks became the first African American to be inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, and in October 2001, she was posthumously inducted into the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame.
Mabel Fairbanks quietly passed away in September 2001 in Burbank, California, leaving a bright legacy as a trailblazer and the “Grand Dame” of African American figure skaters.
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