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Skating For Her Moment The Mabel Fairbanks Story

Presented by the LA84 Foundation during Black History Month from LA84's oral history collection. (Best viewed on horizontal browsing. All videos have captioning available.)

Kristi Yamaguchi. Rudy Galindo. Debi Thomas. Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. All world-class athletes who reached the pinnacle of the figure skating world. The common thread? They were once coached by a legendary, one-of-a-kind mentor...

Her name was Mabel Fairbanks

Mabel Fairbanks was born in Florida in 1915. She was orphaned at 8, and moved to New York City. In New York City, she bounced from home to home, and ended up sleeping on a bench in Central Park.

And a lifelong love began. Young Mabel bought a new pair of skates at a pawn shop, and began clipping coupons out of the newspaper to skate at the Brooklyn Ice Palace at night.

Instructors in New York City took a quick fondness to Mabel, giving her skating and ice dancing lessons. One of these was Maribel Vinson, a 1932 Olympic medalist and a contemporary of Mabel's idol, three-time Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie.

Vinson taught Mabel a number of jumps, and tried to get her included in ice shows in the city. Many shows flat-out denied Mabel based on her race, while Henie herself did not include Mabel in her show for fear that the talented young skater would steal the spotlight.

"See, the instructors liked me. People didn't like me but the instructors did. I think it was because I was black. They were surprised to see a black person and how far they can go. But they learned to love me."

"

But Mabel's talent could not be denied.

She made her way into shows into her 20s, eventually moving across the country to Los Angeles. From here, she toured internationally, performing in Mexico and Cuba with the Ice Capades and Ice Follies groups that had rejected her back in New York. She even turned down an offer of $1,000 per week to stay in Cuba and teach ice skating.

"Suffer for your art"

That was Mabel's mantra, accordingly to five-time U.S. National Champion and student Tai Babilonia.

Mabel became a star on the West Coast. She performed at night clubs in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and befriended celebrities of the day like Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cary Grant. In Hollywood, she found a place.

Mabel (left) and fellow skater Mae Edwards rehearse for a 1954 episode of "Frosty Frolics," an LA-based variety show that combined figure skating, music and dance.

While performing at shows in iconic venues like the Hollywood Polar Palace and the Pasadena Winter Gardens, Mabel discovered that her magnetic personality made her a perfect instructor.

"I wouldn't let anyone turn me around because God had chosen me to put black skating on the map. The only way you can do it is to reach some black kids to skate."

As her teaching career took off, Mabel ran into the same issues she faced back in New York. While parents eagerly paid her for lessons, rinks often did not allow her to skate or teach because she was black.

In 1963, the same year as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March in Washington, Mabel's pupil Atoy Wilson, a young African-American skater, won his first title by winning the Southwest Pacific juvenile men's competition.

Wilson became the first African American skater to compete at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1965, placing second, and won the novice title a year later. Wilson was her first student to enter top-level competition, but he certainly would not be the last.

It was Mabel who introduced a young student named Tai Babilonia to an up-and-comer named Randy Gardner in the mid-1960s. From the start, Mabel knew she had something special.

Tai and Randy went on to win five national championships, took home gold at the 1979 World Championships, and qualified for the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games. 2018 marks their 50th anniversary as a skating duo.

Part Filipino, African-American and Hopi Indian, Tai and her partner Randy "were a different look." But it was never an issue.

"She [Mabel] protected us from hurtful remarks. I just knew that when I got out on the ice, I had a job to do. And we did it."

So while the Olympic dream for Mabel never materialized, her second career as an instructor continued to flourish.

After the Hollywood Polar Palace burned down in 1963, Mabel mostly set up shop at the Culver City Ice Arena.

With no kids of her own, she often took on a motherly role. Mabel would often have students stay over at her house in the Hollywood Hills so that she could drive them to practice the next day. It was common for her to pay for skates and lessons for aspiring skaters of color.

Over the years, skaters from across the world visited Los Angeles for a chance to learn from Mabel.

She continued to fight the overt and subtle racism in the figure skating world, from calling out biased judges to pushing for people of color to join figure skating clubs, as membership was often required to be eligible to compete and move up the ranks of the sport. One of her students, Richard Ewell, became the first African-American to be accepted into a U.S. Figure Skating member club. Atoy Wilson, Babilonia and Gardner made their impact in the skating world. Among her other students were...

  • Debi Thomas, the first black athlete to medal in the Winter Olympic Games
  • Kristi Yamaguchi, the first Asian-Amerian to win Olympic gold in figure skating
  • Scott Hamilton, 1984 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world singles champion
  • Tiffany Chin, the first Asian-American to win a singles title at the U.S. Championships
  • Rudy Galindo, the first openly gay U.S. figure skating champion and pioneer for Latino figure skaters
  • Michelle McCaddie, who along with Ewell were the first African-American national pairs champions at the junior level

It was these students who campaigned arduously for Mabel to be honored for her contributions to the sport. It was these students who wrote letters and made calls to the national figure skating body. In a letter nominating Fairbanks to the Hall of Fame, Atoy Wilson wrote:

"The honors held by Richard Ewell, Michelle McCladdie, Bobby Beauchamp, Tai Babilonia and other skaters of color would never have been possible without the tenacious will of this most unique woman."

In 1997, it finally happened. On a stage in Nashville at the 1997 United States Figure Skating Championships, Mabel Fairbanks became the first African-American inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

"The smile on her face was everything. It was everything"

Mabel Fairbanks died on September 29, 2001 at the age of 81. She was posthumously inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame the next month. And while she may be gone, her spirit and legacy remain alive and present across the figure skating world.

"Be kind to people. Let them know that they are people too. That's all you have to do. Just forget race and say this is the human race here. Forget about whether they're black, yellow, green, purple or whatever. They are human beings, and if you can remember that they are just as good as you are or as bad as you are, this is it"

-Mabel Fairbanks

The LA84 Foundation's interviews with Mabel Fairbanks were conducted in January 1999. Photo credits: U.S. Figure Skating.

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Credits:

U.S. Figure Skating

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