Mabel Fairbanks: Skating
American Star of the Women’s International Sports Hall of Fame
The story of American figure skating great Mabel Fairbanks is one part mystery, one part fairytale, three parts determination and all legendary. Years before athletes like Jackie Robinson and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton broke racial barriers across the American professional sports leagues, a young Mabel Fairbanks was gliding her way to underground fame on the public ice rinks of New York City. After her athletic career was over, Fairbanks dedicated her life to the advancement of other athletes, particularly those of color, within the sport of figure skating. This is her story.
Though known for her candor with reporters as it regarded figure skating, Fairbanks seldom spoke about the early years of her life, making some aspects of her youth, including her birth date, a mystery. Fairbanks is believed to have been born in 1916 in the Florida Everglades (prompting a manager to later nickname her the “Swanee Snow Bird”) to parents of African-American and Seminole descent. As a very young girl, Fairbanks was sent to New York City to live with an older brother. The reasoning for this move is much speculated about, with explanations ranging from poverty and abuse to abandonment and being orphaned.1With all of the mystery surrounding her early years, one thing is certain. It is this move to New York City that permanently changed the course of Mabel Fairbanks’s life.
In Harlem, Fairbanks’s fairytale unfolds. After watching skaters in Central Park, a young Fairbanks purchased a one-dollar pair of skates at a pawn shop and began to teach herself the graceful movements of figure skating. Although often turned away from rinks because of her race, her raw talent soon attracted the attention of famed skater and coach Maribel Vinson. Impressed by Fairbanks’s skills, grace, and determination, Vinson began to give free lessons to the gifted, self-taught skater. Gliding on a pair of pawn shop blades, a poor young woman from Harlem quickly became one of America’s best amateur figure skaters.
Fairbanks enjoyed a meteoric rise to public recognition, but her fairytale was short-lived. In the elite world of 1930s and 1940s figure skating, Fairbanks’s race made her talent, skill, and grace largely irrelevant at the competitive level. A1943 article in Time Magazine states that “experts rate her superior to most amateur whites and unquestionably the best skater of her race,” but also points out that “producers who may be impressed draw the color line.”2 Since skating clubs were unwilling to admit a member of color, Fairbanks was never able to compete at the national or international level. Instead, she spent her career displaying her skills on a portable rink in New York nightclubs and touring California, Mexico, and South America with the Rhythm on Ice show.3 By the 1950s, Fairbanks had hung up her skates.
Although it was her beauty, skill, and novelty that first drew the public’s attention, it was her willpower, fortitude, and love of the sport that made her a legend. Over the next 50 years, Fairbanks dedicated herself to coaching, teaching, and promoting the sport of figure skating, particularly to young people of color. Working from Southern California, her early years as a coach were spent teaching the art of the ice to the children of major Hollywood stars. Still facing racism, including a “colored trade not solicited” sign at a Los Angeles area ice rink, Fairbanks inspired her students to rise beyond their surroundings and reach for their dreams. Her students included Atoy Wilson, the first African-American winner of a national title; Richard Ewell III and Michelle McCladdie, the first African-Americans to win a national title in pairs; Tai Babalonia and Randy Gardner, who she paired together and who later won a world pairs championship and five national titles; and Kristi Yamaguchi, an Olympic legend.4 Already having changed the face of the sport, Fairbanks committed herself to changing the future.
Finally, in the 1990s, Fairbanks began to receive public recognition for her contributions to the figure skating community. In 1997, Fairbanks was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, the first African-American to receive that honor. Fairbanks was posthumously inducted into the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame in 2001, just days after succumbing to myasthenia gravis, a degenerative muscular disease. Upon her 1997 induction, Fairbanks stated, “I was denied opportunities, but [decided] I would do anything I could to make sure other black skaters were not denied a chance to participate at the very highest levels of competition . . . I honestly believe God put me here to help open up skating for all people, regardless of race and color.”5 Fairbanks’s dedication and determination certainly paid off.
Jackie Robinson once stated that “a life is not important except in the impact it has on others’ lives.” His contemporary, Mabel Fairbanks, lived out this statement every day as both an athlete and a coach. Her grace and beauty, perseverance and grit acted as an inspiration to generations of athletes, regardless of race, color, or creed. Mabel Fairbanks reshaped the face and future of American figure skating; her life was important.
1. Ronald A. Scheurer, “Breaking the Ice: The Mabel Fairbanks Story,” American Visions, December 1, 1997.
2. “Swanee Snow Bird,” Time Magazine, November 29, 1943.
3. Nancy Gavilanes, “A Pioneer at the Rink is Proud of Her Legacy,” New York Times, January 14, 2001, Figure Skating, Sports section.
4. Women’s Sports Foundation, “Mabel Fairbanks: Breaking Down Barriers,” Athletes, http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/cgi-bin/iowa/athletes/article.html?record=71.
5. Ronald A. Scheurer, “Breaking the Ice.”
This excerpt was written by Catherine Lahey.