Surya Bonaly, The skater who defied gravity and prejudice

As the best ice-skaters currently compete in Montpellier (France) at the World Championships, former French champion Surya Bonaly remains an exception in this sport’s history. Time to pay tribute to her.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Sofia Moorefield – 11th grade.

The Olympics happened a few weeks ago, and figure skaters demonstrated baffling techniques, jumps, and even made history- though admittedly instigating a lot of drama. What one couldn’t help but notice was the lack of diversity on the Olympic ice, with not a single black person present. In the 90s, Surya Bonaly was that person. And despite being the only figure skater to successfully land a backflip on ice on a single blade, she has never won a gold medal. 

She’s a legendary black, female figure that made history, and changed the sport forever. So where is she now? 

Wide Horizons and Small beginnings

Her parents used to drive from France to India by van and back, and on one of their trips, they witnessed the appalling poverty and way of life that littered the streets of India first hand. It convinced them to adopt a child, and a while after, with a lot of paperwork behind them, they adopted Surya– the Hindi name for sun. She wasn’t Indian, but they loved her just the same. 

Since she was exceptionally young, she showed great promise in athletics. Her first sport was fencing, then ballet, diving, figure skating and gymnastics. She competed in many competitions, and won several medals in junior gymnastics- even at the national level. Master of her own body; powerful and agile, she could soar like little could. But her passion lay in figure skating. 

She would go to the ice rink in Nice, training, on her own or with her mother. One lucky day in 1985, Didier Gailhaguet, a former french figure skater and then coach, visited Nice to train his team. Just like every other day, Surya was there. Gailhaguet noticed her talent and decided to give her a shot. After just a week of training, she was better than the visiting members of the french national team. She became his prized pupil, and moved to Paris. Early life there was hard. Apartments were expensive, and the van they lived in for several months was cramped, but she was getting better and better at what she loved most. 

Unscalable Mountains

Surya entered the world stage at the winter olympics of 1992, and didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome from the judges. The press labeled her as “Different”, an “Exotic figure on the ice”, and “Unusual in every way”. The world of figure skating is small with a tight, unforgiving mold, and Surya was not the “Ice Queen” everyone was used to. Blatant racism, in other words. Her skin was not the staple pale white that blended into the ice- she stood out, and the audience loved it. 

 She wanted to include a quad, an extraordinarily difficult jump to execute, in her first ever olympic performance; something unheard of in women’s figure skating that her coach Gailhaguet saw as an outlandish risk. He advised her against it, but she wanted to make history and finally step into the spotlight. During her performance she didn’t quite make it, and drama ensued. He refused to train those who wouldn’t listen to him, and left Surya on her own. Her mother replaced him. She was strict and demanding; far from a break for Surya.

 In 1993, she competed in the European Championships, Helsinki. She skated well; landing seven triple jumps and a Triple combination. Her opponent, Oksana Baiul lands 5 triple jums and no combinations. Surya got silver, and Oksana won gold – though it was clear Surya skated better on technical points alone. The winter olympics of 1994 proved especially difficult for the athletes. She was scheduled to skate last- a position that most consider to be the worst- after all the other skaters have given their best and wowed the judges. Battling with injury and mental strain, Surya placed 4th. She could taste the podium, but she wasn’t quite there. “It was a nightmare”, she said. One month later was the World Championship of Japan. That time, she skated exceptionally well, and had high hopes of receiving gold, but she fell short. Many see silver as an incredible achievement in honor, but for Surya, it meant that she still wasn’t good enough.

After dedicating her entire life to a sport, sacrificing so much, the judges refused to recognize her as the best. On the ice, she refused to get onto the podium, and removed the silver medal from her neck. As tears streamed down her face, the crowd both booed and cheered her. It was an emotional and controversial moment that was witnessed around the world. “When you do sport, the rule is that you’re supposed to play fair, to be a good athlete and good sport, I get it, But I think at this point it was more an act of saying, ‘OK, this is too much.’ It happened many years in a row.” Bonaly said in an interview with wbur. 

A Sight to Behold

1998. It’s her last olympics, and she’s tired of not being enough. Still without a gold medal to her name, and after years of built up frustrations and injuries, Surya wanted to be remembered. Dressed in a striking light blue decorated by sparkling gold, she glided across the ice effortlessly; carving into it with her metallic edges, and spinning like a helicopter seed. Then, she leaped into the air. It wasn’t a quad or a toe loop or anything the judges had ever seen- she was upside down, in a backflip. The world took a collective breath as they watched her, suspended in air, suspended in time, suspended in history. She lands. The judges bow their heads to their screens and papers, scratching away with their pens or starting ahead with maskless expressions. The Audience roared behind them. People were on their feet in the stands, in bars and on their couches. After the performance, she couldn’t stop smiling. 

Not even then did she win gold. 

Role Model

Today, though a gold medal never hung round her neck, she is considered one of the most monumental figure skaters in history, and is a role model for women and people of color around the world. 

After Surya retired in 1998 following her last olympics, she immediately turned pro, and traveled the world to perform for her beloved fans. Crowds would greet her with monumental applause, and people would get excited for her heart stopping jump. Now, she works as a skating coach with her husband Peter Biever, who she met on the ice, and travels to communities of color to inspire and guide the figure skaters of the future. 

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