The late Mabel Fairbanks might not have been afforded the opportunity to chase Olympic gold as an ice skater, but she is still rightfully recognized as a pioneer of the sport. Fairbanks is the first Black woman inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, and coached many of the sport’s brightest stars.
Fairbanks was born November 14, 1915 in the Florida Everglades. Little is known about her young life but birth records state she was of Black and Seminole Indian descent. Some reports state she was orphaned and found homeless on a park bench in New York by a wealthy white woman who gave her a job, but she rarely spoke of her past.
What is known is that she was hired as a babysitter by a white woman who lived near New York’s Central Park. While working, she began watching the white children skate at the ice rink and wished to join them. The rink denied her entry because of the color of her skin, but she was determined to learn. Eventually, she was given opportunities to skate in local rinks and given pointers by known coaches of the time. Fairbanks also eavesdropped on lessons by instructors to white skaters and began copying the moves.
Despite her talents, the U.S. Skating Team would not admit a Black woman to its ranks. Instead, Fairbanks skated with ice shows across New York and North America. In some instances, she was the only Black ice skater many had ever seen. With her dreams of competitive skating behind her, Fairbanks traveled to Los Angeles and started a career as a coach.
While on the West Coast, Fairbanks continued performing in ice shows and befriended Hollywood stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest of the Rat Pack. She was also close to Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cary Grant.
As a full-time coach, Fairbanks molded the careers of U.S. Pairs champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Scott Hamilton, 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, Debi Thomas and countless other U.S. and world champions. Atoy Wilson, the first African-American to win a U.S. skating title, was coached by Fairbanks as well.
Fairbanks was a fierce champion of equality in ice skating, and was instrumental in forcing Los Angeles’ Culver City skating club to admit its first Black member in 1965.
Fairbanks was entered in the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1997.
Fairbanks died in 2001 at the age of 85. In October 2001, she was posthumously entered into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.