Black History Month

Surya Bonaly

Updated: Feb 12

Honoring Black History Month.

Celebrating Black athletes in sports, dance and arts.

Joel Richardson | The Washington Post

Surya Bonaly is best known for and became globally famous for being the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on only one blade; she performed it at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Bonaly was born in France in 1973 and adopted at 8 months old by a white French couple.

Her mother was a sports coach who taught multiple disciplines from gymnastics to figure skating. Whenever Bonaly's mother was at the skating rink teaching students, Bonaly tagged along and put on skates. – 2019 Interview with Kare11 Minneapolis News

Today she resides in Minnesota and coaches in partnership with her fiancé.

"Even if it was just some push-ups, if someone asked me to do 20, I would do 30, and I think that has helped me through life by always giving more." – Bonaly (CNBC 2019)

“I don’t know if race made it more difficult, but it certainly made me stronger. Maybe I won’t be accepted by a white person. But if I’m better, they have no choice.” – Bonaly (Washington Post 2018)

She began skating at the age of 2 and developed a passion for gymnastics at the age of 4. A junior champion gymnast who transitioned to skating full-time as a preteen, she was able to perform backflips by the time she was 12.

Bonaly is a three-time World Cup silver medalist, five-time champion of Europe and a nine-time champion of France.

“A versatile athlete and one of the most decorated figure skaters to ever come from France, Bonaly became a champion while defying the ubiquitous “ice princess” trope that still dominates the figure skating world.” – Vice Magazine, 2018

Her Skating Style Was Heavily Critiqued

“Judging someone on artistic merit invites bias. What is beautiful and breathtaking to you may not be the same to me.” – Alfred Mathewson, Surya's father

Surya was considered to have an unorthodox jumping style that was not in line with the traditional style of skating. In 1992 Bonaly changed coaches and began training in the United States with Frank Carroll to cultivate her artistry, and her artistic scores improved but the loaded criticism continued.

At the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan it came down to a choice between Yuka Sato’s artistry and dynamic footwork and Surya Bonaly’s gymnastic jumping. The judges gave the championship to Sato, and Bonaly at first refused to join the other medalists on the awards podium, sparking criticism from the press and skating world. – Los Angeles Times

Bonaly later shared that her actions came from frustration. In being constantly criticized for not fitting into the mold of what a skater should be, she had changed coaches, changed her skating style, and now reflected an image closer to what the traditional ideal was—but she still didn’t medal though she had skated a more difficult routine than Sato. – Vice Magazine, 2018

About Her Famous Jump

At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano Bonaly famously performed her signature move, the now iconic one-footed backflip, in competition.

The backflip, which has been a mainstay of show skating and exhibitions for decades had been banned since 1976, after American Terry Kubicka landed a two-footed version at the Innsbruck Olympics.

Going into the Games, Bonaly suffered from an Achilles’ tendon injury so it wasn’t surprising that her short program landed her in sixth place. “I wanted to do something to please the crowd, not the judges,” she said that night, according to the Miami Herald. – Washington Post, 2018

She says it [the jump] was a way for her to make her final performance memorable. "I was not a 100 percent at my full potential because of my body," she said. "So at the last second, I said I can't go on anymore. My legs hurt too much. My Achilles can't do anything. What should I do? Everything is clicking in my head, and I said okay, I don't have much time. I know it's my last competition ever, ever, ever. I have the back flip! Why not? If I land on one foot it's still okay." She said that all went through her head while she was on the ice, still moving, still performing. She said she wanted to go out with a bang, and she did. She performed the flip, and landed successfully. She lost points for the back flip. She placed 10th. – 2019 Interview with Kare11 Minneapolis News

Watch the interview here.

“That was my last Olympics, and pretty much my last competition ever. I wanted to leave a trademark. If someone else did it later in a competition, I would have been pissed because I was kind of the one who created it, so now it’s in everyone’s memory!” – Bonaly (The Root, 2014)