Fifty-one years after he became the first African-American to win a national championship in figure skating, Atoy Wilson remembers how it very nearly slipped away.
It was January 27, 1966 in Berkeley, Calif. Wilson, 14 years old at the time, was in first place in the novice division at the 48th U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Now, as he took the ice for his freestyle routine, he stood four minutes and thirty seconds away from history.
Wilson, 65, still remembers the crescendo of the music as he approached his first jump. He and his coach, Peter Betts, had toiled for months to synchronize everything just so to the high points of his routine.
"I'm skating, getting ready and the big jump ..."
"I tore into it, I really ripped into the edge and ..."
"The effing edge gave out on me," he laughs. "It was a belly flop ... right on the music, too!"
Wilson would recover well enough to win the event, as well the championship. Not long afterward, he retired, ahead of his prime and a possible berth in the 1972 Olympics. Yet within the sport, and especially to the African-American skaters who succeeded him, Wilson remains a seminal figure. He demonstrated that victory was achievable to anyone, no matter the circumstances.
"I would think, 'Wow, maybe I can do the same thing, if he can do it back in the 60s,'" says Larry Holliday, an African-American skater who is a six-time U.S. Adult Master Champion. "Looking over that period, it [was] pretty monumental for him to even come close to winning a title. That's crazy. When I think about it, it's almost like it should never have even happened."
It began with a different fall. Wilson was an eight-year-old from Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, and he was taking his very first figure skating lesson. He had pined for that day for months, ever since his parents took him and his younger brother to see the Ice Follies. He was a budding gymnast then, into tumbling and acrobatics. So it didn't take much to become infatuated with the Follies after they began to spin and soar through the air.
"In my head, I went, 'Wow, this is great,'" he says. "It was more the gymnastics, but on ice. I kind of hounded my mom and dad for a long time. 'I want to ice skate, I want to ice skate, I want to ice skate.' "
His parents relented, and by the time Wilson tottered into the rink for the first time, he had already mapped out his first moments as a figure skater. He would apply his gymnastics skills to the rink, just like he saw in the Ice Follies. He, too, would spin and soar.
Instead, he smacked his head on the ice.
His mother scooped him up and ushered him out of the rink, where they were approached by a woman in her early 40s. Her name was Mabel Fairbanks, and she was a trailblazer: an African-American woman who coached figure skating. As a professional, her own success was curtailed by a decades-long struggle to find acceptance and inclusion within a white-dominated sport. In Wilson, she found a pupil who she believed had the potential to go places she wasn't allowed to.
"A vision: She had it, she knew," Wilson recalls. "Something in her said, 'This is the one that can hopefully [break down] the exclusivity of figure skating.'"
Figure skating was a relatively tolerant sport by the social standards of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like Jewish skaters a decade earlier, African-Americans were not allowed to join the sport's prestigious skating clubs, a requirement for entering national and international competitions. But unlike Fairbanks, Wilson was permitted to skate in any venue. He was welcomed and accepted by white skaters, and formed lasting friendships with them. "I never really had anybody come up to me and say pejorative things," Wilson says.
The country was in the throes of the Civil Rights movement. Media accounts still described Wilson's exploits with words like "Negro" and "colored." There were incidents like one that came before a competition in Philadelphia, where Wilson, his mother, and Betts—who began to coach Wilson at age 13—were forced to take public transportation after missing the hotel-provided shuttle to the rink. They plopped down in the front row, only to notice after several minutes that the bus driver refused to start the engine until Wilson and his mother walked to the back. "Don't you dare move from that seat," Betts told Atoy. "That's their problem, not yours."
The bus driver relented, but the sentiment did not. Figure skating was hardly exempt from such tensions, because nothing was. The signs were simply more covert, more insidious. Racism in figure skating was Betts, prior to Wilson's first appearance at nationals, feeling compelled to make the rounds with judges to assure them "what a nice guy Atoy was, and how wonderful he really was."
It was also Mabel Fairbanks' directive to Richard Ewell—another pupil of hers who would become the first African-American to win national titles in both singles and pairs skating—before his very first competitive event.
"'You understand what you're up against,'" Ewell recalls her saying. "If you come in second or third, if you get up on that podium—even if they won't let you win—you've got to feel like you have. Because they're not going to let you win. They're not ready for that yet in this sport."
Wilson implicitly understood that he had to hold himself to a higher standard of conduct than his white counterparts, because there were those in the sport who hunted for any trace of confirmation bias that African-Americans did not belong on the ice.
"It wasn't necessary to say, 'Hey, listen, you know what this is all about. You're a black skater. They're going to judge you probably even harder. You're really out there by yourself,'" he says. "It was understood ... On a competition date, I realized I was different."
The truth, however, was that Wilson belonged. He established a reputation within Los Angeles as a premier talent well before he hit puberty. Ewell, two years older, recalls getting tickets to see Wilson perform at a regional tournament as a present for his 14th birthday.
"He was just very, very smooth at anything there was about skating," Ewell says. "His spins, his jumps, his edges, his flow—it was just incredible. As far as I went and as successful as I was, I never felt like I got quite to that degree ... I always felt that Atoy had the edge on me and I had to catch him when he wasn't at his best."
"It looked like he was floating across the ice," says Betts, who also coached Olympic champion Peggy Fleming. "He had unlimited potential."
By 13, Wilson's ability was so undeniable that the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club opened its doors to him and admitted him as a full member. He was now eligible to compete for a national championship in the novice division, reserved for the youngest competitors.
In January 1965, Wilson did exactly that, after finishing in the top three in the Western sectional to qualify. The finals were in Lake Placid, New York, a place so foreign that when he peered out the airplane window onto the frigid night, he exhorted his mother to look at all the "salt" on the ground. When he arrived at the skating rink, Wilson was just as foreign to everyone else there. He was making history—the first African American to ever compete in a national championship. They had literally never seen anyone like him.
Wilson finished second, an indication of how things were beginning to change. Betts credits the shift in attitudes to his own coach, Gus Lussi, an icon who trained Dick Button—arguably the most revered figure skater in history—and whose pupils were legion. According to Betts, virtually everyone competing around that time was coached by one of Lussi's descendants, and Lussi gave each of those coaches a directive: Demand the judges honor the process of selecting the very best figure skater, or pull out.
"'Don't you think the world champion should be the best person in the world and not the best skater out of a certain group of people?'" Betts remembers Lussi asking him. "Gus Lussi didn't want to see any [prejudice]. He had all the good students, so he had the upper hand."
Wilson had come as close as possible to living Lussi's vision. He would be 14 by next year's nationals, old enough to move up a division to junior level. But Peter Betts decided his pupil would remain a novice for one more year. "Let him stay back and win something, just to prove it," he says now. Like his old coach, Betts had no patience for prejudice, either.
The next year was marked by the endless honing and repeating of Wilson's four-and-a-half minute freestyle routine. Everything had to be ratcheted up a degree. "[We] started doing a lot of combinations," Wilson. "Rather than double jumps, singularly, we would match a double toe-double loop. Or I'd do four double loops in a row." The workouts stretched to four hours a day during the school week, six or more on weekends. Rarely was he asleep past 5 AM.
They arrived in Berkeley confident, much more so than a year before. On top of that, Roger Bass, who had defeated Atoy in Lake Placid, had moved up a division. Not only was Wilson experienced, he was now the competition favorite.
"He was definitely going to win," Betts says, "unless he had some problems."
At first, there were none. Wilson breezed through the competition's initial stage, a now-defunct event called the school figures, in which judges assign each skater six figures at random to trace on a sheet of clean ice, once with each foot.
He headed into the second and final event, the freestyle, in first place. Wilson took the ice in his customary uniform: white shirt, dark pants, and a bow tie. He quickly realized that something was amiss. Later that day, Fleming, already a bona fide star, would skate for her third consecutive national championship in the senior division. ABC was on hand to broadcast the event and, accordingly, had set up a massive bank of floodlights to enhance the broadcast. It was a common occurrence for senior-level skaters, most of whom were accustomed to them. Novices, on the other hand, competed under normal lights at far smaller shows. The change made for pandemonium.
"My whole depth of perception, everything was kind of screwed up," Wilson says. "The rink is your playground. You know where things are placed. Well, everything is saturated in these lights ... I felt like I was in no-man's land. I couldn't get any proportion."
And that's how, near the very beginning of his routine, Atoy Wilson fell.
Then, he got back up. Years later, when asked about his pupil, the first quality Betts remembers is Wilson's unflappability. One regional competition culminated in a face-off with his rival, Kenny Shelley, in a particularly difficult round during the school figures. "[Atoy] banged his fist on the top of the barrier between the ice and said, 'I'm going to show them the best figure they've ever seen!'" Betts laughs. Then, Betts remembers, Wilson won the event. "He never let anything bother him. He was very cool under pressure."
Atoy brought the same composure to Berkeley. He reminded himself that there were still four more minutes in the routine. "I am in shock but a little pissed," he recalls feeling. "And bro, after that, I was nailing every one of those jumps."
The finals results were posted on a bulletin board. Almost as soon as Wilson read them, a New York Times reporter whisked him away for an interview. The Los Angeles Times, his hometown paper, would later feature him on the front page of its sports section.
"I do remember that moment was, 'Oh, something really happened. Something really happened of importance in this event,'" Wilson says now. "[But] a 14-year-old kid is just happy he won the national figure skating championships. 'Wow! Novice nationals. Being the first African American, black skater? Yeah, OK, I get that.' But it was, 'I won a national figure skating championship!'"
Later, Betts asked him how it felt to be interviewed by the New York Times.
"I'll be happy when people interview me for my skating," Wilson replied.
Half a century later, Wilson sits outside a cafe on a cloudy Los Angeles afternoon, being interviewed about his skating. He is an accountant now—disclosure of some sort: We're co-workers at VICE—and decades removed from his last competitive action, and his life on the ice.
He was in college at Loyola Marymount when he decided to walk away. He knew the Olympics were in reach if he could withstand an even more rigorous degree of training. But he was already juggling skating, classes, a night job, and homework, a grind that made for 19-hour days. This, after spending his entire adolescence removed from the dances and football games and parties that dotted the life of a typical high school student. He'd periodically ask himself what it would feel like to live among everyone else instead of always isolating himself in training. Finally, he grew tired of wondering.
He took time off and later returned to skating as a professional. The opportunity to skate purely for the artistry of it rejuvenated him, and he toured with the Ice Follies from 1972 through 1978, before joining Holiday on Ice's European tour until 1984. He married and had a son. Later, he taught in Dubai, before transitioning into the entertainment industry back in Los Angeles.
He was at Mabel Fairbanks' bedside when she passed away at the age of 85. Today, he regularly checks in on Peter Betts. He is quick to credit them and his parents and, perhaps most of all, changing mindsets for the role they played in his accomplishment. "Right place, right time," he says.
The skaters who came after him are far less modest in their assessment. If Mabel Fairbanks cracked the door for Wilson, then he in turn blew it open for skaters like Ewell and his partner Michelle McCladdie, Debi Thomas, and Rory Flack. Wilson proved to the well-heeled and predominantly white figure skating world that minorities can be every bit as good at a time in the sport's—and the country's—history when many believed otherwise.
"Atoy showed all of this was possible," Ewell says. "It just gave that awareness that we could do anything, whether it's sports, academics, anything like that. Atoy, to me, was the personification of that.
"He was the pioneer for all of us."
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