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How Starr Andrews Is Changing the Face of Figure Skating

The Olympic hopeful is ready to rise

If we learned anything from the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan debacle—a ’90s saga recently chronicled on the big screen by Margot Robbie in I, Tonya—it’s that the world enjoys elite ladies figure skating with a side of serious drama. And this year’s run to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea certainly isn’t lacking in that department. America’s ice princess and former Olympian, Gracie Gold, withdrew from the U.S. Championships in an effort to seek treatment for depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. Undefeated star and two-time World Champion, Yevgenia Medvedeva, told International Olympic Committee members that she “cannot accept” competing as a neutral athlete after Russia was barred from attending this year’s Winter Games following a state-backed doping scandal. Medvedeva also pulled out of the Russian Championships due to a foot injury, but has reportedly not yet made a final decision regarding an appearance in PyeongChang. Who needs a bitter rivalry (or a baton) when our collective attention is already riveted by all that? And this is even before a single American woman has been named to the 2018 Olympic team.

Last night, the uphill battle to PyeongChang began for the senior ladies. Leading up to the event, The New York Times published a piece titled “Where Are the American Women in Olympic Figure Skating?,” which cited the decline of the U.S. female figure skaters when compared to the technically dominant Russians. But, we think we may have found the answer to the newspaper’s question in 16-year-old Starr Andrews. She’s not the favorite going into the U.S. Championships (three-time National champion Ashley Wagner is being touted by the media as a shoe-in for one of the three slots on the Olympic team) and she’s likely not on the average spectator’s radar—at least not yet. However, you may have seen her interpret “Whip My Hair” at age nine, a video that went viral with over 52 million views on YouTube. “I never expected it to go viral,” she said. “It was one of my favorite songs at the time. Usually, you don’t see stuff like that—typically, it’s classical music, but this was different from everything else and I guess I interpreted it very well.” The California native has grown up over the past seven years, as have her skating skills. She mastered all of her triple jumps by age 14 and secured a silver medal in last year’s junior event at the U.S. Championships. She also caught the eye of legendary skater Tai Babilonia, who gifted her with an earring that was worn by Kristi Yamaguchi when she took home gold during the 1992 Olympic Games. “She said that I have the It factor,” said Andrews of why this talisman was passed down to her before her first appearance at the National Championships in the juvenile division at age 12 where she earned a pewter medal.

And after watching her skate to Beyoncé’s “Fever” last night in San Jose, California wearing a fiery red unitard reminiscent of Debi Thomas who took home bronze at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, there’s no denying she has “It.” Currently sitting in 8th place after the short program, there’s still a good chance that she could walk through the door left open by the frontrunners in the field. How’s that for a little drama? But if her long program dress designed by Lisa McKinnon is any indication, there was never a doubt in Andrews’ mind about making the podium. “My long dress was inspired by the Olympic rings,” she explained, of the interlocking gold circles that “wrap” around her body and the “spurts” of those signature colors seen on her sides and back. She’ll skate to Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time,” which is fitting seeing as it was originally written for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Foreshadowing of what’s to come for the rising Starr? Perhaps. A portion of the vocals for her long program on Saturday night will also be sung by Andrews herself (singing is her other passion outside of skating). “I think it will be an amazing moment to skate that program in front of so many people,” said Andrews. While she has a triple axel in her arsenal (a jump only completed by three other American women—Harding, Kimmie Meissner, and Mirai Nagasu—in competition), she wasn’t certain at the time of this interview if she would be attempting it at the U.S. Championships. Her goal, however, was crystal clear: “I want to be in the history books as the first African American to make it to the Olympics and win.”

In a sport long dominated by white women, Andrews is still one of the few black competitors on the elite level. Her coach, Peter Kongkasem (a former ice dancer who represented Thailand), and dual coach and choreographer, Derrick Delmore (a former champion skater of mixed race), are the men guiding the way as she glides ever closer to her dream. They are a trio that isn’t typical in the top tiers of figure skating, but Andrews doesn’t flinch when it comes to the touchy subject of race at the rink: “It’s changing, but of course, there is still the issue of diversity and a bit of separation,” she said. “But if you deliver, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like.” Sure, she faces a few challenges—like having her tights and any nude fabrics for her costumes custom dyed to match her skin tone—but it’s merely a mild inconvenience for Andrews who remains laser-focused on skating the “program of my life” come Saturday night. The politics surrounding things like race, religion, and sexuality in today’s tumultuous America simply don’t have a place in her Olympic game plan.

Andrews’ determination seems to stem from her mother Toshawa who has cardiac microvascular disease—a condition that has led to a dozen heart attacks. “She’s been through a lot,” says Andrews. “There was a point when she couldn’t come to my competitions because she was too sick, so her fight has inspired me to keep going and stay strong.” Her mom is also the reason she took up the sport in the first place. She watched Toshawa perform from the sidelines since the skates at the local rink were too big to fit her tiny feet at 3-years-old. Once she grew into the equipment (around age 4), there was no stopping her. “It would mean everything to have her watch me at the Olympics,” said Andrews of her mother. “She’s gotten me here through all of her struggles.” Her dreams, as Houston sings in her iconic anthem, are only a heartbeat away, but the answers to the many lingering questions (especially the one posed by The New York Times) rest on a four-millimeter blade. Judging by last night’s performance, however, the 16-year-old budding Starr appears armed and ready to respond.

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