Gliding across the ice, figure skaters Alexa Gasparotto and Nathan Chappell look like ribbons that have been released in a gust of wind. Each movement is akin to the ease with which a small band of fabric dances behind the wind, painting a picture as it twists and turns through the air.

But Gasparotto and Chappell are not objects at the mercy of something as capricious as the wind. They control their direction, speed and rotation in flight, making the snow more breathtaking with their artistry at every moment.

His movement is the result of connecting body, mind and spirit in harmony with a song that speaks volumes of his personality and commitment of over a decade towards a sport that is all-consuming. Later this month, both skaters will compete in the sport’s two premier championships in singles events, creating history in the process.

“The short answer is [we’ve given up] A routine life in general for this sport,” Gasparotto said.

Gasparotto was 4 years old when she put on her first pair of ice skates. Chapel 7. Were. Both were introduced to the sport by their mothers.

Inspired by speedskater Apolo Ohno, Chappelle attended a learn-to-skate program 20 minutes from his home in Cleveland. They were quickly ushered through the levels of the program before progressing to private lessons.

About 160 miles northwest of Cleveland, Gasparotto’s youth career was unfolding. The first time she came to the rink was with her soccer team for an open skate. While his teammates struggled to overcome nerves and fear as they attempted to regain their footing, Gasparotto remembers shouts of “slow down” coming from his mother.

By the time the open skate ended, Gasparotto’s entire team had retired from rinkside, leaving him the last skater on the ice.

Figure skater and Diversify Ice Foundation ambassador Alexa Gasparotto, 19, trains at the Glenview Community Ice Center.

Neither Gasparotto’s or Chappell’s careers in figure skating began with the intention of making history or changing the future trajectory of the sport, but that’s what they’re doing.

Chappell will become the first black figure skater to compete for the US at the World University Games in Lake Placid, New York, on January 14 and 15. At the end of the month, Gasparotto would compete for the first time at the US Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California. Starr Andrews will be among her rivals, marking the first time in more than 20 years that two black women have competed in the senior women’s event. The last time the contest featured two black women was in 2000 with Cohen Duncan and Andrea Gardiner.

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Figure skater and Diversify Ice Foundation ambassador Nathan Chappell, 23, mid-jumps during training at the Glenview Community Ice Center.

Chappell said, ‘This is a big deal for me. “There’s not a lot of us out there. It’s 2023, and I’m the first black figure skater in that competition. That should be a really cool thing for me and people like me.

US figure skating’s history of excluding Black athletes is long and dark.

Mabel Fairbanks, the first black woman to be inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame, had her career ravaged by racist boycotts in the 1930s when she was banned from rinks and clubs. She went on to coach some of the sport’s best players, including Tai Babilonia and Debbie Thomas.

Thomas was the first black American to win a medal for the US at the Winter Olympics when he won bronze at the 1988 Games in Calgary. The US did not have any black figure skaters competing in the Olympics in 2022. In fact, Aaron Parcheem, who competed in 2006, is the only Black American figure skater to go to the Olympics since Thomas.

As of the summer of 2020, US Figure Skating had not formed its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force. A fact sheet produced by US Figure Skating last year proved that the sport is showing a lack of diversity in its fan base. The report found that only 3% of sports fans are Hispanic, 2% are black and 1% are Native American.

“It was my eye-opener to see Nathan compete that in most competitions we were the only two black athletes,” Gasparotto said. “Besides, looking [Starr] Andrews, I thought, ‘Okay, now all three of us are coming out in front of everybody.’ We really need to do this for ourselves and let everyone know that no one can stop us.

Last January, Gasparotto and Chappell relocated to the Chicago suburbs to work with renowned choreographer and coach Rohen Ward and his team, which includes figure skating coach Amber Gill.

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Figure skating coach and choreographer Rohen Ward helps Gasparotto and Chappell prepare for their upcoming events.

Gasparotto first became aware of Ward when he saw a performance of Prince skating to “Purple Rain”. His spirit and skill captivated the young skater. From the moment he saw Ward on YouTube, Gasparotto wanted to work with him. About a year and a half later, the moment presented itself at a competition in which Ward found himself captivated by Gasparotto.

Ward and Gill first saw Chappelle at a competition in Fort Wayne, Indiana. By the end of this, Ward thought Chappell’s performance was not up to par and he let him go.

“I went over to him and told him, ‘You’re so good they don’t even know what to do with it.’ ,

Like Gasparotto and Chappell, Ward has an origin story on the ice that involves shocking observers with the ease with which he first stepped onto ice skates. He didn’t walk on the rink and ice – he ran.

He transitioned to full-time coaching in 2008 after a successful competing career, which included four trips to the US Figure Skating Championships (2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008). Where Ward really found a sense of freedom on the ice as a professional was performing.

At competitions, the bright lights illuminating all the faces that made up the crowd created a noise in his mind that he could not always keep quiet. But the performance, a spotlight in nothing but a dark house, his movement and one song after another, spoke to his soul. Ward was able to focus on himself.

Now, the three-time Choreographer of the Year (2015, 2017 and 2021) and the first black member to earn the honor from the Professional Skaters Association is providing her skaters with an environment that supports their overall athletic development.

“For me, it’s about giving the kids a support system, letting them know we’re here for them,” Ward said. “It’s a process, and that’s how we’re going to work through the process.”

Ward’s process for Gasparotto and Chappell includes ballet, yoga, Pilates, strength training and mental coaching with a clinical therapist. But his support for them goes beyond any exercise or training method that he implements.

“I talk to both of them about being black in figure skating,” Ward said. “I’m not going to keep plain to them. We have to talk about things that are real so that they can understand why I’m pushing the way I’m pushing. I’ve been through it, and I I want them to have their own experience, but I also need them to understand what it is.

Ward and Gill believe that US Figure Skating is taking steps to address the lack of inclusivity in the sport. But other organizations started long before US Figure Skating.

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Figure skating coach Amber Gill watches as Gasparotto and Chappell train at the Glenview Community Ice Center.

Gasparotto and Chapple are ambassadors for the Diversify Ice Foundation, which was created in 2017 by figure skating coach and author of “Why Black and Brown Kids Don’t Ice Skate” Joel Savory.

Diversify Ice works with businesses across the country to expand opportunities and provide resources in the sport. Savary has created a Diversify Ice network that connects skaters with coaches and other families in skating. The network also connects interested parties with rinks, clubs and equipment vendors.

In February, Gasparotto and Chappelle will perform at Diversify Ice’s Skate-Racer event in Lakewood, California. The event also includes a seminar class led by Babilonia, Ward and Nathan Truesdale, a panel discussion, and a class focused on the history of the game.

Chappell said, “I felt obligated to join Diversify Ice because of where I was in my life.” “Skating at a high level, being around my coach, being a black coach, I felt it was time to join a great organization that is doing good for the sport.”

Gasparotto and Chappell live just minutes from the Glenview Community Ice Center, where they practice with Ward and Gill every day from about 9 a.m. to at least 5 p.m. Gasparotto said how enjoyable it is, Although they compete in singles events, they have grown into a family over the past year.

Part of Ward’s unique coaching style is the emphasis on the performance aspect over the elements. Over the past year, Gasparotto and Chappell have continually added tricks and elements to their programs as they have improved the quality of the performances.

Chappell is one week away from the competition and Gasparotto is three, and Ward has made final changes to their programs. Both are opportunities to give the skating world a glimpse of the truest versions of themselves. It is a version that comes forward when they have nothing to do but navigate the smooth surface of the snow, because of the melody that speaks directly to them.

If Ward has taught Gasparotto and Chappelle anything, it’s that being intentional about their individualism matters.

“When they leave the ice, I always tell them, ‘Give everyone something to talk about,'” Ward said. “What are they going to talk about you? If you leave them with a feeling.



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