Figure Skating Fights Diversity Issues Since Nationals’ Last Trip to Kansas City

Jan 18, 2017

Figure skating competitors are in Kansas City this week for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Sprint Center. It’s the first time the figure skating national championships are in Kansas City since 1985. That was a breakthrough year for diversity in the sport, the figure skating nationals have struggled since then to match that diversity.

Phil Hersh, a former writer for the Chicago Tribune who covered 30 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, calls Tiffany Chin’s performance at the 1985 championships an “absolute revelation.”

“She could jump. She had this illusion spin.  It was actually called the Chin spin,” Hersh says.

Hersh says, one year after the Winter Olympics, most of the medalists moved on to professional ice shows, and the page was turning in the sport.

“You had Tiffany Chin, a Chinese-American and Debi Thomas, an African-American, who went on to become the first African-American national champion and world champion,” Hersh recalls.

Debi Thomas finished second in Kansas City. Seventeen-year-old Tiffany Chin grabbed the spotlight and her only national championship.

“The most prominent memory was, I think, the morning after I remember thinking before I even opened my eyes, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m U.S. national champion!’”Chin says.

Chin is now a coach in southern California, but as the first Asian-American to win a national title, she set a trend that followed with the likes of Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan — who also became world class champions.  

“I feel so honored and fortunate to have gotten there first because look at the people afterward,” she says.

All three of Lana Tran's daughters are involved in ice skating in Gladstone.
Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR 89.3

Chin’s legacy is still felt in Kansas City. Lana Tran is picking up three of her five kids from elementary school in Gladstone. Tran’s father emigrated from Vietnam in 1975. Her oldest daughter, Emma, was the first to get hooked on figure skating after watching the national championships when she was four.

“I asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She said, ‘Ice skating lessons.’”

Now all three of her daughters are involved in skating. Tran says Emma, now 11, wants to be like Michelle Kwan.

“That is her idol. She reads about her,” Tran says. “She knows all her stats from when she was younger.”

Figure skating has continued to attract Asian-American athletes like Tran’s daughters. But even with role models, getting African-Americans involved has been another story. 

Debi Thomas was the runner-up to Chin in '85, but went on to become a trailblazer in her own right as an African-American skater in the late 1980s. She beat the great Katarina Witt to become a world champion in 1986 and won the bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics.

Of the 91 senior athletes competing this week in Kansas City, there is only one African-American, Emmanuel Savary of Newark, Delaware, in men’s singles. U.S. Figure Skating, the sport’s sanctioning body, is aware of the issue, and it’s trying to change the landscape. 

Michelle Lauerman, a coach who moved from Kansas City to San Diego County in southern California, has already seen some upward trends at the grassroots level.

“There’s definitely a very diverse crowd,” Lauerman says. “One of the opportunities I’ve had (is) a chance to be involved in is Learn to Skate USA.”

The Learn to Skate USA initiative was launched last year in partnership with USA Hockey and US Speedskating. For a $12 membership fee, it’s a program for beginners at any age level. 

John Coughlin was a U.S. national champion in 2012 with pairs partner Caydee Denney. When he isn’t traveling around the country performing with Denney as professionals, Coughlin is back in the Kansas City area coaching. He also believes that skating’s diversity is on the upswing.

“Outside of, not just ethnicity, but also different orientations and different age groups, I think figure skating is probably one of the leaders in the world as far as being inclusive and the welcoming of everyone,” Coughlin says.

But there are two factors that limit participation in figure skating: the availability of an ice rink and the cost.  A private lesson can run as much as around 40 dollars per half hour. Coughlin believes the cost part is changing.

“It’s by far the most expensive thing about the sport that individual one-on-one coaching,” he says. “A lot of camps are switching to a more semi-private group-based program.”

Tran says she’s fortunate because the Line Creek facility is ten minutes from her Gladstone home. But she also takes Emma on a half-hour trek to the Silverstein Arena in Independence for practice once a week. 

“It’s a lot of work and I have met some parents who have driven from Leavenworth and even Topeka because this is the closest rink,” Tran says.

Time will tell if the steps taken by U.S. Figure Skating will pay off with even more diversity in the coming years. But it’s certain that someone will step forward in Kansas City to provide unforgettable moments and inspiration for the next generation of figure skaters.

Greg Echlin is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.