Mabel Fairbanks (November 14, 1915 – September 29, 2001) was an American figure skater and coach. She was inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame, as the first person of African-American descent, and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.
Of African-American and Seminole descent, Mabel Fairbanks was born on November 14, 1915 in Florida's Everglades. She had a sister, Pearl, who was a year younger, and an elder brother.
Fairbanks never met her father and was orphaned at the age of eight when her mother died. After staying with a teacher who treated her like a "maid," she joined her brother in New York City but his wife did not accept her. A wealthy woman saw her sleeping on a park bench and offered her a job as a babysitter at a home overlooking Central Park.
Fairbanks began figure skating around 1925 to 1928. After observing children at the Central Park ice rink, she bought herself used skates, stuffed them with cotton because they were two sizes too big, and began skating at the rink. She said, "Blacks didn't skate there. But it was a public place, so I just carried on." She later practiced on a 6ft by 6ft rink constructed by her uncle in her room. She gained further inspiration after seeing Sonja Henie in the 1936 film One in a Million.
In the 1930s, Fairbanks, due to her race, was denied access to the local rink by the cashier but she kept returning until the manager admitted her. Maribel Vinson Owen and Howard Nicholson provided her with technical advice. Fairbanks was not allowed to compete in the national qualifying event for the Olympics or any competition. In a 1998 interview, she said, "If I had gone to the Olympics and become a star, I would not be who I am today."
Fairbanks performed in shows in New York until the 1940s. After relocating to Los Angeles, she toured internationally, skating with Ice Capades in Mexico and later with Ice Follies.
Fairbanks coached singles and pairs, including Tiffany Chin, Billy Chapel, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi / Rudy Galindo, Tai Babilonia / Randy Gardner, Leslie Robinson, Michelle McCladdie, Richard Ewell, Debi Thomas, Atoy Wilson, and Jean Yuna. She also taught skating to the children of many celebrities. In 1997, she became the first African American inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in October 2001.
Fairbanks never married. She was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis in 1997 and with acute leukemia in mid-2001. She died on September 29, 2001 at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California. She is interred in the ground at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California. Her grave is right at the beginning of the bridge to the Clark Mausoleum.
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