The Olympic Games have historically rejected Black athletes based on race, banned them for protesting, disqualified them for their natural physical attributes, and established a gatekeeping culture of anti-Blackness that often tries to keep their successes and credits at bay—but Black athletes have always persevered. Here are 10 Black Winter Olympic trailblazers who have paved the way despite the odds.
1. Mabel Fairbanks
Born in Florida in 1915, Mabel Fairbanks was orphaned at 8 after her mother died. She moved to New York, where, in the 1920s, she began ice skating. She was often denied entry to local skating rinks due to segregation and couldn’t compete in national qualifying events for any competition, including the Olympics. But that didn’t stop her from making a name for herself—and paving the way for other minorities to succeed—in the figure skating world as a performer and coach. She went on to coach several barrier-breaking Winter Olympians, including medalists Kristi Yamaguchi and Debi Thomas.
In 1997, Fairbanks became the first Black person inducted into the U.S Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. She died in 2001 at 85.
2. Debi Thomas
Debi Thomas started skating in San Jose, California, at age 5. In 1988, she became the first Black Olympic Winter medalist when she won bronze in figure skating. The skater was also the 1986 World champion and a two-time national champion in the United States. Thomas is known for her rivalry with German figure skater Katarina Witt during the 1987 World Figure Skating Championships. It was called “Battle of the Carmens” because they both performed to Bizet’s opera Carmen for their routines. In 2000, she was added to the U.S Figure Skating Hall of Fame. After retiring in 1988, Thomas experienced bankruptcy and mental health struggles.
3. Jordan Greenway
Jordan Greenway became the first Black player to represent the U.S. Hockey Team when he competed at the 2018 Olympics. He started playing as a kid with the Canton, New York, minor hockey association. He played throughout high school in Minnesota at Shattuck-Saint Mary’s, then joined the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. Greenway played for the Boston University Terriers and was later drafted by the National Hockey League (NHL) as a ice hockey forward for the Minnesota Wild. He received many accolades, including being a gold medalist during the 2014, 2015, and 2017 world championships.
4. Vonetta Flowers
In 2002, Vonetta Flowers became the first Black American athlete—and the first Black athlete in the world—to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. While she’s known for bobsled, Flowers started as a long jumper and sprinter for the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Though she didn’t make the Summer Olympics for track and field, Flowers didn’t give up. She decided to give bobsled a try, and found success. She was a brakeman for Jill Bakken in 2002, then took a break from the sport and gave birth to twins shortly after their victory. Flowers retired after the 2006 Winter Olympics.
5. Maame Biney
Maame Biney was born in Accra, Ghana, and moved to the U.S. when she was 5. She started figure skating at age 6 in Northern Virginia, where she lived with her father, but later found that speed skating was a better fit. In 2018, when she was only 18, she became the youngest athlete and first Black woman to make the Olympic short track speed skating team. Biney is also only the second athlete born in Africa to represent the U.S. for the Winter Olympics. She’ll be competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in short track speed skating in Beijing.
6. Shannon-Ogbnai Abeda
Shannon-Ogbnai Abeda was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, after his parents fled Eritrea, a northeast African country, during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. He began skiing when he was only 3. Though he was initially more interested in hockey, after his family moved to Calgary in 2003, he developed an affinity for alpine skiing. Abeda became the first Winter Olympian to compete for Eritrea at the 2018 games in South Korea. He'll be representing Eritrea during the 2022 Winter Olympics.
7. Akwasi Frimpong
Akwasi Frimpong was born in Ghana, but later relocated to the Netherlands as an undocumented immigrant. At 15, Frimpong began sprinting and eventually gained dual citizenship as a Dutch-Ghanaian sprinter, bobsledder, and skeleton athlete. He became the first skeleton athlete from Ghana in 2018, and the country’s second Winter Olympian. Unfortunately, Frimpong was unable to qualify for the 2022 Olympics after testing positive with a breakthrough case of Covid-19. The recent film Black Ice tells more of his inspiring story.
8. Sabrina Simader
Sabrina Simader moved from Kenya to Austria when she was 3, where she was quickly introduced to alpine skiing. At 19, she became the first woman and alpine skier to compete for Kenya at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Sadly, Simader has pulled out of the 2022 Olympics due to lack of finances to aid in her training. Kenya won’t have any competitors to represent them in Olympic skiing for 2022.
9. Shani Davis
Shani Davis is a Chicago, Illinois, native who began spending his time at U.S. Olympic training facilities when he was 16. He now has nine world records to his name. When he won the 1000 meter at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, this trailblazer became the first Black athlete to take gold in an individual event. In 2010, he did it again in Vancouver, Canada, which made him the first man to defend his record in the event. He’s won six World Single Distance Championships and is the second man to win both the Sprint and Allround.
After a controversial Olympic legacy, including his boycott of the 2018 Opening Ceremony when Team USA didn’t choose him to carry the flag, he retired at 37. Davis still coached skaters for the 2022 Olympics.
10. Erin Jackson
Erin Jackson was born in Ocala, Florida, and began figure skating when she was 8, but switched over to speed skating when she was 17. She qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics after only four months of speed skating on ice.
In November 2021, she won her first 500 meter Speed Skating World Cup in Poland, which made her the first Black woman from America to win the competition. When Jackson fell during her 500 meter race in Milwaukee at the U.S speed skating trials, it seemed like her opportunity to make the 2022 Winter Olympics was gone. However, speed skating veteran Brittany Bowe gave up her spot for Jackson to compete.