It's Hard Being A Black Man In Love With Figure Skating

Every few years when the winter Olympics come around, reporter Robert Samuels' heart begins to flutter. Samuels talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about his lifelong passion for the sport.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Staying on the ice for a moment, we turn now to Robert Samuels. He's a reporter for the Washington Post who also happens to be a lifelong fan of figure skating, which means he really likes watching the Winter Olympics. When we asked him about team figure skating, which is new to the Games this year, he could not stop raving about what the Russian duo did on the ice this past week.

ROBERT SAMUELS: Their names are Tatyana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. And they were super matched. They used to have two different partners. And they weren't doing so well in Russian figure skating, and the pairs division was falling apart. So they mashed them together, and they've been dominating the sport ever since.

MARTIN: I'm smiling because you are so animated as you're talking about this. I mean, what is it about figure skating that has so captured your imagination?

SAMUELS: Oh, my God. I have a few theories about it. I think it's really the most psychologically demanding sport. I was watching the Super Bowl, and I noted how even though one team was crushed, Peyton Manning, he had, you know, he had 40 minutes to sort of make up this game. A figure skater has about seven minutes every four years to make themselves a household name. The pressure is intense.

And I remember when I first watched my first competition, starting in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, I was just completely enraptured by it - just sort of the speed, the unpredictability, the drama, the jumps. I couldn't think of anything else for two weeks. And it's been really hard for me ever since, actually.

MARTIN: And there are people who will say that figure skating is, eh, not really a sport. You take issue with that.

SAMUELS: Oh, of course.

MARTIN: This is incredibly athletic.

SAMUELS: Of course. Doing any of these moves - rotating four times in the air - it's super hard on the ground. I know. I've tried. That's why I have three false teeth. Imagine doing it on - essentially, on knives on a block of ice. If that's not athleticism, I don't really know what is.

MARTIN: But you're not a skater, right? Did you ever try to be a skater?

SAMUELS: Oh, it's too hard. So actually, during 1992, I had this love affair with Kristi Yamaguchi.

MARTIN: How old were you?

SAMUELS: I was 7. And I used my allowance to buy a Disney Adventures magazine from Caldor, and it had a description of how to do a lutz jump, which is the second-most difficult jump in figure skating. So I practiced on my floor and I told my parents I really wanted to go skating. So we went during that Olympics, and I got on the ice for two seconds. And I was shocked at how hard it was.

MARTIN: So you talk about the difficulty that you've experienced in telling girls on dates that your thing, that you're interested in, is figure skating. Because people make all these assumptions - that means you're gay, which you're not. So, how do you navigate that?

SAMUELS: What typically happens is they'll ask if I'm into any sports, and I'll say, no, but I'm into skating. And they'll say, you mean like hockey? And I'll say, no, figure skating. And then sometimes they'll say, ooh, you know, that's strange. Or sometimes they'll say, oh, you know, I love the costumes. And I'll have to say, oh, it's not about the costumes for me. It's about the physicality of it. So that's been a little bit difficult.

MARTIN: Your dad, you write about in the piece, your dad actually pointed out when he saw that this was a thing you were interested in, he said, you know, Robert, you realize not a lot of people on that rink look like you. There not a lot of African-Americans in that sport. Is that something that you think about? Does it matter?

SAMUELS: I think it does matter. When my father first pointed it out, I was about 8 years old at the time. The only thing I really wanted to do was, I wanted to watch figure skating. So I'd make up names of people because I thought he wouldn't know. So I'd be like, oh, they're black. That's not true. That wasn't true. It was a complete lie. And over the years there have been some figure skaters of African descent: Robin Szolkowy, from Germany, who's a three-time world champion; Surya Bonaly, who is a multiple-time European champion from France. But I've always thought it was a real tragedy that there weren't more people who looked like me who got the chance to compete. I think it limits the popularity of this sport.

And it also makes it a lot harder for people to look and say, oh, I can do this. When Tiffany Chin became the first Asian-American figure skating champion of the country in the 1980s, it sort of opened the floodgates for lots of Asian-Americans to be a part of that sport. It would be wonderful if there was a great African-American figure skater.

MARTIN: Well, if there are listeners out there who were not excited about ice skating before, I believe you have convinced them.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMUELS: I hope so. I need more people to like it, root for the sport.

MARTIN: Robert Samuels is a local reporter for the Washington Post. Normally, his beat is social welfare, but during the Olympics he'll be live blogging the figure skating events for the Washington Post. He joined us here in our studios. Robert, thanks so much for coming in.

SAMUELS: No problem, Rachel. It was a pleasure.

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