Figure skating didn’t allow Elladj Balde to live his truth.
He felt it didn’t look like him, so he changed. Now he’s trying to change the sport so others don’t have to do as he did.
“I changed everything about me – the way I walked, the way I looked, the way I dressed, what type of music I listened to, what type of music I skated to, what costumes I wore on the ice,” he says.
“I changed all of that in order to fit what skating told me I should be and I should look like.”
Balde was born in Moscow to a Russian mother and Guinean father, but moved to Canada at the age of two. He wasn’t a fan of skating at first, hiding his skates so he wouldn’t have to go to practice, but he grew to love it.
He was good at it too: a junior Canadian champion and winner of the 2015 Nebelhorn Trophy – an international competition. But he continued to feel like the odd one out.
“The environment itself is a very white, European, even elitist kind of environment,” he tells Sportshour on the BBC World Service.
“So for someone who is biracial, coming into a sport like that, it’s really hard to fit in, it’s really hard to find your voice within that space.”
“My curly hair wasn’t clean, and I was told that. I had to cut my curly hair, I couldn’t wear this, I couldn’t skate to this type of music – and so there was a point in time where I got tired of it, I wanted to feel fulfilled because at that point I wasn’t fulfilled with what I was doing.”
Balde felt so alienated that in 2018 he retired from elite skating at the age of 27. Until the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he was travelling the world performing in shows on ice.
But in December, the 30-year-old went viral on social media, skating to Rihanna on a patch of ice he came across while driving.
He’s since set his videos to music by the likes of Drake and Labrinth, even to the words of poet Amanda Gorman, and gained millions of views on TikTok and Instagram. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith is a fan, and Rihanna herself has viewed his work.
Little did Balde know how much of a platform that patch of natural ice would give him.
“I started realising I really love connecting with people, I love performing, I love sharing my art, and that’s what I really started focusing on and that allowed me to get rid of those chains,” Balde says.
“Then I started realising that I was inspiring a lot of young black, indigenous and people of colour to embrace themselves within the sport as well.
“That’s when I started realising the power of representation.”
Earlier in 2020, following the death of George Floyd, Balde co-founded the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, which aims to create an inclusive environment in the sport worldwide.
His new-found fame allows him to push its message further. No longer does he want to see skaters drop out of the sport because of the colour of their skin, and he wants to be that difference.
“You don’t have to follow one path,” he says. “You can create your own path and if that path doesn’t exist, then create it for yourself.
“I know the power of seeing someone that looks like you do something incredible, and do it in a way that’s different. I know how powerful that is and how inspiring that can be.
“I took it as my mission, because I’m so passionate about the sport, to deliver that message.”
He adds: “That’s what will change the world, having more kids and more people live authentically and live fulfilled, and embrace the things that they love about themselves.
“That’s how we’re going to make this world a better place.”