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Surya Bonaly started figure skating when she was a little girl. Countless competitions and three Olympics later, Bonaly calls Minnesota home.
EDINA, Minn. — When Surya Bonaly started figure skating as a little girl, it was casual. Her mother was a sports coach who taught multiple disciplines from gymnastics to figure skating. Whenever Bonaly’s mother was at the skating rink teaching students, Bonaly tagged along and put on skates just to spend the time.
She said she never planned on becoming an Olympian. Her exposure to figure skating just put her on a natural track to get better.
"I never thought Olympics one day," Bonaly said. "It was just trying to be good, try to do my best. After a while, when I ended up being on a national team, I was like ‘I guess I’m a couple years ahead of everyone,’ and boom. Olympics here we come."
She said once she was on the path to training for the Olympics, her goal was to make it for the 1992 Albertville Olympics in France.
"It was a dream for me to compete in my own country," Bonaly said. And that wasn’t her last either. She would go on to compete in the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics as well as the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Today, in 2019, Bonaly still skates. Having inspired so many little girls and boys on the television during her early career, Bonaly still inspires, except in a more hands-on kind of way.
She’s a coach at Braemar Arena in Edina, right here in Minnesota, far from her hometown in Nice, France.
"I’m just a coach like many other coaches in town," Bonaly said, with a straight face.
I couldn’t help but laugh when she said that. She’s obviously not just a coach. She’s a three-time Olympian. On top of that, her signature career move is a back flip, on ice.
"I was 12 years old, it was kind of a goal with my coach–why don’t you try a backflip?" Bonaly said.
Once she mastered it, she wasn’t shy about showcasing her skills. No one has been able to copy her combo move of back flip, splits while upside-down, and landing on one foot.
However, her flashy moves, never won her gold. In 1992 she placed 5th. In 1994, a small improvement.
"It was a nice experience, and I finished 4th again," Bonaly said. "It was kind of close, but not close enough to the podium."
In 1994, she made headlines for winning silver at the World Championships in Chiba, Japan. She made headlines not because she had won silver, but because she refused to stand on the podium. She took off her silver medal and held it in her hand instead, with tears streaming down her face.
Despite all this, she tried again in 1998 at the Nagano Winter Olympics. The back flip made another appearance that year but this time, it was up for a different interpretation.
I asked what her intentions were behind the back flip. I had heard many people thought it was Bonaly’s way of rebelling against the judges who had never given her gold. However, Bonaly said that was never true.
"No, not at all," she said. "It was kind of like a time where you don’t have much option going on and you’re trying to figure out what to do to get out alive. Try to get out okay with no shame or disappointment from anyone."
She explained that in fact, the back flip wasn’t her way of telling the judges off for never letting her win. It was a way for her to make her final performance memorable. She was in a lot of pain from an Achilles tendon surgery and she knew her chances for gold were already gone.
"I was not a 100 percent at my full potential because of my body," she said. "So at the last second, I said I can’t go on anymore. My legs hurt too much. My Achilles can’t do anything. What should I do? Everything is clicking in my head, and I said okay, I don’t have much time. I know it’s my last competition ever, ever, ever. I have the back flip! Why not? If I land on one foot it’s still okay."
She said that all went through her head while she was on the ice, still moving, still performing. She said she wanted to go out with a bang, and she did. She performed the flip, and landed successfully. She lost points for the back flip. She placed 10th.
Since then, she has been performing and teaching all over the world. However, she now calls Minnesota home because Minnesota lets her be close to a skating rink.
It’s also the hometown of a man she fell in love with.
"I fell in love with a skater guy so [we] end up like teaching, teach together, and since he’s from Minnesota, I’m here," she said. "Almost for the last four years."
Here in the Northern state, Bonaly’s now got three things she loves. Her fiance, a skating rink, and students who are eager to learn. That in my book, makes her a winner.
"I’m just hoping to have some open ears and people are here to receive everything I can tell them because I think it’s a gift," Bonaly said. "And I hope I can share with more people."
The back flip is still considered an illegal figure skating move at standard U.S. Figure Skating and International Skating Union Events.
Most recently, Surya was featured on an episode on Netflix in a series called "Losers." (although she is nowhere close to being one!)