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Ewell helped create African-American skating legacy

Los Angeles native followed his passion onto the ice

Richard Ewell shows off one of his moves at the height of his skating career.
Richard Ewell shows off one of his moves at the height of his skating career. (courtesy of Richard Ewell)

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By Jo Ann Schneider Farris, special to icenetwork.com
(09/22/2008) - In 1972, Richard Ewell became the first African American to win a national title in both singles and pairs. He is also the first African American to be accepted into a U.S. Figure Skating member club.

Ewell was born in Los Angeles, grew up in Los Angeles and lives in the Los Angeles area today. He began skating on a Saturday morning in early 1963. Before going to the rink, Ewell's mother called and asked if African Americans were welcome to skate there. There were obstacles facing African Americans at that time. Many schools were still segregated by neighborhood and custom, and there were few African-American figure skaters.

On that day, an African-American figure skating coach and former show skating star named Mabel Fairbanks was at the arena. Fairbanks eventually became a legend in her own right, since her determination paved the way for African Americans and other figure skaters from minority backgrounds to be part of the sport. Ewell's mother approached Fairbanks and inquired about lessons. Soon, the Ewell family was taking a weekly group ice skating lesson together.

The first arena at which the Ewell family skated, The Polar Palace, burned down in April of 1963. After the rink burned, Ewell and his family missed ice skating, and they eventually decided to give the ice arena in Culver City, Calif., a try. When they arrived at the rink, Mabel Fairbanks was already on the ice giving lessons. Ewell remembers that she seemed to "automatically be there," and the family resumed lessons with her. Soon, figure skating became a way of life.

Ewell showed exceptional talent, especially at jumping. He was so good at it that some said that he might possibly become the first man to ever land a quadruple jump.

Once he was accepted into the All Year Figure Skating Club, he passed figure skating tests quite quickly. In those days, to enter qualifying events, a skater had to pass a series of compulsory figure tests, which was quite a task for Ewell, since his talent was in jumping and not in the compulsory figures.

Fairbanks wanted to get him to the novice level as quickly as possible. He took his preliminary figure test and first figure test on the same day. He passed the second figure test three months later. Failing the third figure test the first time around slowed him down, but he passed it on the second try and then passed the fourth figure test just before the 1967 Southwest Pacific Regional Championships.

At his first regionals, he won the novice men's event. Two years later, in 1969, he qualified for nationals in the junior men's division. At the 1970 U.S. Championships, Ewell was not expected to win the junior division, but he surprised everyone, including himself. He placed sixth in figures and then performed the free skate of his life. He did three double Axels, a triple Salchow and a triple toe loop, moving up six places to win the national title. (In those days, there was no short program.)

At the same time Ewell did singles, he also competed in pairs and trained with equal diligence in that discipline. In 1968, Fairbanks teamed him up with Michelle McCladdie, another African American. The team won the novice pairs event at the Southwest Pacific regionals and at the Pacific Coast sectionals in 1969. In 1970, they moved up to the junior level and placed second at the Southwest Pacific regionals but came in fourth in the Pacific Coast sectionals, falling short of qualifying for nationals. The following year, 1971, was a successful season for the pair team. They placed second at both regionals and sectionals and won a bronze medal at nationals. Then, in 1972, they won the Southwest Pacific regional, placed second at Pacific Coasts and won the national junior pairs title. Ewell actually had to compete in the senior men's event at nationals that year on the same day as winning the junior pairs championship.

By this time, the pair was training with John A.W. Nicks, who had also coached JoJo Starbuck and Kenneth Shelley, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, and later, Sasha Cohen.

Nicks coached Ewell not only in pairs but also in singles. Ewell put in a grueling eight-hour-a-day training schedule and recalls how special it was to be part of Nicks' elite group of skaters. Nicks made sure that the team of McCladdie and Ewell had perfect unison. Additionally, their program highlighted their strong free skating skills but did not include the twists and throws that are features of pair skating of today.

After winning the U.S. junior pairs title in 1972, McCladdie and Ewell decided it was the right time to "turn pro," and the team toured with the Ice Capades. McCladdie skated with the show for only two years, but Ewell continued with it for 12. The Ice Capades had never had an African-American figure skating star before, so getting Ewell as a singles performer and the pair team of McCladdie and Ewell at the same time was a great asset for the company.

After his years with the Ice Capades, Ewell met his future wife, Viera Pasternakova, the Slovakian champion, while touring with Holiday on Ice in Europe. Today, the couple lives in the Los Angeles area and has two sons, while Ewell coaches figure skating in El Segundo, Calif. Three of his students will be competing in 2008-2009 qualifying events.

Recently, he and his former partner, Michelle McCladdie, took the time to be interviewed by pair skating legend, Tai Babilonia, for International Figure Skating Magazine.

Ewell greatly admires 2008 U.S. men's champion Evan Lysacek and has followed the progress of 2007 world junior champion Caroline Zhang. He minimizes his own accomplishments by pointing out that it may well be no longer possible to compete in both pairs and singles at the same time because of the higher standards for the elite figure skaters of today. On the other hand, his weakness in compulsory figures would no longer be a handicap, and his love of jumping would have flourished under today's new standards.

Ewell loves figure skating, and he wants others to love the sport. He wants to pass this message on to every figure skater: "Follow your passion no matter what anybody says. There were times when I was told that I shouldn't bother skating since I was an African American. If I had let comments from other people stop me, skating wouldn't have given me so many years of delight, joy and happiness."