SAN JOSE — When the music stopped, Starr Andrews was sure she had failed. She knelt on the SAP Center ice at the end of her U.S. figure skating championships program Friday, thinking of the jumps she had missed, the blades that had caught in the ice and the fact that she wouldn’t be the first Black woman to medal at the U.S. nationals in 35 years.
Smiling through the obligatory cheers, she closed her fist and softly punched her head.
“Oh, my gosh, I literally just like messed up so bad,” she thought.
Dejected, she skated slowly off the ice, flopped in the kiss-and-cry chair and forlornly clutched a huge stuffed animal.
Then her free skate score appeared on the scoreboard above: 119.27.
It was followed by her total for the two days of competition: 188.24.
She hadn’t messed up after all. She was in second place with two skaters to go. That’s when she realized she was going to be on the medal podium.
“I placed!” she remembered thinking.
In the end, Andrews took fourth. Because a pewter medal is awarded to the fourth-place finisher at the U.S. championships, she stood on the same podium as champion Isabeau Levito, silver medalist Bradie Tennell and third-place finisher Amber Glenn. She held the same flowers as the other medalists and took the same group picture. No matter what the medal was made of, it meant everything.
“To be able to be the next African American woman to stand on a podium is amazing,” she said.
At 21, Andrews is considered old in the sport. Five years ago, she burst across the ice in the same event, in the same arena, as a teenager with a bright future, finishing sixth and promising to be a big part of the coming years of American skating. But then came injuries, inconsistency and an issue with her heart that caused it to sometimes race that led to an operation last fall. Her promise withered. Instead of the firsts and seconds she had planned to win, her competition finishes were more eighths and 10ths.
But this past season brought new promise, a silver medal at Skate Canada and hope that, after her November heart procedure, she could reach her once-limitless potential. After finishing third in Thursday’s short program at the U.S. nationals, she was sure she would win a medal.
Then, early in Friday’s free skate, her skate caught as she started to do a triple flip, reducing it to a single flip. A minute later, her skate again got caught as she started a triple Salchow and double loop combination, turning the jump into a single Salchow. Both were significant mistakes. And though she made up some of the missed points with the artistry of her skate, she was sure she had blown the biggest chance of her career.
“It’s just like, ‘Ugggh, I can do these jumps in my sleep,’ ” she said. “They’re so easy for me.”
Later, Andrews stood in a small room beneath the arena’s stands, sad that she had lost a chance at gold or silver but happy she got to be on the podium. Growing up in Los Angeles as a Black girl competing in a sport where women of color rarely reach the medal stand, she knew the significance of the moment. She was aware that she was the first Black woman to win a U.S. nationals medal since Debi Thomas claimed gold in 1988.
She talked about the notes she gets from the parents of other young Black skaters that tell her what an inspiration she is to those children. Sometimes those notes come with videos she thinks “are so cute.”
“I can’t believe I’m the person they saw, I’m the person that wanted to make them start skating,” Andrews added. “And I think that that’s so amazing. And I’m so glad that I can be that person.”
Andrews was asked who “that person” is for her, and without hesitating she said it’s her mother, Toshawa, a skater herself who has served as her coach and mentor. Toshawa also held the camera for a video of a 9-year-old Starr skating to the Willow Smith song “Whip My Hair” that has not only been viewed 57 million times on YouTube but announced Starr to the world as a skater to watch.
Toshawa has microvascular disease, a heart condition that her daughter said has resulted in 12 heart attacks. She also has had a stroke.
“She’s lived a hard life,” Starr said of her mother.
“Throughout all of it, she’s put a smile on her face,” she continued. “And I think that she’s such an incredibly strong woman and person, and to be able to almost die a couple times and be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to take it to the rink’ even though she barely can function is incredible to me and just shows how strong and how supportive she is.”
While Starr’s heart ailment isn’t nearly as serious, she will have to undergo another procedure soon. The surgery is minor, the recovery is quick, and she hopes it won’t interrupt her skating much. After Friday’s free skate, she was named the U.S. women’s team’s first alternate behind Levito, Tennell and Glenn for the world championships in March in Saitama, Japan.
As she stood in that tiny room on the greatest day of her career, she breathed deep, then exhaled, She was sure she had blown her chance, yet everything had worked out fine. She didn’t get the medal she wanted, but after everything that has happened, pewter felt important enough.
“It’s never going to be an easy road [in skating],” she said. “There’s ups and downs, and ... you have to take and make the best out of it. That’s how you become a great athlete, and [it] helps you in regular life as well. So be patient, because the sport is definitely a roller coaster.”