Surya watches closely from a rinkside post while her students practice their repertoires. Bruce Kluckhohn

Figure skating's bad-girl star Surya Bonaly makes new life in Minnesota

Each year in June, hundreds of teenage figure skaters descend upon the Braemar Arena in Edina. Painted and costumed, they hail from a dozen figure skating clubs across the Twin Cities metro.

In a state where practically all children have some memory of toddling around an ice rink, these young zealots are the ones whose families went further, hiring personal coaches and renting private ice. These are the kids who have grown up eagerly sacrificing all the hours of their after-school lives to perfect an exacting catalog of dizzying spins and spirals, leaps and loops. Some are buoyed by Olympic dreams.

Reed-thin Sunny Choi is a pirouetting red blur topped with a pert bun of black hair wrenched tight over her scalp. Choi, who recently turned 12 years old, is an exceptionally young contender in the intermediate-level choreographed skate.

Sunny circles the rink in yet another run of the same moves she’s been rehearsing ad nauseam for the past 10 minutes. She glides in reverse on one skate, leaps into a triple spin, and crashes. When she climbs upright, her entire left thigh and hip are dusted in ice shavings. She throws her shoulders forward in dejection and groans, pouting at her rink-side coach.

Surya Bonaly motions Sunny over, claps her on the back, and repositions her arms tight across her torso. Fill in all this core to spin faster, Surya tells the girl in an accent thick with singing French notes. Choi is tripping because she does not yet have the ab strength to complete three full rotations cleanly before she starts coming down. She falls because she’s unsure where she is in the air.

After the practice, Surya walks with Sunny and her mother, Jae Choi, in the hallway just outside the rink. A cloud of frustration sits over the girl as she presses close to Mom. She’s worried that she won’t earn a medal at this year’s Braemar competition.

Surya skates for her fifth consecutive European Championships gold medal in 1995.

Surya skates for her fifth consecutive European Championships gold medal in 1995. Associated Press

“It’s okay... just because you don’t get a medal, it doesn’t mean you’re not worth anything,” Surya consoles Sunny. “What are medals good for anyway? Collecting dust?”

Sunny is in a self-punishing mood. She nods meekly to show that she has heard before they part ways.

“American culture is so different from Europe. Here, they cry if they don’t come home with a medal. It’s only what they have in mind, and it destroys them,” Surya says. She’s swaddled in layers of thermal sweatshirts bunched inside a puffy black parka. She wears no makeup, her bangs pinned back casually. “I tell the skaters if you did your best, you did good. Try to be happy.”

Surya is a former Olympian, a nine-time French national champion, a five-time European champion, and a three-time World silver medalist. She is one of the most celebrated black figure skaters in the history of a lily-white sport.

And she’s the only human being in the history of the world who can land a backflip on one blade.

The question of why Surya never attained Olympic gold, and the disqualification of her singular skill, is still a matter of controversy. It’s the reason her fame inhabits a cult status rarely enjoyed by even the most decorated skating stars. It’s why people still know her name long after she hung up her competitive skates for the last time in 1998.

Yet after a career that spanned three decades — starting when the now 43-year-old champion was discovered at age 10, skylarking about an ice rink in the south of France — Surya decided to move to America, settling in remote, modest Minnesota. She did it for love, as much as for the homegrown crop of hungry young talent.

Part of her coaching job is to impart the techniques for which she is best known: strength, speed, and air. The rest is teaching her students how to stay happy and confident.

It’s a skill Surya developed over a lifetime of grappling with a world that seemed hell-bent on keeping her out.

Surya’s Rising Star

When the world press first took note of Surya Bonaly, she was 17, winner of the 1991 European championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. She was the first French woman ever to earn that glory by landing five triple jumps out of seven. At the time, she had already won the French championship three times running.

Her pure athleticism was immediately evident. She was quick. She was aerial. It wasn’t enough for her to simply glide and dance when she could leap and spin.

And she was already thinking about breaking records: For the upcoming 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, Surya wanted to attempt the first quadruple toe loop jump — a spin with four full revolutions — in competition. It was something no woman had ever landed successfully. If anyone could, it was Surya.

Before she was a figure skater training under the renowned coach Didier Gailhaguet, Surya was a French national tumbling champion. Under the tutelage of her adoptive mother, Suzanne Bonaly, who taught physical education in Nice, Surya began gymnastics training at two years old. She was a silver medal winner by the 1986 Tumbling World Championships. At the same time, she learned to figure skate and began turning backflips in crowded rinks by age 12.

In the beginning, critics disapproved of her peculiar mélange of gymnastics and figure skating. They wrote off her style as inelegant, more a show of power than grace. Yet her unique tumbling background also gave Surya an unprecedented advantage. She could push the boundaries of what was considered physically possible in blades.

Surya performs a backflip during a 2002 Champions on Ice appearance in Boise, Idaho.

Surya performs a backflip during a 2002 Champions on Ice appearance in Boise, Idaho.

As fuel for his prize pupil’s rising star, the flamboyant Gailhaguet told reporters that Surya had been born on the French island of Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar, and abandoned as a baby on a coconut-strewn beach. He said that she had been raised on a macrobiotic diet. That she ate birdseed for breakfast. That the 17-inch ponytail she wore in her first Olympic appearance had never been cut.

None of it was true. Yet Gailhaguet gambled on a circus mystique for young Surya as a way to contend with better-established, contemporaneous skating legends like Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, and Midori Ito. They were athletes who intrigued and inspired the imaginations of huge fan followings.

In the 1990s, figure skating was as popular as ever, and every advantage that could be manufactured was a point in the rubric of a subjectively judged sport. Skating events were televised every day during the Olympics, sometimes two or three times. It was over skating that the world’s superpowers chose to stage their ancient political rivalries and to prove the legitimacy of their governments.

In figure skating some of the best in the world were state-sponsored athletes from Russia and East Germany. For these women, bringing home a medal meant financial comfort for their entire families. To lose was to become a national disgrace. The coach of Katarina Witt was a German terror who was said to be able to trip her opponent with just a glare. Skaters would lock their bags, or safer yet, take their skates with them whenever they left the dressing room.

The so-called “ice princesses” who ruled the sport were never truly wilting damsels. At its apex, figure skating was a sport of bruising, bleeding, and backstabbing. It was the sort of environment in which American Olympian Tonya Harding would conspire to have a hitman break rival skater Nancy Kerrigan’s leg, skyrocketing skating to hypnotic heights of public interest.

And it was in this hotbed of politics that Surya hoped to win for France, a country that not only hadn’t medaled in world figure skating, it hadn’t been a contender.

Art and Artifice

Surya coaches at Parade Ice Garden in Loring Park.

Surya coaches at Parade Ice Garden in Loring Park.

At the 1992 Albertville Olympics, France elected Surya to take the Olympic Oath as representative of all its athletes. The fabled fashion designer Christian Lacroix donated to her two skating costumes: one featuring a fiery matador jacket embroidered with red carnations, the other a sheer blue skirt set with rhinestones.

But as with any measure of reputation, controversy followed closely.

During a practice session, Surya performed a backflip and landed — as it seemed to one incensed referee — far too close to Japan’s Midori Ito. Accused of rattling the emotionally delicate Ito and causing her to fall during her long performance, Surya was warned never to pull the stunt again. 

There were many reasons why backflips were never accepted by the governing chiefs of the figure skating world. Skaters were discouraged from being acrobats in order to avoid cross-contamination with gymnastics. There were practical liabilities too. People could get concussions, break a neck, dislocate a jaw. It was a skill that could never be institutionalized, so there was no way to judge it. 

Later in the 1992 Olympics, Surya ignored her predetermined choreography and spontaneously became the first and only woman to attempt a quadruple toe loop in competition. She underrotated and landed awkwardly midspin. The judges stripped points. It was conceit to think she could land such a move, they seemed to say. Surya finished fifth overall.

There was a nasty breakup with Gailhaguet, who was bitterly disappointed to leave the Olympics sans medal. Yet he never directed a single complaint at his young prodigy. Instead, he placed all the blame with her mother, Suzanne.

Suzanne Bonaly was a devoted physical education teacher in the sunny south of France. When she married her husband, the architect Georges, she had the word “sport” engraved on her wedding band. She was Surya’s first coach, introducing her to all the outdoor sports that Nice had to offer. 

She pressed Surya to outperform every self-imposed limitation. Yet she never thought to mold Surya into a champion, Suzanne says, “because in Europe, you don’t dream like that.”

“To progress and progress and progress is what I do with my students. Could I say, ‘Come on, we are going to do the competition and win this?’ No. That’s not me.”

So when Gailhaguet invited Surya to come away with him, promising to make her a star, Suzanne accompanied her daughter to Paris while Georges remained in Nice. There, Suzanne kept close to Surya’s side, never straying from the rink-side compartment meant for coaches. She watched over practice like a hawk.

From the beginning, the media was perplexed by Suzanne. They nicknamed her “the Dragon Lady” on account of her constant involvement with Surya’s training and the way she alienated Surya’s coaches. Her not-so-subtle disdain for the artificial etiquette of the competitive world — the kowtowing to judges’ particular preferences and the way skaters were expected to smile graciously, blush, and curtsy — offended the community.

At the same time, Gailhaguet’s bad-mouthing of Suzanne came off like the ravings of a slighted parent in a noxious custody battle. He accused Suzanne of yelling at Surya, slapping her, and hitting her in the face with hockey sticks if she ever skated below expectation.

When word of this abuse got around to Surya, she burst out laughing. Suzanne was aghast. No one who had ever trained with the two of them could corroborate Gailhaguet’s allegations. And in the tug-of-war between mother and coach — between the private virtue of self-improvement and the public glory of winning gold — Surya chose the former.

She could have been the best there ever was, Gailhaguet lamented when Suzanne whisked her daughter away to a resort in the French Alps to train and to heal.

But for Surya and Suzanne, the break was a necessary respite.

“The best part of skating with Surya, we did in the mountains after we fight with Didier Gailhaguet, and she left Paris,” Suzanne reflects now. “The ice rink of la belle view in the mountains, and we can see the pine and the peak, we put on the music and she skate.... Oh you can imagine, that was beautiful. What I see there was the best of the skating. All the competition was trouble, difficulty, but this was real. It was true art.”

One Last Chance

The respite from competition wouldn’t last long. Surya loved to perform, loved making art that others could watch. She craved the crowd, the applause, the couture, and the drama of the world stage.

To make an honest, reconciliatory bid for an Olympic medal, Surya went to California to study under Michelle Kwan’s coach Frank Carroll. He told her the hard truth: She needed to appeal to the judges’ sense of good skating and put her own aesthetics aside.

Surya gave up on trying to perfect the quadruple spin. She no longer practiced the backflip in view of referees. She even cut her thickly braided ponytail — because the judges didn’t like it, her mother explained.

She began 1994 with her fourth consecutive win of the European championship. At the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, she placed fourth, behind the bronze medalist.

Following the Lillehammer Olympics, Surya competed in the 1994 World Championship in Chiba, Japan. She performed perfectly, and received a final score that was but two-tenths of a point less than that of hometown hero Yuka Sato.

When the judges cast final votes for their preferred gold medalist, they indicated 5-4 that it should be Sato.

Beaming, the young Japanese star darted onto the ice for the medal ceremony while Surya followed slowly after, her face streaked with tears. She refused to stand on the podium to receive the silver, cuing hisses from the crowd. The awards presenter was barely able to force the medal over Surya’s unbent head before she tore it off again.

Suzanne watched on from her place just beyond the rink, her face an impassive mask.

When the “Kimigayo” was sung and Surya was finally free to leave, a horde of reporters brandishing microphones encircled her before she could make a full retreat. Who told her to do it, they demanded of the shocked 21-year-old. Had Suzanne put her up to rejecting the podium?

“No one told me,” Surya stuttered. “I’m just not lucky I guess.”

She’d changed everything about the way she skated, what made her different, and special, even how she looked. She played by the rules. It still wasn’t enough.

Thinking back to the disastrous 1994 World Championships, Surya says she never meant to upset so many people.

“It happened so fast and in a way I was like, ‘Ohh, I feel really pissed off.’ I felt I was deserving the medal, number one,” she says. At the time, it felt like however well she skated, the judges wouldn’t recognize her skills. “You don’t want to be a bad person, but it happens all the time, and if people don’t know that you’re pissed, the judges can do this over and over, repeatedly, and you have to take it.”

After 1994, Surya had one last chance to prove herself. She set out to win the 1998 Olympics or fade into obscurity. By 1995, injuries were beginning to accrue. She won her fifth-straight European championship with a broken right toe. The following year, she snapped her Achilles tendon practicing her trademark backflip. In 1997 she nevertheless won her ninth and final consecutive French National title, qualifying for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

As she prepared to compete once more on the grandest world stage, bad press followed her. The New York Times thought she was a sore loser. The French papers mercilessly bashed her mother’s decision to never hire a full-time coach after parting with Gailhaguet following the 1992 Olympics. 

There was also Surya’s obvious racial distinction, of which she never made as much as the papers did and still do. She never fixated on whether the judges shortchanged her at the 1994 World Championships because she was black.

Instead, the color of her skin was an internal motivator for Surya. She believed she had to be objectively exceptional, so that race could not be held against her. Or used as an excuse. She was nevertheless used as a symbol — called a rebel, a diva, a badass, another oft-scrutinized black body. People talked about her muscles, her thighs, as if they were weapons in a cultural war.

The Olympics were agony for Surya. She knew it was her last competition. She had too many injuries to go further in her career. At the same time, the broken Achilles liberated her. Realistically, she knew there was no place for her in the top three. She had nothing to lose.

When it came time for her free skate, Surya tried to imagine if the International Skating Union legalized backflips someday in the future, and if other skaters started to do it. How would she feel, knowing she’d never given it a shot in competition, even though she was the only one in the world who was capable of doing it?

Skating to Vivaldi’s tempestuous The Four Seasons, she fell on a triple, regained her composure, and backed into a spontaneous backflip.

The audience exploded. Bouquets hailed from the stands. Hearts thundered throughout the frigid arena as people turned to each other, wide-eyed and slack-jawed because they didn’t believe their own eyes.

Surya, when she had finished, bore an exuberant smile. She turned her back to the judges and bowed first to the fans.

She came in 10th. But she would not be forgotten.

“It was enough just for me to challenge myself and fight against myself, not to get this girl, to beat that girl. My thing was to make sure that I come out and feel strong enough in myself to say, ‘Hey, I did what I was supposed to do.’”

Flipping Back into Action

When Minnesota’s Tom Collins founded the touring skating company Champions on Ice back in 1969, the pitch was simple. Olympians who had retired from competition and wanted to start making big money need only come to him, and he would use their names to stock stands by the thousands.

At the peak of the late-1990s figure skating hysteria, the ice show magnate made a fortune with programs that bore the names of Brian Boitano, Nancy Kerrigan, and Viktor Petrenko. Skaters who could barely look at each other while competing neck and neck.

“She would be one of the highlights,” Collins says of Surya. “Her and Michelle Kwan, and maybe a couple other people. She would get one of the biggest applause in the show. She really did, because she was different, and she stood out.”

For 15 years Surya toured with Champions on Ice, performing for crowds of 15,000 in major cities across Europe and America, living on the road for months at a time. On days that she woke up in France but was needed in Madison Square Garden for a prime-time performance, she took Concorde jets that flew her from Paris to New York in three hours. She kept company with two presidents of France.

Surya says she pretended every show was the World Championships.

Every night, Surya performed her signature backflip because that was what the crowds wanted more than anything. She never stepped off the ice without doing it. Over the years, Collins estimates that Surya must have performed it some 500 times.

“Oh my gosh, flipped halfway around, opened up…the thought of it.” He can’t think back to the potential for injury each of those times without a squeamish groan. “Okay, but she was just gung-ho. She had all the confidence in the world.”

With her mother Suzanne there at every show as coach and companion, Surya never fell.
Over time, the two settled in Nevada and became U.S. citizens. Surya made a Las Vegas Strip rink her home practice turf, and it was there that she met Pete Biver.

Biver is a classic blond-haired, blue-eyed giant of Minnesota stock, a five-time U.S. Nationals gold medalist in pairs who retired into coaching following his competitive career. The 2013 International Skating Institute coaches convention brought him to Las Vegas. An on-ice reprieve from classroom seminars eventually led him to Surya’s rink.

And there she was, with her mother. Biver recalls seeing Suzanne first, this daunting force in figure skating. Tentatively, respectfully, he began to chitchat with her.

At the end, Biver got up the nerve to skate out to Surya. He knew she had also skated pairs, so he asked her if she would like to do a death spiral.

“And she said ‘yeah,’” Biver laughs, reminded of the excitement of taking Surya by the hand, anchoring one toe into the ice, and sweeping her into a low, low spiral with her body lifted but a few intimate inches off the ice as they twisted in tandem.

Afterward, they talked for a while. Surya knew of Biver’s accomplishments at Nationals, but she hadn’t remembered that they’d met once before, some 10 years before when she came to Lake Placid, New York. Biver was training there at the time. In between training sessions, Biver got in line to get Surya’s autograph.

He was just a fanboy, Biver jokes. When Surya suggested that she might be interested in attending his coaches’ conference, he was utterly taken aback. Could he save her a seat next to him? she asked.

Surya attended a couple of classes with Biver, and afterward they went out for sushi. They spent the entire weekend together. It was surreal, he says.

Two trying years of long-distance dating followed. At one point Surya returned to France to shoot a TV show, the equivalent of Dancing With the Stars. Biver stayed with her there for about a week, and she would visit him in Minnesota. They each had exacting schedules, and whenever Surya flew to France, she would ask for a connection to Minneapolis. They often ended up meeting each other at MSP airport, where they might have a couple hours to have lunch, say hello, take a picture, and say goodbye.

Eventually they decided that if “it” was going to work out, one of them had to move.

Sweet Home Minnesota

For three hours after school, Surya can be found at Parade Ice Garden in Loring Park, where she dons a pair of skates and chases her students across the ice to a Disney soundtrack, chirping, “Push, push, push, push!” She rubs their backs and reminds these angular teenage girls to slink, gracefully, like cats, instead of stomping like ducks. They laugh.

The last time Surya performed a backflip, it was two years ago during a show in Brazil. By then, a deep and unrelenting ache radiated in her lower spine. While she toured, Surya would lie awake at night, stretched out on the floor of fancy hotel rooms with her left leg propped up on a chair. At home she slept on a plank of wood.

At first she was reluctant to seek treatment, Surya says, because pain was something that she’d lived with all her life.

True skaters fall at least 50 times a session, but before she learned how to do it properly, she fractured both wrists. At 11, she had just landed a spin when her ankle suddenly buckled and broke beneath her. Later she received her first and only concussion falling from the balance beam midbackflip. She snapped her Achilles tumbling barefoot in the gym, and then she snapped it again in high-heeled ice skates.

You weren’t supposed to complain, Surya says. That was the way of gymnastics, where gossip flowed abundantly about so-and-so who’d fallen on her head, who crashed and tore her jaw, who broke her nose.

“When you’re in pain and the show must go on, you have to do everything you can to look amazing for those people who pay money for tickets,” Surya says of her final years with Champions on Ice. “What can you do? Give me 10 pills, make me feel better.”

Ibuprofen kept the pain at bay, but eventually it too lost its potency. Faced with the reality that she might actually overdose, Surya sought a doctor’s opinion. It turned out that she had a proliferation of cysts all along her spinal cord. They weren’t cancerous, but they were large enough to pinch her nerves.

Surya went under the knife last year. Since the operation, her left leg has felt numb from knee to toe. Her surgeon warned her against any more backflips.

And so after a lifetime on the road since she was 15 years old, Surya has fully traded in performing for coaching. She moved in with Biver — first to Blaine to be near the superarena, and then to St. Louis Park, closer to the epicenter of all the metro area ice rinks where they coach private lessons.
It’s the first time she’s ever lived with a boyfriend. All her previous relationships had been long distance, and the distance inevitably became the breaking point.

At the thought of Surya’s newfound peace, Suzanne breathes a long, satisfied sigh. She believes Biver is a nice boy. He accompanied Surya to visit her once, in Las Vegas, but she tried her utmost to not interfere.

“I tried to let them be independent,” Suzanne recalls. “I leave them to be closer and closer and closer and perhaps… perhaps!”

After decades of living together or near each other, as mother and daughter, coach and athlete, Suzanne and Surya now talk on the phone mostly. Back in Las Vegas, they shared acres of land and gardened every day after practice: lemons and nectarines, figs and olives. Suzanne sends Surya photos of the peach harvest and Surya responds with clips of her students’ work. Some days it’s just not enough to keep the homesickness at bay.

Surya coaches six days a week, sometimes up to 12 hours on competition days. Biver works all seven.

Sometimes driving from one rink to another is about all the breathing room they get, and even then, they replay their students’ routines in their minds. Dinners together are rare. Often, it’s only late at night that they’ll have a quiet moment to themselves.

At times, the daily hustle of this work has been a difficult transition for Surya to master. She’s found that it’s not so easy to be a transplant in Minnesota, to make friends, to find things to do outside of work. Once in a while, when Biver is training at the rink, she’ll go see a movie by herself.

There is no time, and no place, to garden in a condo in St. Louis Park. Still, Surya says mentoring her students is not unlike the laborious cultivation of a desert zucchini.

“It takes forever. Like growing a garden, growing a good salad, it takes forever to get a zucchini big like that,” she says. “You have to be patient. It doesn’t grow overnight.”

Biver admits his bias, but after working with Surya day after day, he’s seen firsthand the qualities in her that make a top coach. She has a way of making skaters laugh, he says, of finding nicknames for all her students, understanding their motivations. She extracts humor from moments of frustration that could otherwise devastate a young student over time.

“She’s so appreciative of everyone who is interested in skating, and pushing themselves beyond what they think is [possible],” he says. “She showed that you can stand up and speak for yourself because if you don’t, no one else will. And I know her path has not been easy, and I take my hat off to her for being so vocal, that in such a judged and contrived world of figure skating that she stood as an original.”