Surya Bonaly

Surya Bonaly (born 15 December 1973) is a French former competitive figure skater. She is a three-time World silver medalist (1993–1995), a five-time European champion (1991–1995), the 1991 World Junior Champion, and a nine-time French national champion (1989–1997).

Surya Bonaly
Personal information
Country represented France
Born (1973-12-15) 15 December 1973 (age 46)
Nice, France
ResidenceLas Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
Height1.56 m (5 ft 1 12 in)
Former coachDidier Gailhaguet, Annick Gailhaguet, André Brunet, Suzanne Bonaly, Tatiana Tarasova, Alain Giletti
Former skating clubCSG Pralognan
AC Boulogne Billancourt
Former training locationsMarlborough, USA
Began skating1985

Bonaly is the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on only one blade; she performed it at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Early lifeEdit

Surya Varuna Claudine Bonaly was born in Nice, France, on 15 December 1973.[1][2] Initially named Claudine, she was adopted at eight months from an orphanage by Suzanne and Georges Bonaly, who gave her the name Surya,[3] a word meaning "the sun" in Sanskrit.[4] Suzanne worked as a physical education teacher and Georges as an architect for the government. Journalists, mainly American, began in the late 1980s to claim that Surya Bonaly was born on the island of Réunion, an island off the coast of Madagascar, and was found lying on a coconut-strewn beach. The skater's passport, however, indicates that she was born in Nice.[5] The story spread as she prepared for her first European championships in 1989. Bonaly believes that the media couldn't accept that a young black adoptee could have been born in France. For Didier Gailhaguet, the first coach in her competitive career, the media attention given to the skater allowed her to achieve better results in international competitions.[5] He later admitted fabricating the story in order to draw attention to his skater, adding that he only mentioned Reunion because he dreamed of going there on vacation.[6] When Surya approached the age of 18 and began researching her birth history, she discovered that her biological mother was from the Reunion Island and her biological father from Ivory Coast.[7]

Two years after her adoption, the Bonalys bought a sheepfold in ruins and began to renovate it into a house. Surya grew up in this sheepfold fifty kilometers from Nice, a house without running water or electricity and populated with twenty-six goats.[8] She took part in the daily work of the farm, milking the goats in the evening after training and even, with her parents, helping goats to give birth to kids. The sheepfold, located on the hills of Nice, is nicknamed Sannyasa, a Sanskrit term that refers to a stage in a person's life, a period of spiritual development during which one renounces material possessions to concentrate purely on spiritual matters. She had flute lessons at eight in the morning, followed by English lessons, then diving lessons and gymnastics.[8]

Her mother practiced many sports and quickly encouraged Surya to follow in her footsteps. The first sport she practiced was fencing. She continued with ballet, horse riding, diving, and figure skating.[9] In each discipline, she was very gifted.[4] When Suzanne Bonaly took her students to the ice rink, she also took Surya, still a baby, with her. At around two years of age, Surya began to skate on double blades, which facilitate balance. She skated to keep busy while her mother finished teaching her class. In figure skating, Nicole Erdos was Surya's first childhood coach.[8]

At age four, Surya developed a passion for gymnastics, training with Éric Hagard, the current coach of the multiple European medalist Mélanie de Jesus dos Santos. Despite Surya's love for gymnastics as a teenager, it was nevertheless figure skating that really fascinated her. Forced to specialize, she chose figure skating. Nicole Erdos indicates that Bonaly's gymnastics practice strengthened her more than other skaters, giving her an advantage on the ice.[8]

Didier Gailhaguet in 2012


Debut with Didier GailhaguetEdit

In 1984, Surya Bonaly watched the Winter Olympic Games and discovered there the skater Katarina Witt: she then decided to try the double Axel and broke her ankle. She wore a cast for two months, and decided to continue practicing the flute until the summer.[8] When she returned to the ice rink, the French team trained by Didier Gailhaguet took every available space on the ice, preventing Surya from training. Suzanne Bonaly then asked Didier Gailhaguet to give her daughter an hour on the ice, and the coach agreed. She tried again to do a double Axel with her broken ankle, which impressed Gailhaguet, who later claimed that "France had no hard fighters." He then proposed to Bonaly and her mother to come for each training session, which would last three weeks.[4] At the end of the course, Bonaly had almost reached the level of the members of the French team, already managing to land a double Axel and a triple jump despite the short time she had spent on the ice.[8] Gailhaguet asked her to move to Paris to train with him year-round.[4]

The Bonaly family then moved to Paris. For six months, while training in Champigny-sur-Marne, she was home-schooled and lived in a van with her parents.[10] Philippe Candeloro has mentioned that the family was accompanied by five dogs at that time. He also noticed the severity of her mother, who pushed Surya to train hard but also very closely governed the social life and hobbies of her daughter.[11] A year later, Surya joined the French National Team. She then became the center of the media attention among French figure skaters, by being constantly put in the spotlight by Gailhaguet.[4] At age twelve, under the impulse of Gailhaguet, she learned to do a backflip on the ice: Gailhaguet claims to have only transposed onto the ice what she was doing on a regular basis. She made her first backflip on the ice and in public at a gala in Annecy in 1986.[11] Also in 1986, at the age of thirteen, she became a junior tumbling champion at the World Championships.[4] The same year, again in tumbling, she won a team silver medal at the World Championships with Sandrine Vacher, Corinne Robert and Isabelle Jagueux at the Palais omnisports of Paris-Bercy.[12]

1987–1988 to 1989–1990Edit

During the 1987–1988 season, Surya Bonaly became the French junior figure-skating champion in Cherbourg. At the French Senior Championships in Grenoble, she ended up in fourth place and was then sent to her first ISU Championship, the 1988 Junior Worlds in Brisbane, Australia, and finished 14th.

During the summer of 1988, she watched the Summer Olympics and noticed the sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner dressed in a colorful running suit and decided to take inspiration from her for her skating costumes which would later become more original and colorful, something considered unusual at the time in figure skating.

Bonaly usually made eight to nine jumps during her programs, whereas conventional programs usually contain six.[13]

The following season, Bonaly won the bronze medal at 1989 World Junior Championships and her first senior national title. She also began appearing on the senior level, placing eighth at the 1989 European Championships and tenth at 1989 World Championships.

Bonaly was awarded the silver medal behind Japan's Yuka Sato at the 1990 World Junior Championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She finished fourth at the 1990 European Championships and ninth at the 1990 World Championships.

1990–1991 season: World Junior and European titlesEdit

Bonaly began the season with a pair of senior international medals – gold at the 1990 Grand Prix International de Paris and bronze at the 1990 Skate Electric. Making her final junior appearance, she stood on top of the podium at the 1991 World Junior Championships in Budapest, Hungary. After taking her third national title, she competed at the 1991 European Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. She was awarded the gold medal ahead of two German skaters, Evelyn Großmann and Marina Kielmann. During the invasion of Kuwait, she designed a gala skating program that included a magic trick in which she made a dove appear, a symbol of peace.

Bonaly placed fifth at the 1991 World Championships in Munich, Germany, where she came very close to the first ever ratified quad by a female skater, but had other errors.[14]

1991–1992 season: Second European title and first Olympic appearanceEdit

In January 1992, Bonaly outscored Kielmann and Patricia Neske for the gold medal at the European Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. In February 1992, she took the athlete's oath at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. During a practice session, she landed a back flip close to Japan's Midori Ito and was told by officials not to do it again because they believed that other skaters might be intimidated in practice sessions.[15] Her costumes were custom made by Christian Lacroix.[4] She became the first woman to attempt a quadruple toe loop in competition but the jump was not fully rotated in the air and she had to complete the rotation on the ice. Due to the under rotation, the quad would be downgraded under the ISU Judging System.[16] Although the door was open for her to win a medal after Ito and Harding had finished in 4th and 6th in the short program, and Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan both made major errors in the long skating just before her, she placed 6th in the free skate and 5th overall.

After the Olympics, Bonaly parted ways with Gailhaguet and joined André Brunet, who coached her for one month.[17][18] She concluded her season at the 1992 World Championships in Oakland, California. Ranked tenth in the short and 12th in the free, she finished 11th overall, making a number of jumping errors in both programs. She was so distraught with her poor performances and how she was marked that she considered turning pro midway through the event.[19]

1992–1993 season: First World silver medalEdit

Bonaly was coached mainly by her mother from April to September 1992 and also made two-month-long visits, in June and September, to Frank Carroll in southern California; although she wanted to stay with Carroll permanently, the French skating federation was opposed to its skaters training abroad.[18] Alain Giletti became her coach, commuting four times a week by train from Tours to Paris, and her mother filled in during his absences.[18] During the summer of 1992, Bonaly signed a contract to join Tom Collins' troop, Champions on Ice, two months a year. It's a way of showing her technical abilities without limitations, by performing somersaults prohibited in competition.

Bonaly won the 1993 European Championships in Helsinki, having placed first in both segments ahead of Ukraine's Oksana Baiul and Germany's Marina Kielmann. At the 1993 World Championships in Prague, she took silver behind Oksana Baiul, who narrowly took the title with higher presentation scores.[20] Bonaly had significantly more technical content than the winner. Bonaly performed seven triples, a triple-triple combination, and two triple Lutzes, while Baiul performed five triples but did not attempt a jump combination.

1993–1994 seasonEdit

In January 1994, Bonaly placed first in all segments on her way to her fourth consecutive continental title at the Europeans Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark. The other medalists were Baiul and Russia's Olga Markova. A month later, she competed at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Ranked third in the short program and fourth in the free skate, she finished fourth overall behind Baiul, Nancy Kerrigan, and Chen Lu.

The media began to pay attention to Surya's mother, Suzanne Bonaly. There are many critics from the media against her: Surya being unable to enjoy a social life because of her schedules and her responsibility for Surya's skating style since Suzanne Bonaly is a physical education teacher and would rather tend towards having athletic prowess rather than having the grace of a dancer.[13] Surya goes to bed at nine, is forbidden to eat sugar, runs every morning, but for the young skater, it is a habit and not a constraint.[13] She allows herself to go out and have fun during the summer, where she performs without having to prepare for competitions. Suzanne Bonaly believes that the critics are rooted in jealousy.[21] Bonaly moves with her mother to Pralognan-la-Vanoise, where she trains far away from the public eye.[6]

Yuka Sato at the Stars on Ice 2010

At the 1994 World Championships in Chiba, Japan Bonaly's final overall score was equal to home country favorite Yuka Sato, who would be awarded the gold medal after a 5–4 tiebreaker decision.[22]

Bonaly expected the judges to reward her for improving her gracefulness, having stopped trying to land quadruple jumps and having improved from the previous championships, where she also finished second. Bonaly even cut her thickly braided ponytail because the judges didn't like it.[23] She claims to have made concessions to better suit the expectations of the judges, without ever being rewarded for her work. Bonaly told the French podcast Surya Bonaly, corps et lames : «I did everything I could, but I didn't paint myself white, that's for sure.»[13] Upset by the result, Bonaly stood beside the medals platform rather than on it. She eventually stepped onto the platform but took off her silver medal after it was presented to her; she was immediately booed by the crowd.[24] After the medals presentation, Bonaly's only statement to reporters was: "I'm just not lucky."

Later, the international judge Anne Hardy-Thomas, absent from this competition, commented on the judges' decision. She stated that the judges are under great pressure, their names being displayed opposite their notes; she herself said that she sometimes put second a French skater to avoid being accused of favoritism.[13] Two main clans stand out, the Anglo-Saxons and the countries of the former Eastern bloc: Surya Bonaly does not belong to either of these two coalitions. American judges look for a graceful skater who meets the beauty standards, while European judges favor athletics and creativity, which benefits Bonaly.[13]

The international federation first thought of punishing her for her behavior, then they changed their mind, believing that the justified disappointment of the skater was a sufficient mitigating circumstance.[25]

1994–1995 season: Fifth European titleEdit

In 1995, Bonaly won the European Championships for the fifth time, overtaking short-program winner Markova. At the 1995 World Championships in Birmingham, England, she placed fourth in the short program but rose to second after the free skate. She was awarded her third World silver medal, behind Chen Lu of China.[26] For the third consecutive year she lost the gold medal by just one judge and one-tenth of a point. Her free skate had the most difficult technical content, with two triple Lutzes, two triple-triple combos, and seven triples. For Bonaly to have won, another skater would have needed to place ahead of short program leader Nicole Bobek.

1995–1996 seasonEdit

In autumn 1995, Bonaly competed in the inaugural ISU Champions Series. She finished third and fourth at her assignments, which was not enough to qualify to the seven-woman final. Ranked first in the short program and second in the free skate, Bonaly took silver behind Russia's Irina Slutskaya at the 1996 European Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. She finished fifth at the 1996 World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, having placed seventh in the short where she fell on a triple Lutz, and fifth in the free.

1996–1997 seasonEdit

In May 1996, Bonaly ruptured her achilles tendon while doing acrobatics.[27] Due to the injury, she missed much of the following season.[28] The French federation initially decided not to name her to the 1997 European Championships in Paris, believing that she lacked fitness, but Bonaly successfully appealed.[27] She finished 9th overall after placing 6th in qualifying group B, 6th in the short program, and 10th in the free skate. She was not included in France's two-women team to the World Championships, passed over in favor of Vanessa Gusmeroli, the top French finisher at Europeans, and Laetitia Hubert who placed behind Bonaly at the same event.

1997–1998 season: Third OlympicsEdit

During the season, Bonaly was coached by Suzanne Bonaly and Tatiana Tarasova in Marlborough, United States.[1] At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Bonaly placed 6th in the short program. Unable to complete her planned routine or a successful triple Lutz due to injury, she decided to perform a backflip with a split landing on one blade during the free skate. (This move is now dubbed a "Bonaly"). Backflips had been banned since 1976 from competitions held under ISU rules. Having landed it on one foot, Bonaly hoped to not get a deduction but she ended up having her points deducted.[29] Nonetheless, she was content with her decision to perform the move.[30][31] Bonaly is the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on only one blade. Anne Hardy-Thomas, the French judge of the event, was approached by the technical delegate, who told her that Bonaly was insolent and had behaved unacceptably. The judge replied : "She did well for all the past years".[21] She finished tenth in Nagano and retired from amateur competition after the event.

Her skating clubs were CSG Pralognan[1] and CSG Champigny.[2]

With Marina Anissina at the 2012 World Championships

Later careerEdit

Bonaly toured with the Champions on Ice skating show for several years[32] until it went out of business after 2007. She also performed in shows in Russia with Evgeni Plushenko and was a guest skater at Ice Theatre of New York's December 2008 gala in NYC where she successfully performed her backflip.[33]

Bonaly was an off-screen character on the "Will on Ice" episode of NBC's Will & Grace which originally aired on 12 January 1999.[34] In 2010, she was a finalist on La Ferme Célébrités season 3.[35] In 2015, she underwent surgery after the discovery of numerous cysts along her spinal cord, ending her performing career.[36]

She appeared in the episode "Judgement" of a 2019 Netflix documentary series that explored the lives of heroic individuals who bounced back from loss or perceived failure. In Bonaly's case, the episode focused on her defiance, "longevity" on the ice, and refusal to submit to conventions.[37]

Bonaly is coaching in Las Vegas while regularly doing seminars abroad (in Mexico and Norway recently).[38]

Racism in figure skatingEdit

When asked about her experience as a black figure skater, Bonaly has stated on the French podcast Surya Bonaly, corps et lames that even though she never had a racist encounter in her career,[13] she probably would have been a World Champion if she weren't black.[13] During an interview with the BBC, when asked if she ever felt that things were harder for her as one of the first black figure skaters, Bonaly clarified her comments stating: "It was a mix of so many things. First, because I was black for sure and I didn't try to copy anyone. Second, because I came from a small country. Third, because I’ve had a different hairstyle and look and also because my mother made my skating costumes for so many years. All those things together was just too much for some people to handle."[29]


She takes part in numerous conferences and events which aim to encourage the participation of nonwhite people in sport.[4]

She participated in numerous PETA's campaigns against Canada's seal hunt and the fur trade.[39]

Bonaly is also against bullfighting and requested to be received by the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who received her at the Élysée Palace on 26 September 2007 in order to address the abolition of bullfighting and the prohibited entry in bullfighting arenas to children under 16.[40]

Bonaly was a member of the federal council of the French Federation of Ice Sports from 2010 to 2014. She was also the cultural attaché for the Monaco consulate in Las Vegas.[41]

She was the ambassador of the association "France of talents and colors," which aims to fight against racism, violence and discrimination in sport.[42]

Personal lifeEdit

Bonaly became an American citizen in January 2004.[43] She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.[44] Bonaly became engaged to skating coach Pete Biver on 18 September 2016.[36] She has no children.[21] Bonaly has been a vegetarian since infancy.[45][46]



Season Short program Free skating Exhibition
  • Caravan

  • The Wall
  • Check Point
  • Un Parfum de fin au Monde
  • Love for Ever
    by Osvaldo Camahue and the Czech Jazz & Symphony Orchestra
  • From the Death of Innocence
    by DJ Trastornado
  • From the Death of Innocence
    by DJ Trastornado

Competitive highlightsEdit

Event 87–88 88–89 89–90 90–91 91–92 92–93 93–94 94–95 95–96 96–97 97–98
Olympics 5th 4th 10th
Worlds 10th 9th 5th 11th 2nd 2nd 2nd 5th
Europeans 8th 4th 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 2nd 9th 6th
Cup of Russia 4th
Lalique 7th 1st 1st 5th 1st 1st 1st 3rd
Nations Cup 1st
NHK Trophy 2nd 1st 1st 2nd 4th
Skate America 6th 5th 3rd 2nd 1st 4th
Skate Canada 7th 1st 3rd
Goodwill Games 3rd 1st
Nebelhorn Trophy 2nd 1st
Piruetten 4th
International: Junior[1]
Junior Worlds 14th 3rd 2nd 1st
French Champ. 4th 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 1st 2nd


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  2. ^ a b "Surya Bonaly". Sports Reference. Archived from the original on 17 April 2020.
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  24. ^ 1994 World Figure Skating Championship Medal Ceremony,
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  31. ^ Katz, Chloe (15 February 2014). "Levelling the rink". The Economist. New York.
  32. ^ "Decazeville. " La seule à faire le salto arrière "". 10 December 2009. Retrieved 8 May 2016.
  33. ^ "Surya Bonaly Lives in Las Vegas and That's Totally by Accident". 22 December 2008.
  34. ^ "Will on Ice" of NBC's "Will and Grace".
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  39. ^ "La Championne De Patinage Artistique Surya Bonaly Déclare La Guerre À La Chasse Aux Phoques".
  40. ^ "Les anti-corrida reçus à l'Elysée". La Depeche. Retrieved 19 May 2020.
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  42. ^ "ANGE GRAVELOT : « La France des Talents et des Couleurs a pour objectif de prévenir et de lutter contre les racismes". Courrier des afriques. Retrieved 19 May 2020.
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External linksEdit