As Starr Andrews struck the final pose of her free skate at the U.S. Championships this January, and the whole of the SAP Center in San Jose rose to its feet in approval, Tara Lipinski couldn’t help herself on the NBC broadcast. “This is our future!” she declared. “It’s so great to see a little junior come out as a senior skater and skate a program like that.”
“She’s blown the roof off this building,” Johnny Weir added.
Some nine months later Andrews, now 17, is making her senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America this coming weekend in Everett, Wash., and while she’s still little – she stands just 4 feet, 11 inches – she’s fully a senior competitor. And with senior expectations.
“I want to be in Beijing in 2022,” she told NBCSports.com in a recent phone interview. “Even though it’s far away, it’s in the back of my mind. But I’m focusing on what’s in front of me this season.”
That first means Skate America, but then also Skate Canada, which Andrews was extended an invitation to last minute. That means she’ll skate back-to-back weekends on the Grand Prix circuit, rare for any skater – especially one in her debut season.
“We know what we want to do down the road, but we take it one event at a time,” said her coach of five years, Derrick Delmore, a former world junior champion. “We debrief, re-evaluate and re-asses what has happened and where we’re going and then take it from there.”
That means the next two weeks are big ones for Andrews, who is based in the Los Angeles area and trains with Delmore at two separate rinks, one which includes standout American Mariah Bell and one of the best Japanese skaters in the world, Marin Honda.
Delmore doesn’t hesitate when he talks about goals for 2018-19 for his star pupil, however, saying that the U.S. Championships (where she was sixth this past season) is their target for now, then the world championships to follow.
Andrews would most likely have to finish in the top two in Detroit in late January to make that trip to Japan a reality.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, Andrews is already one of the most-watched skaters in the world thanks to a 2010 video of her – at age 9 – skating to “Whip My Hair”, dressed in fluorescent pink and (eventually) garnering some 54 million views on YouTube.
But eight years later Andrews is a much more mature presence on the ice, though she and Delmore – and her mom, Toshawa, who acts as a manager of sorts – have worked to keep her personality unique and different on the ice.
“She has this joyful, playful demeanor. She’s goofy,” offers Delmore. “She’s a breath of fresh air in that way, and we try and let that show in her skating.”
While Andrews wanted to skate to music from the movie “Black Panther” for her free skate this season, Delmore instead found a mix of music that includes “Africa Tribal Xotica” and has what Delmore describes as a “jungle theme” to it. It’s a program that does not include any lyrics, which excites Andrews, who last year sang vocals in her free skate to Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.”
“It’s something completely different,” Andrews says. “I was super excited when I got it. It still tells a story. I want to show people what I’ve been working on through that choreography.”
Andrews is hardly the first black skater to compete at the international level, but figure skating is still a sport that has very few minority athletes outside of a strong Japanese contingent. In the U.S., Debi Thomas was a two-time national champion, world champ and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, while Delmore – as mentioned – was a successful junior.
“For me, she’s just like every other young kid who wants to experience this sport,” says her mom, Toshawa. “While she’s African American, I don’t think it bothers her or makes her feel less than. She skates for herself.”
This past summer Andrews visited the famed New York non-profit, Figure Skating in Harlem, which services young girls of color, and Toshawa said her daughter’s presence sent ripples through the camp: The youngsters had not seen a skater of color with Andrews’ pedigree. Toshawa was moved to near tears at the connection between Starr and the program’s members.
“I want to bring more people like me to the sport,” Andrews says, pausing to reflect on what sort of impact she wants to have on the sport. “There’s not a lot of skaters of color. I want to bring a different look.
Separately, she adds: “I want to bring a beauty back into skating, too. It’s not just about the jumps.”
Speaking of jumps, however, Andrews is one of the few women in the world to attempt a triple Axel, an element she and Delmore will consider using this weekend and moving forward. While she is “so, so close” in practice, Delmore says, she works off ice on conditioning with a local trainer in Southern California, Tyler Poor, often in the swimming pool or on the elliptical. She takes ballet once a week.
It’s a pivotal moment in the U.S. scene for the American ladies: Three-time American winner Ashley Wagner’s future is up in the air, while fellow former U.S. champ Gracie Gold is attempting a comeback from stepping away for personal reasons. Mirai Nagasu is not competing this season, and while Bradie Tennell is the reigning champ, there is no clear favorite moving into this season.
While Andrews has a ways to climb to be a title contender, her statement of intent for Beijing 2022 is heard loud and clear. She’ll still only be just 20 years old.
“I’m in for whatever she wants,” says Toshawa. “I am the one in the background encouraging her. I’m not pushing her to do any of this, but kids have to be guided. … I’ve taught her to never look at anything like you’re losing – you’re always just learning. You take something from every opportunity and experience and you grow from that. It’s never a loss. And you always compete only against yourself.”
This weekend Andrews will also compete against some of the best in the world, including Honda, Tennell, Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto.
Andrews names her personal heroes as her mom and Delmore, who she says have been with her to “lift her up when [she’s] not doing well.
And when she thinks back to that viral video some eight years ago, it’s outright incredible that she’s developed into the elite skater that she has – Willow Smith included or not.
“I think my younger self would be proud of me,” she says, smiling through the phone. “It makes me think of the movies when a character closes her eyes and sees herself in the future. It feels like that. When I was little, I would watch skating and now I’m at that level, it feels so cool to be where I am now.”
And where does she go next? That’s for all of us to watch and see this weekend – and beyond.
As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!