Starr Andrews on historic figure skating season, perseverance: 'Hard days are what matters the most'

Andrews has dealt with discrimination, a heart condition and more on her journey to realizing a longstanding Olympic dream

·8 min read
Starr Andrews holds up her medal after the women's free skate at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. Andrews finished fourth in the event. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)
Starr Andrews holds up her medal after the women's free skate at the U.S. figure skating championships in San Jose, Calif., Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. Andrews finished fourth in the event. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Figure skater Starr Andrews smiled her way onto the ice with a braided mohawk, pink and purple highlights to match her punk-inspired costume and skates modified to look like decorated Converse All-Star high top sneakers. A stark contrast to the previous skater, who exited the ice in a classic black embellished unitard.

Andrews was 9 years old, preparing to compete with a program set to Willow Smith’s song “Whip My Hair.” The recording of her performance would go on to garner over 57 million views on YouTube. With skill to match her impressive confidence, she wasn't afraid to be unique. She still isn't.

“I like going outside the box,” she told Yahoo Sports, maintaining the same genuine nature she displayed over a decade ago

Now 21 years old, Andrews is turning in her best performances and inching closer to securing her place in figure skating history on her journey toward a longstanding Olympic goal. Through discrimination, setbacks and a heart condition, Milano Cortina’s 2026 Winter Games seem within her grasp. Beyond hard work, it's staying true to herself that's helped Andrews along to this point.

She won her first Grand Prix medal at Skate Canada in October, where she took home the silver. The award made her the first American Black figure skater win a Grand Prix medal. In January, the Los Angeles native became the first Black woman to medal at the U.S. figure skating championships since Debi Thomas' gold 35 years ago.

The veteran skater is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. She reflects on her recent historic showing at the U.S. championships in San Jose as “bittersweet.” She made two uncharacteristic mistakes in her free skate that she thought ruined her shot at medaling. “I made dumb mistakes, mistakes that I don't really make in practice at all,” Andrews said.

Scoring 188.24 overall, she landed in second place with two athletes remaining. She ultimately took fourth, which earns a pewter medal at the U.S. championships. Standing on the podium with gold medalist Isabeau Levito, second-place finisher Bradie Tennell and third-place finisher Amber Glenn, Andrews was happy with how far she’d come. At the same competition In 2021 and 2022, Andrews recorded 12th and ninth place finishes.

“I was disappointed that I didn't put out a program that I knew I could do,” Andrews said. “But at the same time, I also placed and broke that 35-year wait. I think that was such an amazing accomplishment.”

On Twitter, she called the milestone "an amazing to start my journey to the next winter games."

Andrews’ fourth-place finish at the 2023 U.S. Championships earned her the first alternate spot for World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan. The International Skating Union action, which starts on March 22, is considered to be the highest level of competition other than the Olympics.

The pewter-medal performance at the U.S. Championships left her 19 points from third place. The top three finishers will be competing for the U.S. at world championships. Andrews isn't expected to be needed as a substitute. Still, when Andrews' doctors attempted to schedule an important surgery, she made sure it wouldn't conflict with her availability to fulfill her duty as a world championships alternate.

Persistence and heart

Andrews has a heart condition called Supraventricular Tachycardia, which causes her heart to beat faster than normal. Experiencing her first symptoms at 12 years old, she went undiagnosed until last year.

"My heart is very unpredictable," Andrews said, explaining that her heart is impacted by an extra nerve that used to escalate her heart rate up to 220 bpm. In May of 2022, she had a procedure called an ablation that helped. "The highest that it's been is 180, 190 [bpm]. So, it's definitely gotten better, but it still happens. We're gonna have to try and get rid of that," Andrews said.

While she might attempt to continue a workout after having one of the "little episodes," as she calls them, she's encouraged to go home and rest if she has more than one.

She'll have another heart surgery in April, two weeks after the world championships. The decision to wait and have surgery after the world championships was influenced by her dedication to the sport she loves. “I still have to train,” Andrews said.

Toshawa, Starr’s mother and a former figure skater, has microvascular disease, a more serious heart condition that her daughter said resulted in multiple heart attacks and a stroke. Seemingly setting the example for her daughter's tenacity, Starr says Toshawa is "always running around."

"I always tell her, 'sit down, don't do too much please because you know how sensitive your heart is. So please sit down so that you don't exhaust yourself,'" Starr said.

Andrews credits Toshawa for inspiring her to figure skate. When Starr was 3 years old, it was her mother who placed her on the ice for the first time. The viral “Whip My Hair” video was recorded by her mother.

Though she has her hard days, Starr said Toshawa is “doing great right now." She's also a vital part of a team that supports Andrews on her road to success.

The importance of being authentic

Andrews told "Good Morning America" she dealt with racist comments after she was thrust into virality all of those years ago, adding that she was treated differently in locker rooms because she looked different.

Still, she leans into self-expression in her music and costume choices.

"If I pick songs that I don't really connect to, It's going to be hard for me throughout the entire year because I'm going to have to try really hard to channel that (emotion)," Andrews said.

This season, she chose "Dancing with the Devil" by Demi Lovato and "Je Suis Malade" by Lara Fabian. In prior seasons, Andrews' programs have featured Beyonce multiple times, classical music, Whitney Houston and more. Her coach, Derrick Delmore, and her mother both offer input in those decisions. “It's definitely a team choice," Andrews said.

Like Andrews, Delmore broke barriers during his career as a Black figure skater, which allows him to give her a unique kind of guidance.

The process of picking the music for her long program this season illustrates their working relationship well. Andrews was moved to tears when he heard the Belgian-Canadian pop singer's rendition of "Je Suis Malade." She brought the suggestion to Delmore, who saw her excitement and found a way to make it work. "OK. But you have to mix it with something," he said.

That advice resulted in a beautiful piano portion of Andrews' program that she might not have otherwise considered, but still felt true to her.

“What Starr has done and will continue to do will be remembered and respected,” Delmore told The New York Amsterdam News. “The expectation isn’t for her to be perfect all the time. It’s for her to be authentic.”

In 2020, Andrews debuted a program set to Black country artist Mickey Guyton's "Black Like Me" during a virtual skating competition called the Peggy Fleming Trophy. The song features lyrics like “I know I’m not the only one who feels I don’t belong," and “I’m proud to be Black like me.”

The song choice came during a difficult time for Andrews. With the COVID-19 pandemic in its infancy, issues facing the Black community rose to the forefront of social discussion. "There weren’t really any competitions going on but I was struggling very, very hard," Andrews said.

A recording of her performance garnered a response from former First Lady Michelle Obama in May 2021. She took to Twitter and wrote, “To all the Black kids out there striving for excellence in the face of those who doubt you: Keep going.”

That's exactly what Andrews has done. She considers working through hardship one of the many high points of her career. "I love this work with all of my heart. It's just something that I couldn't see myself without," she said.

At the 2022 Winter Olympics, there were no Black skaters representing the United States. There's been some progress since then. At the U.S. Championships in January, Alexa Gasparotto also competed, making she and Andrews the first pair of Black women to compete in the women's short program during the same season in 23 years.

In addition to potential discrimination, there are financial barriers to figure skating. To combat that, organizations like the Diversify Ice Foundation, founded by figure skating coach Joel Savary, work to support minorities in their figure skating goals.

As more skaters enter the sport, it's likely some of them will hold Andrews as an inspiration. Plenty of young skaters already do. Her impact is illustrated by the "tagged photos" section of her Instagram, peppered with fans' photos with her and of her. If she could speak to them all, she would encourage them to stay true to themselves.

"Be you. Don't be afraid to be yourself. That work will pay off, just keep trying. Sometimes it will be hard. But those hard days are what matters the most," Andrews said.

In another instance of her authenticity, Andrews is the perfect example of that advice.