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POV podcast transcript: Elladj Baldé

Figure Skater, mix zone reporter, activist for inclusion, and TikTok uberstar, Elladj Baldé chats from teh international Broadcast Center in Beijing

Player's Own Voice podcast Feb 13 2022

Anastasia:

Elladj Baldé makes a person feel less jaded about Social Media. His tiktok videos have tens of millions of views. 

Almost all of them show Elladj having an artistic riot on frozen lakes. Who knows how many young athletes of colour are seeing themselves and their culture represented on ice for the first time, right there?

He is a scholar of figure skating, a leader for inclusion, and one of the most artistically free skaters you'll ever meet.

[music]

It's Player's Own Voice, I'm Anastasia Bucsis

My friend, I remember watching you skate. Oh my gosh, it's got to be a decade ago now, but you're like just blowing up on tiktok!

Elladj Baldé:  tiktokin! , We're all tiktokkers now.

Anastasia: We're tiktok creators. Let's go right into the tiktok. We will get to figure skating. But how did that happen?

Elladj Baldé:  So the tiktok, tiktok was, it was my wife. It was her idea. You know, I didn't know anything about tiktok during the pandemic. I know it blew up during, while we were all at home quarantining, everyone was on tiktok. But I wasn't. I didn't really get on the get on the train. And then my wife just studied it like every day, and she just noticed that people were going viral like overnight and not only viral with a few millions, but like multiple millions of views and followers.

And so she said at some point I was complaining, well, not complaining, but I was like, Oh, I miss performing. I miss doing shows and connecting with audiences. And she said, Well, why don't you start making videos, you know, for social media? And at first it was really uncomfortable for me because it's not something we did as figure skaters. We were on the ice. We compete, we train and we do shows in front of audiences. But that's pretty much it. You don't go and make videos.

 And so it was a bit uncomfortable, especially doing it in a way that was different where I was going to, you know, dance on the ice. I was going to, you know, use hip hop music. I was going to do contemporary movements. You know, these things were really uncomfortable. So it was a bit of a process for me to, you know, get into it. But the moment I did, I mean it just overnight ,again, TikTok, it just blew up. It changed my life.

Anastasia: Oh, 32 million views later? I've gone viral, one time. It was in Tokyo. It was of me eating ono nigiri. Seen like five million times. It was the strangest feeling though, you know? how does it feel for you when you go viral? 

Elladj Baldé:  It was the strangest feeling like you said it's just like. And we didn't think of going viral with that video at all that we just like it was that video where I was, you know, driving, found ice and hopped on the ice threw a back flip and did a Crip Walk. And  when we came back after dinner, we looked at it and it was like at 100 K and we're like, waah?

Anastasia: Whoa, what?

Elladj Baldé:  You know, going crazy. And so we were like, Okay, and then we just kept monitoring and monitoring it. And then every time we refreshed, it would go up by 5000 and then it would go up by 10000. And eventually we would refresh and it literally would be going up by like 100 K, like every, every two minutes. And at that moment, you just realise, OK, like these are actual people watching this around the world, and those numbers are absolutely ridiculous and it makes you feel like, you know, first of all, I was proud of the work that we were doing, and I was glad people were seeing it. But then at the same time, it's like, Well, what's going to happen from this?

You know, where is this going to lead? And. And so there was a lot of, you know, there was a lot of unknown. But we I would say we managed it well and I'm just so grateful that I have this platform now.

Anastasia: Do you ever get stressed that you're trying to chase lightning in a bottle?

Elladj Baldé:  At the beginning, yeah. You know, at the beginning, because we didn't know what we were doing and because we know how powerful social media is in positive ways, but also in negative ways. You know, people get their lives ruined by social media. And so we were a bit, you know, unsure of how to move forward. And we'd get, you know, our inboxes would be flooded with hundreds of emails a day being like, we want to represent you,we want to pay you to do this. We want you… can you be an ambassador for that? And we were just like, Whoa, like, this is just it's just so much. And we didn't want to make the wrong mistake and we wanted to stay authentic because that's essentially was the core of what we wanted to do with these videos is to be as authentic as possible. So it was wild.

Anastasia: I feel like you have always… and authentic can be such a buzzword…but even, you know, when you were skating, it was like Frank Sinatra, I Did it My Way, like you were always Elladj. Were you ever worried about ruffling the traditional figure skating feathers?

Elladj Baldé:  I was for sure because there was a time in my life where I tried to fit in. You know, when I was younger, I'd get comments from, you know, Skate Canada, from coaches and from people in skating that, you know, some of the things I wanted to wear or I wanted to skate to, you know, weren't  going to be accepted. And so there was a time in my life where, you know, I saw everyone that was successful in skating, and most of those people didn't look like me. And so I changed the way that I, you know, dressed on and off the ice. I changed the way the kind of music I listen to. You know, at the time, I was really into rap, hip hop, R&B, and I loved dancing, break dance on the floor and hip hop.

But you know, I then changed all of that to listening to more, you know, punk music, which is not something that I really enjoyed, but. And all of those decisions were made subconsciously. It's not like. I decided, OK, I'm going to listen to this, and that's going to make me successful, it's just subconsciously I was told that the things I liked weren't the things that were going to make me successful in sport.

And so I changed all of these things and I operated in that for a few years. And then eventually I saw for the first time Maxime-Billy Fortin, who is a Quebec figure skater, black figure skater, and I saw him skate and his short programme was just mind blowing. You know, he was popping on the ice. He was skating to hip hop music. He was not only doing that, but doing quads and all the technical stuff. And I just I fell in love with the energy that he brought. It was so raw, it spoke to me deep in my core, and at that moment I decided I every time that I stepped on the ice, it was going to be something that I wanted to skate to, and that essentially started my journey to where I am now, where I've finally found that freedom.

Anastasia: Was that an easy transition or was it a process to really become comfortable with kind of, you know, not following the written rules or unwritten rules, sorry, of figure skating?

Elladj Baldé:  It was a long process. It started when I was around 16, 17 when I saw Maxime-Billy Fortin. And then it wasn't until almost seven years after that that I fully embraced the journey of being an artist, because up until that point, you know, all of my decisions were going towards being Olympic champion. And so, whether I liked it or not, I had to conform in a certain way. But then when I realised that that's not my path, you know that I wasn't going to be Olympic champion. It kind of restarted this, this search and this this journey of being like, OK, well, now if I'm going to continue to skate, what do I want to bring to figure skating?

And that's when I realized: No, I love connecting with people and I have something to tell, and I have a gift where I can make people feel things when I perform. And so that just took things to a whole other level for me. And from that moment on, until the end of my career, which was about a span of four years, every year I just kept going deeper and deeper and wanting to just share myself fully to the skating world.

Anastasia: What was your plan when you retired? Because I don't know if you've gotten the memo. Usually, athletes retire and they become less well known and you've done like a million percent the opposite.

Elladj Baldé:  I knew that within the competition world, there was nothing more for me to gain. Again, it's not like I was going to be world champion or Olympic medallist. And so I was ready to take skating on a different journey or not on a different journey, but continue the journey that I had started. But now be fully committed to it because, you know, by the end of my career, I did find freedom within the competitive world, but I was still, you know, there's still rules, there still jumps you have to do, elements you have to follow.

So there's still things that confine you in terms of you being able to be fully free on the ice. So at that moment, I knew I was going to start doing shows and tours around the world, and I had been doing tours and I was just enjoying the freedom of being able to just skate freely. And so at that moment, I decided I was going to start doing tours. But what really, the moment it really shifted for me is the pandemic ride, because up until that point I was doing shows. I was touring around the world and I was I was performing for live audiences, so I didn't necessarily have time or even felt the need to use social media to express myself.

But because of the pandemic, because I didn't have any other outlet to express myself, we decided to go with social media videos, and that took it to a whole, whole other level. And we didn't, you know, we had a plan of like, maybe, you know, reach a certain amount of followers after a year or two of doing that. But it happened within two weeks of starting, you know, making these kinds of, this kind of content. And I think the world was craving to see skating being done in a different way. Someone look different in in this figure skating world, and I think those elements together just made it that it just, you know, it just, it happened

Anastasia: When you were competing. What made you feel most confined? 

Elladj Baldé:  That's a good question. We're so used to seeing. A certain type of skater, we're used to hearing a certain type of music, and we're used to seeing a skater skate a certain type of way, and that's been like that for years, decades and skating is one. I think it's the oldest sport in terms of tradition, but in winter sports as well. And so, you know, the foundation of what figure skating is was built such a long time ago and it's been, you know, it's been upheld up until now, and unfortunately, when it was created back then, there wasn't a lot of black people on the ice. There wasn't a lot of Indian, Indigenous people, Arabs, Muslims, Latin people. It was mainly white Europeans, you know, and so that style of skating just stayed the same. Even now, in 2022.

And so for me, you know, where I found it hard, is again, just knowing what figure skating is, it never felt like there was room to go anywhere. Not because I wasn't allowed to skate to a rap song, but I was told that judges wouldn't like that. Right? And so if I want to be successful in the sport, then obviously I'm not going to go in that direction. I'm going to go in the direction that judges like. And so that's where I think I found myself being confined.

Anastasia: I had Surya Bonali on this podcast and I was like, Hella star struck.

Elladj Baldé:  Wow, that's pretty dope. Surya, she's a legend.

Anastasia: She's a legend because I was a kid when I watched her, you know,she lives in my childhood brain.

Elladj Baldé:  Yeah, yeah and watching her inspired a whole generation of people of colour wanting to take up the sport, you know, especially in France. You know, after her, you saw my Maé-Bérénice Méité. You saw Vanessa James, you saw Florent Amodio. You saw so many skaters of colour take the ice and become champions. But it's because they watch her skate, and that's the importance of representation. That's why we need to have it. And that's why my platform for me is so important. Because yes, I'm not skating on TV at the Olympics, but on social media. The whole world can see what I do, and that can inspire young, black, indigenous or a person of colour to be like, you know, maybe there is a space for me in that sport, and I think that's just so important.

[music]

Anastasia: You co-founded the Figure Skating, Diversity and Inclusion Alliance and Skate Global. What does the work look like that you're doing there?

Elladj Baldé:  With FSDIA You know, we founded that after the murder of George Floyd. You know, obviously there was a rise in consciousness of and finally an acknowledgement of the black experience in North America and in the world. And so for us, it just started with, you know, a few of us black skaters around the world just coming together and just talking and sharing our experiences and realising there is so many similarities. You know, whether we grew up in France, in Canada, U.S., Australia, U.K., it didn't matter, South Africa. It didn't matter, because we had very similar experiences. So we realised there is something there that needed to change and that we wanted to help the next generation of of BIPOC skaters to to not have to experience some of the things that we did. And, you know, because skaters like Surya and even some of the skaters before us paved the way for us. And so we have the responsibility to clear the paths for the next generation as well. And so, yeah, we just wanted to create a community of skaters that could support each other, understand each other, help each other, heal from our experiences and hold national sport organisations like Skate Canada and U.S. figure skating accountable for actually making change.

 

And I found that we've been able to do that and FSDIA, there's a group of incredible women that started this mentorship programme called 'big skater little skater'. And essentially, it allows for skaters like us, skaters of colour, that made it in the sport, and it allows us to connect with the next generation of skaters and not only be role models for them, but actually be part of their journey.

As for the Skate Global Foundation, my wife and I, we just over time realised that one of the main issues that we see in figure skating as to why we don't see a lot of diversity is lack of accessibility to rinks in underserved communities. And so the Skate Global Foundation, we decided we were going to found that and it's basically founded under three pillars. One is EDI, equity, diversity, inclusion. The second one is mental health and a third one is climate change.

And the first project was obviously EDI because that's, most of my energy is spent in that right now. And we partnered with the construction company Ellis Don, and we committed to building and upgrading outdoor rinks in underserved communities across Canada.

Anastasia: Awesome!, that's what frustrates me. Sorry, I'm going on a bit of a tangent, but like we're Canadian, we got to use our outdoor rinks a little more!.

Elladj Baldé:  I'm totally with you. And unfortunately, a lot of those outdoor rinks that are in underserved communities aren't maintained. They don't have the resources to keep it functional. And so for me, if it wasn't for my mom taking me from one community to another to skate, I probably wouldn't have been able to skate. And it's not all parents that have the time to be able to put your kid on the bus at five a.m. and take him to a skating rink. And so being able to have rinks that are accessible in underserved communities, it's just going to it's just going to give the opportunity for kids in that community to try something new and potentially fall in love with a new sport. Just giving them access to it for free is huge.

Anastasia: I could talk to you about this all day, my friend.

Elladj Baldé:  I know I could talk to you about this all day too.

Anastasia: Should we talk about the Olympics? We're here. What day is it? I don't even know, I think I've gotten five cavities already from drinking coke.

Elladj Baldé:  And you know, I've been asking my team every day, what day of the week are we?

Anastasia: It's like we're between December 25th and the 1st of January. I'm not wearing pyjamas. I'm wearing way too much makeup.

Elladj Baldé:  I'm with you.

Anastasia: There's been some drama there. What are some of the key storylines that have unfolded?

Elladj Baldé:  Of course, the men's event just ended and Nathan Chen was finally crowned king.

Anastasia: Yeah, he is king.

Elladj Baldé:  He's king.  I mean, he's done it all. Won worlds. Three times. He's broken all the records. He won the Olympics and with five quads.

Anastasia: So this is where I need to nerd out right now because, you know, I obviously never figure skated. But in my mind, when I speed skated, I thought, Oh, this is the pinnacle of the sport. We've figured it all out. And now looking at figure skating, how… let me say this eloquently, how in the hell are these kids able to do five quads? 

Elladj Baldé:  You know, in our mind, in our generation, we saw the guys skate and we knew if we did one, maybe two quads, we would be world champion. Yeah, that was the goal. And the thought of a quad lutz or quad loop or a quad flip being done consistently was light years away, light years away. And so when these kids, the first one was Boyang Jin six years ago, started coming out with this massive quad lutz. Everyone was like, Wait, wait, wait, what? First, where is that coming from? And two, how is he able to do it that easily?

And that just started a wave of kids just being like, Oh, I guess it's not that hard. And Nathan Chen comes out and does two quad flips, Quad Lutz, quad sow, quad toe, so that's four different quads.

Anastasia: How does your body hold up, though? I mean, that's got to be so hard on your knees?

Elladj Baldé:   I did quads and I had one to work on, and my body,  felt like broke.

Anastasia: OK. Quad toe?

Elladj Baldé:  Quad toe.  Which is like the, you know, the normal one. The one that when you were young, you'd be like, OK, one day I'm going to do a quad toe. And I mean, I have so many stories with Patrick (chan) where we're like both on the ice and like, I'm struggling with the quad toe and he's like, you know, just do that and I'm like, All right, cool. I'll just do that. And then I just do that and I eat so much …..

Anastasia: What a bum. Just do that!  you know, just do that.

Elladj Baldé:  Yeah, sure. Okay, I'm going to try. And then it feels good. And the next thing I know my head is smashing on the ice. Quads are really hard. And so I have so much respect for skaters like Nathan, who are able to work on these quads every day and consistently do them in competition,when the pressure is on.

The margin of error is just it's tiny. And then the other thing is we saw this young kid in the U.S. who came third. He can do a quad toe, quad toe combination. Yeah. You know, like what, what? It's just it's wild anways.

But the one thing I want to say about Nathan, too, is that, you know, it's really good to see him skate his free programme because he pushed the boundaries of what traditional skating is, you know, his step sequence, he was dancing to the lyrics of the rapper Logic you know, and for someone to see that, you know, on TV and then seeing this guy win the Olympics?

That sends a completely different message to the whole world than what we've ever seen in figure skating up until now. And I think that is probably one of the biggest strengths of Nathan Chen is not only he can do everything, but he's willing to step outside the norms and do what he has to do. And I admire that greatly.

Anastasia: What about Keegan Messing?

Elladj Baldé:  My man. My man. Showing up 30 hours before?

Anastasia: I don't know how he did it. 

Elladj Baldé:  But that's Keegan. That's what he does. He's got this mentality and his personality that's just allows him to deal with the hardest situations with ease. I mean, a lot of us need to take example of that because, you know, it's almost like he did the impossible. He skated two almost clean programmes  you know?

It's just it's unbelievable. And to hear him say that, you know, these games are special for him because he dedicated it to his younger brother who had his own, you know, Olympic dreams. And it's just this whole experience just becomes that much more meaningful. And I'm just so proud of him. I'm so happy for him, and just so honoured to have him as a friend in my life, to be honest.

[music]

Anastasia: The doping scandal.  Lots of speculation.

Elladj Baldé:  Yeah, yeah, it's  hard, of course. I think, you know, there's still a lot that is unknown. Obviously, we know she tested positive. It's just really unfortunate because she's 15. You know.  I doubt that she went to someone and : Yo, gimme that drug, gimme gimme that. You know, it came from higher up. And it's just it's just sad to see that you know that her life, you know, her career is, you know, maybe ruined because of this, you know, so it's unfortunate and I feel for her even just for her mental health. You know, it's it's a tough situation for sure.

Anastasia: What's the flavour of the judges at present? I mean, you mentioned with Nathan,  skating to Common… What's the flavour of figure skating right now?

Elladj Baldé:  Yeah, I think skating is moving in in a good direction. I think music choices are getting better.

Anastasia: It's not just like Putting on the Ritz every single…I if I hear that one more time…

Elladj Baldé:  or Phantom of the Opera… or Bolero

Anastasia: when Patrick skated that…

Elladj Baldé:  it should have been retired.

Anastasia: Yeah, like after that, like no one's ever gonna do it better.

Elladj Baldé:  No one should ever skate it again. There's certain songs that no one should ever skate to.  Bolero because of Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. Phantom of the Opera, because of Patrick. There's certain songs that people shouldn't say to ever again because it was just done masterfully.

I think skating is moving in the right direction, obviously, with Nathan's Song. But now also, I heard this Swiss guy skating to Mount Everest from Labyrinth. Oh, that's you know, that's pretty dope. Yeah, that's music I've used in some of my videos, you know? And so I'm pushing the boundaries on social media. But these skaters are able to do that on the ice, and I think it has to continue to go in that direction. Even honestly, I have to talk about Donovan Carrillo, the Mexican skater. I mean, he's the first Mexican to qualify and skate the free programme in 30 years, you know, so. To me, that's huge for Latin representation, you know, young Latin kid can watch that and say, You know what, I can do that too. And then seeing a Latin man skate to Latin music? Doesn't get better than that. You know, so I think skating is going in the right direction. It's got a long ways to go, but we're heading there.

Anastasia: You've probably been asked this a million times, but how do you make peace with being in a judge sport?

Elladj Baldé:  Oh … you find you find fulfilment within versus the outcome, it's the only way. If you can find your fulfilment within and focus on what you want to bring to the sport and to your performance, you'll always be content. And usually that comes with results. But when it doesn't, at least you have that inside of you. And I think at least for me, that's what I've, you know, that's how I've survived.

Anastasia: I appreciate you, my friend. Thank you. Really, really. Thank you so much for taking the time. You're a beauty.

Elladj Baldé:  Thank you. You, too.

Anastasia:  Peace.

Elladj Baldé found the time on this mid games Blursday to chat with me in the International Broadcast center here in Beijing.
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