Sports shape the world we live in. Whether you’re out on the ice every morning for extra practice, placing bets at your buddy’s annual Super Bowl party, or walking around in the Obsidian Jordan 1s that look so good with your light wash, loose-fitted jeans, sports culture is undoubtedly infused into society, and vice versa. As society progresses over time into a more equitable, inclusive environment, professional athletes have fought to implement those changes into sports as well, from the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute to the 2020 NBA playoff game boycotts. Here are five athletes who are bending the traditional rules of the game and redefining their sport right now, for the better.
1. Nia Dennis
Nia Dennis, a 21-year-old American gymnast in her senior year at UCLA, is a powerhouse of strength and black empowerment both on and off the mat. Last Saturday, she and the rest of the UCLA Bruins’ Womens’ Artistic Gymnastics team competed in their season opener against the Arizona State Wildcats.
Dennis’s floor routine earned her a score of 9.95, as well as international recognition on social media after a video of the routine circulated the web. Opening her floor routine with a Black Power fist, Dennis moved across the mat effortlessly to a mashup of artists such as 2Pac, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, and more, and executed everything from a series of flips to a crip walk and dougie.
Video of routine from Sportsnet:
The video caught the attention of various celebrities, even earning a tweet from Simone Biles, America’s most decorated gymnast.
Tweet from Simone Biles:
“This routine definitely reflects everything that I am today as a woman,” Dennis told the Los Angeles Daily News, “I had to incorporate a lot of parts of my culture.”
This isn’t the first time that one of Dennis’s routines have gone viral. Last year, the athlete’s Beyonce inspired floor routine received internet-wide praise as well.
Dennis’s future goals include qualifying for the U.S. Senior National Team for Women’s Artistic Gymnastics, winning the championship, and clinching a spot on the next Olympic team.
2. Elladj Balde
Figure skating takes on a new, riveting persona in the form of professional Canadian figure skater Elladj Balde, who is known for incorporating backflips and other unconventional moves into his routines.
Born in Russia but raised in Montreal, Quebec, Balde trained and had a successful career as a Canadian competitive figure skater. He won numerous Junior Canadian Championship titles, a gold medal at the ISU Nebelhorn trophy in 2015, and more, but made the decision to retire from the sport at age 27.
"Being a Black man in figure skating was a different experience," Balde told CBC, "It's very much rooted in, you know, a white, European, elitist kind of mentality. You have to fit within a certain box and a certain style in order to be successful."
Today, at 30 years old, the athlete has co-founded the Figure Skating Diversity & Inclusion Alliance, which aims to create “an inclusive figure skating environment worldwide”. The organization holds bi-weekly community meetings, virtual ice events amid the pandemic, and donates all proceeds towards supporting black skaters.
YouTube video of the FSDIA’s mission:
Balde also continues to share his talent, passion, and advocacy for equality for the sport on social media, while choreographing and judging routines on CBC’s live competitive skating show, Battle of the Blades.
3. Sarah Fuller
Vanderbilt athlete Sarah Fuller made history last November when she became the first woman to play in a Power Five college football game, and will once again have her name written in the books after being selected to introduce American Vice President Kamala Harris last week at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration.
Fuller, whose main sport is actually soccer, is a starting goalkeeper for the Vanderbilt Commodores’s women’s soccer team. The athlete was asked to join the college football program as a kicker when Vanderbilt was short a few players due to COVID-19 precautions in the 2020 season, and kicked off the start of the third quarter of their game against the Missouri Tigers.
Sarah Fuller’s Interview on Twitter:
"I just want to tell all the girls out there that you can do anything you set your mind to,” Fuller told the press in a post-game interview after the historical game.
The 21-year-old has now retired from her football career to focus on winning the NCAA women’s soccer tournament for the Vanderbilt Commodores, but thanked the football team for providing her with the opportunity to play with them.
Fuller’s tweet thanking the football team:
4. Briana King
The future of skateboarding is black, queer, and beautiful; her name is Briana King. The 28-year-old professional model and skater originally used the sport as an escape from the exhaustive hours in the modelling industry that had worn her out.
“Modeling had hurt me at that point. I just wanted to skateboard...and I did. Then I was booked to skate and model together, which changed everything.” she told Coveteur in an interview.
As King’s mainstream modelling career grew to infuse itself with her passion for skateboarding (appearing in music videos for A$AP Rocky and Doja Cat and scoring bookings from Calvin Klein and Justin Bieber’s skate-inspired line Drew House), so did her presence in skate culture. She started Display Only, an online skateboarding collective for girls and members of the LGBT+ community that promotes and prioritizes support and inclusion within the skating world over competition and gatekeeping.
“Queer skateboarding created a space where it’s okay to be yourself. I never felt like I had that support in my life till I met all my women & queer skaters.” King said, in an interview with Coeval Magazine.
Prior to the pandemic, Display Only also held meet-ups and skate workshops for all ages and levels.
Today, with a following of over 400k on TikTok, King has shifted from in-person skating lessons to virtual tutorials and tips as she continues to spread her love and passion for the sport with a broader audience.
5. Kylie Jefferson
Kylie Jefferson, an American contemporary ballet dancer, has all eyes on her as she breaks barriers between ballet and mainstream media. At only 26 years old, the Berklee graduate has worked professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York, choreographed rapper ScHoolboy Q’s music video for CHopstix (featuring Travis Scott), danced in the opening routine of the 2020 Grammys, and most recently, starred in the Netflix’s ballet drama series, Tiny Pretty Things.
Tiny Pretty Things zeroes in on fictional character Neveah Stroyer, a student at an elite ballet school based in Chicago, and her classmates. Jefferson, who plays Neveah, told Teen Vogue that playing a lead role in a show about ballet meant everything to her.
Tweet about Jefferson in Tiny Pretty Things:
“I have always wanted to be a catalyst of bringing classical ballet (classical arts) to mainstream entertainment,” Jefferson said.
As Jefferson works to integrate ballet into popular culture, she told Dance Spirit Magazine that she hopes to inspire younger, Black dancers who watch her work, and that she is grateful to be a part of a show that promotes black representation in more than one light.
As for the dance industry, Jefferson wants Black ballerinas to become normalized so they’re no longer treated as anomalies or “unicorns” in ballet.
“We’ve been here, we’ve been shining, there’s Black ballerinas all throughout history,” she said in an interview with Black Girl Nerds, “The biggest thing for me is to be able to walk into a room and be seen as a human being first, not just a Black woman. Now, that is who I am. But I want to make sure that I’m treated as a woman and that every little Black girl who takes a ballet class is treated the same way.”