If you had told Elladj Baldé, a top-ranked Canadian figure skater, that he would create a non-profit organization to reform and reinvigorate the skating world when he was a child, he probably would have laughed.
"I hated figure skating," Baldé, who was introduced to the sport by his mom at 6, told Global Citizen.
Baldé recalls doing everything in his power to avoid the competitive nature of figure skating, which he says exacerbated the pressure he'd already been feeling to excel as a first-generation immigrant in Canada.
"I was very comfortable on the ice, but it immediately became about competition, winning, and being the best. I did everything not to skate: I hid my skates; I showed up at my first competition late, hoping that I wouldn't be able to compete. That's how much I didn't want to be in that competitive space," he said.
Born to a Russian mother and a Guinean father, the now-retired athlete says that his family moved a lot throughout his childhood, from Russia to Germany to Canada. He had to find his way in an ever-changing environment, all while grieving the loss of his younger sister and untangling his identity as a racialized person. He recalls wanting to become an athlete to lift his family out of poverty and make his parents proud — a goal he shared with many other kids his age growing up in Montreal.
"My parents were a huge source of inspiration for me. The reason I wanted to become better is so that I could help and support them," he said. "I know everything they had to sacrifice to give us a better life... In my mind, I needed to achieve so much for them to be proud."
On a quest for excellence, Baldé spent years battling the pressure to perform and achieve his dream of becoming an Olympic athlete.
But when he didn't qualify for the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, everything changed. The athlete saw his mental health take a profound hit.
"I went into this really dark hole. Suddenly, I questioned who I was because I had my entire identity — my entire self-worth, the image of who I was — wrapped around this idea of being an Olympic champion," he said. "I started questioning, 'Is that even my path? And if it isn't, then why am I even doing what I'm doing?'"
It was only after travelling to Africa with his dad for the first time that Baldé would find the answers to these questions.
The trip, which brought him to to Tombon, Guinea, changed his perspective and kickstarted what the athlete calls a "transformative healing journey." Witnessing the immense poverty, but also the generosity, beauty, and connection that existed among people in his father's native country, Baldé began to see his life differently. He realized, perhaps for the first time, that his skating career alone did not define him.
"I realized that all these things I thought I needed to be and achieve to make me fulfilled in life — none of these things were real, at least for me," he said. "I decided I wouldn't get back onto the ice until I found a reason that came from within. For me, [that was] the idea of connection — to yourself, to people, to nature."
The murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States gave the idea a new sense of urgency. From there on out, Baldé embarked on a mission: he would do whatever it took to create a new kind of figure skating — one that would focus on connection through inclusion.
After years of noticing the lack of diversity in figure skating, athletes of colour from all over the world, including Baldé, got together to discuss their experiences in a safe space. These conversations led to the creation of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, an initiative with the goal of promoting representation of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour in figure skating, as well as improved access to the sport overall.
Shortly after, Baldé went on to create the Skate Global Foundation with his wife Michelle Dawley. The organization is meant to connect people around the pillars of equity, diversity, inclusion, climate change, and mental health, but the former has often taken the spotlight — and for good reason.
As a sport, figure skating is plagued by gender stereotypes, a lack of diversity, and economic barriers. In many countries, access to the sport is institutionally restricted to the affluent upper class. Even if they can afford astronomical coaching fees, lower- and middle-class families struggle to find the time or money required to make it to a competitive level. As a child, Baldé recalls taking bus after bus in the wee hours of the morning with his mom and sister to meet the coach that would let him train for free.
"Many people get priced out of the sport," he pointed out. "You have to be part of a club, buy skates ranging from $500 to $1,500 a pair, and factor in costumes and travelling. By the end of my career, I was spending $50,000 to $60,000 a year."
The work of the foundation is meant to address some of these challenges. Right now, Baldé's efforts are centred around increasing accessibility to outdoor rinks in underserved communities across Canada and taking concrete actions to shift the experience of people of colour in the sport.
On the representation front, Baldé is also finding creative ways to address the long-standing stereotypes that exist within the sport. Some of them include the idea that figure skating is perceived as inherently white and "feminine," and were the source of the bullying he endured during his childhood.
"Because I didn't see myself in a sport, I took the path of fitting the mould of what figure skating says you should be in order to be successful — and that mould is very white," he said.
He added: "People knew I was an athlete, and they asked me [about it]. I would say I played soccer or track and field. I had to go through a whole journey of healing my relationship with masculinity and redefining what [it] means to me."
Through social media, the athlete has found an outlet to express himself authentically while defying what he considers "archaic" norms. He regularly posts videos on his channels, always challenging the idea of what a successful figure skater looks like, using his platform to spark a conversation about equity and masculinity.
As more and more men started messaging him, telling him that his message resonated with them, Baldé felt even more compelled to continue to spread content, creating a space for all people to display vulnerability, regardless of race or gender.
"I realized that expressing myself in the most authentic way possible had reached millions of people around the world," Baldé said. "I’ve tapped into a brand new space of freedom and authenticity, and I have no rules. I can do whatever I want on the ice."
That is why the athlete has joined Global Citizen as a Champion of Change, working with the organization to promote equity and end extreme poverty now. In retrospect, he says his platform has always been in perfect harmony with the cause.
"So much of what [Global Citizen] does aligns with my personal mission. It's such an honour to stand with and next to people I have so much respect for, whether it's celebrities, artists, or people that have done incredible work — and to bring that awareness to a global world stage," he said.
Baldé's mission is crystal clear: using his voice to create a more inclusive world and building bridges for people who feel left out. And while his professional ice skating days are behind him, he remains just as — if not more — committed to the cause.