When watching one of Elladj Baldé’s viral TikTok videos and his moves across the ice, there is a freedom of expression and movement that cannot go unnoticed. A smile that goes from ear to ear, an enthusiasm befitting the backflips he catapults into, and a feel for the music—from Drake to Otis Redding—that takes the performative out of performance.

There was a time, though, when Baldé felt he could only be anything but. Long before his TikTok fame that’s approaching 613,000 followers and over 9.6 million likes, the Montreal native was asked to tie his hair up or cut it because it looked “dirty,” dance to classical music, and dress just like everyone that didn’t look like him. In essence, he was asked to give up his roots.

“I was conditioned and my entire self-worth, entire conception of self was based on being an Olympic champion or being an Olympian,” Baldé said. “I realized that approach was actually extremely painful and I was suffering a lot from that. Not only that, it wasn’t allowing me to fully be free of certain boundaries I put on myself.”

In Baldé’s words, it’s been a journey to get to where he is now: engaging a significant community that wants to see him be himself. Growing up, Baldé had seen what it was like to be pushed away for being different through his parents. His father, Ibrahim, is from Guinea and grew up with a passion for engineering. He graduated top of his university class and among the top five in all of Africa, which created the opportunity to study in Russia. He graduated top of his civil engineering class there, too, but his education was deemed worthless when he came to Canada. The only thing Ibrahim had going for him was the fact that Guinea is a French colony—and unlike when he was in Russia, being in Montreal meant he knew the language.

“If a skater could come and truly be themselves and for that to be celebrated, you’ll see them being successful in the sport and you’ll see more skaters of colour.”

Baldé’s Russian mother, Marina, wasn’t so fortunate. Her inability to speak left her spending her early days in Canada just learning the language and so when she had an opportunity to teach kindergarten, she took it. She’s now been doing that for over 20 years. With Ibrahim, even after going back to school in Canada and completing an education in computer engineering, he’d be dismissed from interviews after a single question. With the walls closing in, Ibrahim settled for a truck driving job that he continues to do.

“If it was up to him, he would be an engineer or a scientist or just in that realm if he went back to Africa or other countries that have certain opportunities,” Baldé said. “But in North America, he was forced into a decision and gave up what he wanted so we could live the lives that we live.”

Before going to her day job, Marina would wake up 10-year-old Baldé and his two younger sisters at 4 a.m., take them to a community rink on a two-hour bus ride because they didn’t have a car, watch them develop as skaters, then bus them to school, go attend to her own students, and also get back to pick up the kids at the end of the day to take them back to the rink. 

Elladj Balde Canadian figure skating TikTok star
Image via Ernest Ho

These were the days when the rink was a safe space for Baldé. The communities around him had a variety of minorities with different backgrounds and so the rink had different ethnicities he could interact with and learn alongside. He did connect with his Russian side through theater, artistry and—of course—skating, but as he got older, he got deep into the rabbit hole of hip-hop, rap, break dancing, and basketball. Watching Usher move in music videos, listening to rappers young and old from Tupac to 50 Cent, and seeing Allen Iverson do what he did at his size on the basketball court while also immersing himself in hip-hop culture made Baldé feel a deep connection to the Black community.

“For too long skating hasn’t rewarded things that are different.”

It wasn’t until he was 16 years old that Baldé finally found a Black person to provide inspiration in the field of figure skating. Maxime Billy-Fortin—born in Haiti but adopted into a Quebec City home—happened to cross paths with him and performed in a way that Baldé had never seen before.

“I was seeing him compete and skate in a way that I had never seen anyone skate before,” Baldé said. “He was popping on the ice, he was skating to hip-hop; I had never seen anything like it and I couldn’t believe I was seeing that in the competitive world.

“I felt fire in my heart and my soul and thought, ‘That’s what I wanna do.’”

Over the course of his competitive figure skating career, Baldé can count becoming the 2008 Canadian Junior champion and winning a senior international figure skating competition named the 2015 Nebelhorn Trophy among his highlights. He was never able to realize his ultimate goal of becoming an Olympian and it left him at a crossroads. He had associated that dream with who he was going to be for so long that when he decided he was going to call it curtains on that career he was left asking who he really was.

That’s when a trip to Africa—to his father’s hometown in Guinea—with his father for a few weeks opened his eyes.

“Going there and being completely disconnected from society and disconnected from my phone, reconnecting with nature and seeing how content everyone was there and how what brings everyone fulfillment is a connection to each other and a connection to the land, it really shifted things for me,” Baldé said.

He had realized that all these years he was chasing something material that would never give him the satisfaction he truly craved. The TikTok videos aren’t about going viral or instant gratification, but rather creating inspiration for youth in a way that he wished he could look up to when he was a child. That’s part of why Baldé has taken it one step further by becoming one of the co-founders of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance. As awareness and action increased in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Baldé and a few others in the skating community decided to come together and share their experiences, only to realize how much of what they had to deal with was flat-out wrong.

“If a skater could come and truly be themselves and for that to be celebrated, you’ll see them being successful in the sport and you’ll see more skaters of colour,” Baldé said. “You’ll see more BIPOC skaters wanting to come into the sport and be part of it and I think it’s been long enough, and for too long skating hasn’t rewarded things that are different.”

The alliance is hoping to create a safe space for minorities in the figure skating community to share and communicate their experiences, as well as make their paths easier by providing financial resources or scholarships, equipment, or access to rinks and programs.

Baldé admits establishing the resources necessary has come with its own set of challenges due to the general lack of notoriety figure skating has, but that’s why he hopes to continue to build his platform so it can be used to get the word out to as many people as possible and help those in need. A long way from feeling the burden of needing to gentrify his image, Baldé is now a role model for knowing exactly who he is and living the way he knows best. 

“I truly embrace the things that are unique about me and I realize I have my story, I have my gift,” Baldé said. “We all have a gift and my mission is to share that with the world and really be here for a bigger reason than my own figure skating or my own career.”