'This is what I want to do'

BARRE CAMPBELL -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:29 AM ET

You can't get much more of a contrast in figure skating than when Maxime-Billy Fortin sets blades on the frozen sheet.

The ice is white. The boards are white. The audience is overwhelmingly white.

And the skater is black.

The 19-year-old, who grew up in Stoneham, Que., near Quebec City, but now trains in Toronto, is competing at the senior men's level for the first time in his career at the Canadian championships.

Born in Haiti, he came to Canada some 100 days into his life, adopted by parents from Quebec.

They added the name Billy.

"They wanted me to have a special name," said Fortin, who knows nothing about his Haitian background.

Growing up was difficult as a black child in an overwhelmingly white world. On the first day of school, a girl in his kindergarten class burst into tears when she saw him, scared at the sight of somebody so different.

"Everyone in Canada to me seems white," Fortin said yesterday. "I just sometimes feel like there's always somebody watching me, not in a mean way, but because I'm different."

It's something he expected when he started figure skating at age nine. Only a handful of black skaters, such as Debi Thomas and Surya Bonaly, have risen to international prominence.

Fortin isn't trying to be a role model, and skates because he enjoys the sport and is driven by the competition.

But he thinks it's great if his presence at the national level could lead more black kids to the sport.

It was by accident that he discovered skating some 10 years ago. Fortin wanted to play hockey and enrolled in a program at a local figure skating club to learn the basics.

"I just kept going because I wanted to have good skating skills before I played hockey. But I just kept going, and here I am," he said.

Coached by Ghislain Briand, Fortin placed third in junior men's at last year's Canadians in London.

He has also competed internationally, winning a gold medal as a 15-year-old novice at the Mladost Trophy competition in Croatia.

His figure skating travels have also taken him to Estonia, Poland and Ukraine.

Tonight, he will perform his short program, just 10 years after learning how to skate.

HARD WORK

"When I was younger, I just had fun with what I was doing, so the time has gone by real fast," said Fortin. "I guess it was easy for me to get to the level I'm at. To get to that next level, it's going to be a lot of hard work. It's a lot more work than I've ever done before."

Fortin knows what it's like to overcome adversity, hearing comments from kids while growing up that he was different -- because of his race and his choice of sports.

"But now I'm to the point where I don't really care," he said. "This is my life. This is what I want to do."

And tonight at the Civic Centre, a full house will applaud him for that, as his blades glide across that white sheet of ice.


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