Girls’ skating program thriving in Harlem

NEW YORK (AP) Opportunity. Education. Empowerment.

Nowhere in its mission statement does Figure Skating in Harlem spotlight, well, skating. Yes, it’s a significant part of the inner-city program for girls 6 to 18. It’s also just one element of a formula that for more than 17 years has opened horizons for its students.

Founded in 1997 by Sharon Cohen, who remains its executive director and guiding force, Figure Skating in Harlem’s success story has been built on so much more than getting out on the ice.

”One of the best lessons the girls have learned from skating is about falling down and always getting back up and trying again. Keep pushing through,” Cohen says.

”That applies to everything, not just on the ice. It’s a lesson in character, and their learning those lessons is something that makes me very proud of them. I love that everyone has hurdles to overcome and how they are taking on these challenges to see what they are made of. They are opening the door for themselves to try something harder, and to succeed.”

When Cohen started the club, she had 25 students and five instructors. Now, there are 200 students and a waiting list, 63 staff members, 53 tutors, coaches and educators. Most of the girls are African-American, but nearly 25 percent are Latina.

Membership is restricted to the Harlem area in upper Manhattan and port of the lower Bronx.

Not restricted at all: opportunities.

Former FSH students have gone to law school or have earned degrees in business psychology, English, engineering. Girls from the program have attended Brown (Cohen’s alma mater), Mount Holyoke, Howard, Hartwick, and St. John’s.

Recently, the FSH youngsters traveled to Washington and met two Supreme Court justices. Michelle Kwan, the nine-time U.S. and five-time world champion, took them on a tour of the State Department, where she is employed as a senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs and as an envoy.

”As they are looking at career opportunities, and they get chance to look at what is out there – public service, perhaps working for the government – it’s a sign that shows this is a program that is so all-encompassing,” Kwan says. ”What they learn in the classroom could eventually lead to a career as well. That’s a really eye-opening experience they can apply, apply all that knowledge they get for their careers.”

Kwan and Cohen don’t want to see the lessons learned from figure skating or other sports overshadowed by the chase for medals and money. That’s a major reason the educational component remains foremost for Figure Skating in Harlem.

”We are an academic program first,” Cohen says. ”If someone is shooting for the Olympics for their child, perhaps we are not the program for you. We’re not interested in the superstar child. It’s the community-building, highlighting the family within the community.

”We are more interested in our girls getting into Yale or Harvard or Brown, and frankly there is more chance of that than being an Olympian.”

Kwan, who owns silver and bronze medals from the Olympics and on Monday was honored by FSH as an inspiration to its members, bemoans the overemphasis on winning.

”Perhaps we have lost sight of what sport means to kids,” she says. ”It is not going from A and B and C in hockey to playing for the Stanley Cup. It’s not about going from pre-juvenile skating to the Olympics. That is not always the goal and a program like FSH, it really is about the skills you learn from sports: physical activity, being with friends, teamwork – but also the discipline it takes, the hours of dedication, being able to concentrate on one thing at a time. You have to learn in life how to juggle things; being a student-athlete is the same as in life.”

Cohen’s students spend up to 480 hours annually engaged in educational and fitness programs. As more ice time has become available, FSH has added synchronized skating teams and adopted a year-round schedule.

One of FSH’s current tutors was a student in the program from 1999-2004. An original student now is a mom, and her younger sister is in the organization. Cohen’s program manager also came from her first group of skaters.

Critical to the success of FSH have been the donors, including Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren, who was the chairman for the gala honoring Kwan, and hundreds of others.

Cohen has been approached about expansion, and she believes the program would work in other inner cities. She spoke at an IOC meeting in Peru and afterward was told by a sports minister from South Africa: ”Our girls should have this.”

It’s not so easy to get things rolling – as difficult as a triple axel, for sure.

”Some individuals have approached us, they sort of come and go,” Cohen says. ”Why? Because this is not easy to execute. It’s about more than figure skating, of course. We are first and foremost an academic program and a community builder.

”We have a strategic planning process and we do investigate the right fits in other cities. We feel we are the leader and we want to be the leader.

”But you have to negotiate partnerships to get the process going,” she adds. ”And you really need donors. We are fortunate to be where there are donors who are very interested in our program and very open. They recognize the importance of youth development as more than a concept. We have a model that is a proven success.”