When Sharon Cohen created Figure Skating in Harlem 21 years ago, she understood it would take baby steps to succeed sources say. Now, the organization that stresses education, personal development and excellence on the ice — has a sister group in Detroit.
The approach remains the same: slowly but surely.
“We clearly want to grow roots in Detroit and see that to self-sufficiency,” says Cohen, a former skater who more than two decades ago saw a need in the inner city for a program that could combine “the grace and discipline of figure skating with the power of education to unlock the potential inside every young girl.
“Other cities have come to us and they have to meet certain criteria, such as a city in need of girls’ development programs for fitness and education, a rink or rinks in the community, and support of this kind of mission. There will be plenty of opportunities, but we are not rushing into anything. But we are open to taking this model to other cities.”
Olympic ice dance champion Meryl Davis was a major force in the establishment of Figure Skating in Detroit. That branch began in November 2016 and within a year has a full-time program. Nearly 50 girls attend four days a week after school, with two of those days for skating.
“Part of the beauty of taking a very amazing program like Figure Skating in Harlem and applying a lot of those concepts in Detroit is you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Davis said this week at the FSH gala also attended by skating champions Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes, and 2018 Olympians Nathan and Karen Chen, and Pyeongchang double bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani.
“But at same time Detroit is a very different city than New York and Harlem. We’re having to figure out some different things in Detroit.”
Such as fundraising and partnerships. Supporters for FSH include Disney, Macy’s, NBC Sports Group and the New York Jets. Also at the gala was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who praised the organization’s vision and drive.
Davis and the Shibutani siblings, who are from Ann Arbor, Michigan, sense that the Detroit area will embrace FSD as it builds.
“Figure skating is big in Detroit, in particular elite figure skating,” said Davis, who is from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. “It’s something really beautiful to fit with the excitement surrounding the contributions to revitalization of the city and investing in the city. It’s a great recipe for success in Detroit.”
Adds Alex Shibutani: “We’re grateful for these girls getting the opportunity to get involved in the sport we’ve grown to love for our career. It’s a program that values education and development of the girls themselves as a person.”
Figure Skating in Harlem has grown from a few dozen girls of color and some instructors into an organization that opens avenues. Cohen regularly sees or hears from former students who have gone on to Ivy League educations and pursue careers in law or business or education.
None of the FSH graduates has reached the pinnacle of skating and probably never will. That’s not what the organization is about.
“We have more ice time now, more skating opportunities, and competitive synchronized teams we did not have at the beginning,” Cohen said. “And we have not only tutoring and standards in school work, we have financial literacy instruction. … The girls are getting a full complement of educational support. They have leadership classes and cultural trips they go on.”
One of FSH’s newest supporters is Beyonce. She is using her activewear brand Ivy Park to help empower the girls of Skating in Harlem. Through the collaboration, the girls were given products from the line to encourage them.
“There are so many examples I am proud of, and I do think the program played a pivotal role in their lives,” Cohen said. “This has been a step-by-step-by-tiny-step endeavor that has involved so many people besides me. Hundreds of staff … and I have gotten to appreciate them and honor them. It is about community; we are a real community.
“I do feel lucky to have this as a life work, but when you match sports with leadership and education, it’s a combination useful throughout life. All we do is open doors; the kids do the work.