Everywhere you turned at Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, you saw celebrities. There were TV stars from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, such as Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay and Tamara Tunie; musical stars, such as Kelly Rowland; members of the Harlem Globetrotters; Broadway stars, like Tony winner Lachanze; and Olympic skaters, like Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Johnny Weir.
But the biggest stars of the night were the young ladies of Figure Skating in Harlem, which celebrated its 10th anniversary with a gala fundraiser on April 9.
Founded in 1997 by Sharon Cohen, Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH) currently works with 100 girls, ages 6 to 18. They not only receive skating lessons at Riverbank State Park in Harlem, but they also participate in classes on self-esteem, public speaking and nutrition. There are social workers and counselors on staff as well as tutors. The girls must maintain a B average to participate. Return rate is around 85 percent, and some girls have been with the program as long as eight or nine years.
“It was 1990 when I began teaching, volunteering at an East Harlem after-school program, so it has been a long journey,” said Cohen. “In 1996, we really solidified a vision for this organization. Then we began in 1997.
“It was generated from the community’s interests and their input has completely shaped the program, the education, the skating. We have parents who I consider to be co-founders. We used to meet in people’s living rooms before we had an office.” Today, there are 23 people on staff, three of whom are full-time.
Britni Lindsay, 16, has been with the program for nine years. “I got involved because I loved watching the Olympics. I would be glued to the television when it came on,” she said. “My mother saw that I had a passion for it. I actually started out in ballet, where I met one of the other girls who told us about the program.”
Now a junior in high school, Lindsay recently learned how others perceive the diligence she’s demonstrated in sticking with the FSH program. “I was looking for an internship in education, which I want to study in college,” she explained. “I was asked what I’ve been involved in. They wanted to know more about figure skating, and said they admired me for staying so long with it. My determination and dedication to it really benefited me.”
Former Olympic and World medalist Timothy Goebel, who lived and trained in Fairfax before retiring from skating and moving to New York to attend Columbia, is now an instructor for FSH. “At the end of my career, when I was at a training center, everyone was trying to make Nationals, Worlds and Olympics,” he said. “It was always a very high pressure environment. When we all started, it was because skating was fun. It’s really been refreshing to see that aspect of it again. It’s been exciting helping the girls get ready for the show this year.”
When Cohen first launched FSH, she asked her old friend, 1984 Olympic men’s figure skating gold medalist Scott Hamilton, to lend a hand. In addition to lending his name to the honorary board, in 1997, he did a skating clinic for the girls and helped bring the program national recognition. On April 9, FSH honored him as well as the Walt Disney Company.
Former figure skaters turned fashion designers Vera Wang and Richie Rich of Heatherette were on hand on skates to celebrate their first loves. “When I joined Ice Capades I was only 18 and I didn’t really know anybody, so I hung out in the costume room. This guy Jerry taught me how to bead in Swarovski and work with crystal. That’s kind of where my Heatherette future began,” said Rich, who grew up in Northern California and trained alongside Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo. “I always loved making things, but that added the next level, the theatrical. It hooked me.”
Tiara Lamb, 18, who has been with FSH for eight years, begins college next fall at Morgan State University in Baltimore, where she says she’ll continue skating. At 16, she became an intern with the program, helping the younger skaters learn the basics. Prior to the gala on April 9, she was looking forward to meeting the Olympic skaters and asking them how they started in skating. “I can see their passion when I watch them on TV,” Lamb said. “I have passion when I skate. I love it so much. I realize how much they put into it. I love to show the world something I can do and how much we put into it. I love to perform.”