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Figure Skating in Detroit unites Olympians, opportunity and life skills for young girls

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By Colton Wood

DETROIT – Leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, 8-year-old Karrington Mitchell watched a video on the celebrated civil rights activist at her school in Detroit.

“I was learning about him,” Mitchell said, “so I had two dreams: I have a dream that one day I could become the most greatest [figure] skater in the whole, entire universe. And my second dream was: I have a dream that one day I can help the homeless and for cancer to get better, so they don’t have to fight for it and then their parents are in tears because they don’t feel so bad.”

The Beginning

When Mitchell was 6, her grandmother introduced her to figure skating.

Mitchell had no knowledge of the sport and even had to ask her grandmother what ice skates were.

That same year, in 2017, Mitchell became one of the original participants of the newly-started organization Figure Skating in Detroit, which is a spinoff of the famed foundation Figure Skating in Harlem that gives girls of color the combination of education and access to the artistic discipline of figure skating.

“I didn’t know how to skate,” she said. “I was sad because I always fell on my butt. It hurt; very painful, very painful. I didn’t really know how to stop at the moment. I fell a lot.”

The constant inability to stay up on her skates led to Mitchell initially thinking she wanted to hang up her skates forever.

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“I didn’t really like it at first, so I told my grandmother, ‘I don’t want to go to figure skating anymore.’ But when it was a new year, they taught me new things. I still did fall, but I started getting better at it.”

While teaching the girls enrolled in the program how to figure skate, FSD, the first chapter of FSH, seeks to help girls transform their lives and grow in their confidence, leadership and academic achievement.

This month, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships came to Detroit, marking the first time nationals came to the “Motor City” since 1994.

With nationals in Detroit, it gave FSD the chance to promote its organization to a national audience.

“I’m really happy for the nationals because they get to skate,” said Mitchell, who has aspirations of becoming a figure skating coach. “Even though I’m not in nationals and other people aren’t, either, doesn’t mean they don’t think our skating is good.”

Spreading to Detroit

When Sharon Cohen, founder of FSH and mother of 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, expressed interest in expanding her organization, she reached out to three-time Olympic medalist Meryl Davis.

Davis, a Michigan native, worked diligently to convince Cohen that Detroit was the right city to expand to.

That hard work soon paid off, as Cohen chose Detroit from a narrowed list of around five other cities.

“Detroit is really unique because there is a need for a program like this,” Davis told NBCSports.com/figure-skating. “There’s also a really strong figure skating community here… The combination of the need but also some of the resources was unique, so I think that’s a big part of what convinced her that Detroit was the right place to have this program.”

When Cohen told Davis she was going to pick Detroit, Davis, 32, was ecstatic.

She quickly introduced Cohen to the Michigan figure skating community. American ice dancer Jerod Swallow was among the countless number of people Davis, who is now an honorary co-chair of FSD, introduced Cohen to.

Swallow, Davis said, has been an instrumental part to the early success of FSD.

“We’re only in our second full year of Figure Skating in Detroit,” Davis said. “A lot of wonderful things have already happened. We have so much ahead of us. It’s really exciting.”

Though FSD teaches its participants the art of figure skating, its goal isn’t necessarily to tell them that FSD will make them an Olympic figure skater.

“Our goal is to say, ‘The lessons you learn here on the ice will help you figure out [what you want to do with your life] no matter what you do,’” Davis said.

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A Success Story

Harlem, New York, native Florence Ngala received a flyer in 2001 that changed her life forever.

The flyer, which showcased the FSH organization, enticed a young Ngala, then 6.

Ngala enrolled in the program shortly thereafter and was a participant until she turned 18.

Now 23, Ngala is a photographer for the New York Times and famous American rapper Cardi B.

After speaking at a private event in Detroit during the U.S. Championships, Ngala said she credits her success to FSH.

“I’ve benefited so much as a former skater and alumna,” Ngala said. “I would just love to see in five years from now, 10 years from now, these girls [in the program] going on to do whatever they want to do.”

Ngala understands her success in life has led to her becoming a role model for those who are following in her footsteps at FSH and FSD, something she said is beautiful to see.

“I think, ultimately,” Ngala said, “girls should just believe they can go on and do whatever they want to do.”

Ngala, who made her first-ever trip to Detroit this month for nationals, believes the U.S. Championships coming to Michigan will help build the legacy of FSD.

“It really is a benefit for both parties,” she said. “It’s only year two of Figure Skating in Detroit existing as a program. The U.S. Figure Skating Championships being here is very serendipitous. It’s awesome.”

MORE: Skaters’ ties to Detroit add local flavor to U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

Yuzuru Hanyu
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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Nathan Chen is surprised, grateful and posing questions about figure skating’s restart

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Steven Nyman, top U.S. downhiller, faces another obstacle

Steven Nyman
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Steven Nyman, the active U.S. leader in World Cup downhill wins, tore his right Achilles in a training crash and had surgery earlier this week in Mt. Hood, Ore.

“I am moving forward,” was posted on Nyman’s social media. “I’ve been through this before and have full intention to comeback [sic] and compete through the next Olympics.”

Nyman raced in three Olympics and owns three World Cup downhill victories.

He turns 40 during the next Winter Games in Beijing in 2022, when he will be three and a half years older than any previous U.S. Olympic Alpine skier.

Nyman missed the PyeongChang Olympics after a pair of major injuries: blowing out his left knee in a January 2017 downhill race crash and tearing his right ACL in downhill training in January 2018. He also tore his left Achilles in 2011.

He raced the last two seasons with a best World Cup finish of fifth in Val Gardena, Italy, site of all of his World Cup wins in 2006, 2012 and 2014.

The U.S. men’s program is in the midst of its longest World Cup downhill victory and podium droughts this millennium — none since Travis Ganong‘s win in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, on Jan. 27, 2017.

MORE: Alpine skiing World Cup plans earlier season start with fewer fans

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