figure skating in harlem

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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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