Figure Skating in Harlem: 25 years and growing

This photo provided by Figure Skating in Harlem shows Figure Skating in Harlem students performing in the 2022 Ice Show, City of Dreams - A Skating Love Letter to NYC at Riverbank State Park in New York, March 20, 2022. The organizations objective always has been helping girls of color transform their lives by growing in confidence, leadership and academic achievement. (Larua Differender/Figure Skating in Harlem via AP) (Laura Differender)

NEW YORK – A quarter-century ago, Sharon Cohen founded an organization that, to some, made little sense. After all, how many figure skaters would she find in Harlem?

Figure Skating in Harlem celebrates its 25th anniversary with a gala on April 25, and has become a success story built on academics, social growth and, well, yes, ice time.

“I am incredibly proud because of how many people have come together for such a mission,” Cohen said. “We took sort of a 360-degree view and started on a collective journey in doing good, and being a springboard for young people to discover themselves and go out in the world.”

The organization’s objective is helping girls from various racial and ethnic backgrounds transform their lives by growing in confidence, leadership and academic achievement. Clearly, it has worked. FSH graduates are deep into their careers or attending universities throughout the United States. The current students, emerging from COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, are returning to something like normal. Cohen is even seeing second-generation skaters in the program.

Figure Skating in Harlem combines the power of education with access to the artistic discipline of figure skating “to build champions in life.”

Its gala will honor several such champions, from 2022 Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen to actress/humanitarian Whoopi Goldberg; singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson; Unilever's chief operating officer of EVP beauty and personal care Esi Eggleston Bracey; Portfolia Rising America Fund lead partner Lorine Pendleton; and Bernice DeAbreu, a member of the New York Board of Education who specializes in computer literacy and elementary education and is known as the “godmother of FSH.”

All of the women have been longtime supporters of the organization, while Chen follows in the line of so many superb skaters.

“It is always great when we have an Olympian come and meet with the girls,” Cohen said. "Scott Hamilton was first to get on the ice with the girls, giving them pointers, and his presence meant so much. Same with Sarah Hughes. Right after Sarah won gold in 2002 she came straight to Harlem, and she has gone on to a great career in education and law. She is an incredible role model, like Nathan, a Yale student, a scholar.

“I think it means a lot when they're physically present with us and come to our events to get the word out and share the mission. We’re a mission that hits at the heart and that people can understand.”

Chen, who has won six straight U.S. titles and three world championships, couldn't agree more.

“The organization has done so much for figure skating and is such, I guess, a great sort of icon with this department of figure skating,” he said. "To see how we can spread this sport, exposing figure skating to different communities that might not have that exposure. And I love their education tie-in, and to have these girls get the opportunity to get into figure skating.

“The fact we as skaters have a chance to be involved outside (competition) with organizations like Figure Skating in Harlem a privilege.”

With 25 years in the books, Cohen prefers to look to the future. But she knows the experiences of the pandemic are a reminder of the resilience and fortitude needed to succeed on the ice and in the classroom.

“In skating, when you fall down you get up,” she said, “and we found a way to never stop our program. Skating outside, Zooms, whatever. You do the best you can with what has been dealt. The young women have had the support of each other and the team. The support was more important during the pandemic than ever in the past. But we wanted them to know education never stops.”