Figure skater Sharita Taylor shares an unbreakable bond with her twin sister
LAKEWOOD, Ohio -- Call them the Williams sisters of figure skating. Fraternal twins Sharita and Shaye Taylor often compete against one another at Special Olympics skating events, usually trading off first and second place on the podium. While the two have numerous gold and silver medals between them, one thing they don't have is an ounce of sibling rivalry.
"If my sister gets first place, I cheer her on, and I hug her," Sharita said from their home skating rink in February. "If I get first place, my sister cheers me on, and we hug each other."
When Sharita was selected to represent the United States at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria -- narrowly edging out her sister for a spot on the team -- Shaye was nothing but thrilled by the news.
"I plan on cheering her on from the stands," Shaye said.
The Taylor sisters first started figure skating at the age of 4. Now 26, they are both fixtures at the Winterhurst Ice Skating Rink, which is just a few blocks from their home on the west side of Cleveland.
"Ever since we started skating, the ice has been our friend," Sharita said.
Off the ice, Sharita works at PNC Bank and Shaye helps care for animals on a nearby farm. They are accomplished singers as well and sang the national anthem at a Cleveland Indians game. Both sisters also have autism.
"There are many misconceptions about people with disabilities," Sharita said. "We shouldn't be too quick to just judge and assume. Once you get to know me and my strengths and my weaknesses, I think your whole perspective is going to change. What we're trying to do is make our disabilities into an ability."
Last summer, Sharita began working with skating coach Tonia Kwiatkowski, who finished second to Michelle Kwan and ahead of Tara Lipinski at the 1996 U.S. championships.
"Sharita, as a skater, is very determined," Kwiatkowski said. "She wants to go out there and skate her absolute best when she goes to Austria. It shows every day. She comes in, and she warms up properly. She's here on time. She practices on her own. She works really hard."
Kwiatkowski choreographed the freestyle routine Sharita will skate at the Games. It incorporates stronger connecting steps, a combination spin and a loop jump. Sharita first landed the loop jump -- a full revolution -- when Team USA gathered for a training camp in December in Vermont.
"I told myself, 'Do it again. Do it again,'" Sharita said. "When I finally landed it at training camp, it was the most wonderful feeling. I was freaking out. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I landed it. I landed it.' It's a wonderful feeling. It gives you a sense of accomplishment."
In Austria, Sharita will compete in both level five singles figure skating and level two ice dancing.
Although her schedule has been filled with practice sessions to perfect her routines, she took a short break from training this past February to attend a high-profile event on behalf of Special Olympics.
Sharita was chosen to do interviews to promote the World Winter Games at the Super Bowl LI's Radio Row in Houston with Special Olympics ambassador and actress Brooklyn Decker. In the span of two days, Sharita and Brooklyn did 35 interviews with media outlets from around the country.
"By the end of it, we were like BFFs," Sharita said of Decker. "She showed me a really good time, meeting all the football players, getting to wear their Hall of Fame rings, and I even got to hold the Lombardi Trophy that the Patriots won."
Sharita also had a chance encounter with Harry Connick Jr., though she didn't realize it at first.
"He was wearing a baseball cap," she said. "I remember asking, 'What's your name?' He was like, 'Harry' and I was like, 'Harry?' He was like, 'Yes, ma'am. Harry Connick Jr.' And my face just went like, 'Oh!'"
There have been plenty of "pinch me" moments, as Sharita calls them, and she's expecting many more at the Games. She says her goal is to compete, make new friends and make her family and coaches proud.
When she takes the ice, Sharita will have a strong supporter rooting her on.
"I'm her biggest fan," Shaye said. "Always and forever will be."
"My sister is my life," Sharita said. "I can't live without her. She's that kind of sister for me."