Figure skating is a sport for the elite. Some would say even more so than hockey, golf and tennis, the requirements for participation -- equipment, costumes, lessons, access to ice -- make the sport a non-option for some less privileged communities.
Figure Skating in Harlem is a nonprofit looking to address those barriers. Founded in 1997, the organization promotes academic and athletic achievement among young girls of color living in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx who might not necessarily think a sport like figure skating is meant for them. Exposure to the sport as part of an after-school program has helped to increase participants' confidence, improve their grades and get them to elite schools like Howard University, according to Melissa Czarnik, marketing and communications manager of Figure Skating in Harlem.
Former Olympian Ashley Wagner visited the program on Tuesday to talk to and take questions from some of its participants, ranging from fifth-graders to 11th-graders, at Riverbank State Park, one of the few public rinks in New York City.
The first time Wagner heard of Figure Skating in Harlem was in 2012, and she immediately recognized its significance. "I know what my sport can do and how it can transform someone's life and the skills it can give you," she said, "and then combining academic excellence on top of that." The program requires its participants to maintain a B average in school in order to keep their ice privileges.
Besides being expensive, figure skating can be a lonely sport. When you're alone at center ice, in that moment of silence before the music starts, all you have is yourself and the belief in your ability. "Figure skating gave me so much confidence," Wagner said. "My experience growing up was so dramatically different than these girls. But I was given the ability to believe in myself, my skills, time management, the ability to talk in a professional environment -- all these different tools for my life later on. It's giving them tools that they can be prepared to take on the world."
The organization takes a cue from other groups like the computer science organization Black Girls Code and the youth baseball nonprofit DREAM (formerly Harlem RBI) to work in an underserved community and encourage achievement through sport, Czarnik says. Tutoring services, financial literacy, STEM and arts are all emphasized while "using figure skating as the hook" to foster those interests. The program was founded by Sharon Cohen, herself a former competitive skater who saw a need for expanded opportunity and who continues as Figure Skating in Harlem's CEO. The program recently expanded to Detroit, as detailed by The Undefeated, and has eyes on other cities across the country.
Skating also tends to put demure expectations on its women athletes more than its men, but Wagner has always been among its more outspoken personalities. For this she's unapologetic -- and in this era of athlete activism, she's paving the way for other women to find their voice in a sport known for sequins and grace, a sport that constantly has to defend its athleticism while promoting its artistry.
"They demand a traditional sense of 'ladylike.' It's 2018, and if you can speak intelligently about something and have facts to back it up, what's wrong with that?" she said. "Not enough girls are encouraged to unabashedly be themselves. You're raised to always apologize for being wild. It's time for young women to be taught that you can be yourself and not have to make any apologies for it."
Though she was attending the Olympics as an alternate, with many ads and sponsorship deals in place -- including Zico Coconut Water, which helped put on the event at Riverbank -- she did see her good friend Adam Rippon not only gain recognition, but also what seemed like a national embrace from Olympic viewers across the U.S.
"It was time for someone like Adam to be received in the way that he was," she said. "Taking a step back and having him show the world just what he's about, and show the world, yes, he's a gay athlete and he has these skills on the ice, and he's kind and he's smart. ... To see the world receiving him in the way that they are -- he's so easy to love."
So what's next for Ashley Wagner? Future skating isn't out of the question -- she's set to appear in the upcoming "Stars on Ice," a touring figure skating show -- and she's planning on assisting her legendary coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, who counts among his protégés Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen, Rippon and Nathan Chen. Beyond that, she sees media and TV in her future. Along the way, however, she expects to continue to be involved with programs like Figure Skating in Harlem, to continue to cultivate the sport from a developmental level and find talent where others might not think to look for it.
"I think that the more people you can get to fall in love with figure skating the better," she said. "Keeping as many people and as diverse a group of people involved in a sport -- there's no negative to that, there's only positive."
Realistically, a program like Figure Skating in Harlem (which is holding a show this month for which Disney, the parent company of ESPN, is a sponsor) isn't fielding a future Olympic champion (yet). But programs like this do help in expanding the field of athletes from which those elite skaters could be picked. And more importantly, they help increase interest in the sport at a grassroots level, accompanied by all the ancillary benefits of both school and self-esteem reinforcement.
"The word of this conversation is 'confidence' -- and these girls have it. They know who they are, they know what they're about, they know that they finished their homework and that's why they're allowed to be at the rink," Wagner said. "The fact that figure skating gave me the confidence to be center ice and it's dead quiet, and you have an arena full of thousands of people watching you on ice, and then there are thousands at home -- if that doesn't terrify you at first and then give you the confidence to be able to handle that, I don't know what else will."