- Associated Press - Friday, April 11, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Opportunity. Education. Empowerment.

Nowhere in its mission statement does Figure Skating in Harlem spotlight, well, skating. Yes, it’s a significant part of the inner-city program for girls 6 to 18. It’s also just one element of a formula that for more than 17 years has opened horizons for its students.

Founded in 1997 by Sharon Cohen, who remains its executive director and guiding force, Figure Skating in Harlem’s success story has been built on so much more than getting out on the ice.

“One of the best lessons the girls have learned from skating is about falling down and always getting back up and trying again. Keep pushing through,” Cohen says.

“That applies to everything, not just on the ice. It’s a lesson in character, and their learning those lessons is something that makes me very proud of them. I love that everyone has hurdles to overcome and how they are taking on these challenges to see what they are made of. They are opening the door for themselves to try something harder, and to succeed.”

When Cohen started the club, she had 25 students and five instructors. Now, there are 200 students and a waiting list, 63 staff members, 53 tutors, coaches and educators. Most of the girls are African-American, but nearly 25 percent are Latina.

Membership is restricted to the Harlem area in upper Manhattan and port of the lower Bronx.

Not restricted at all: opportunities.

Former FSH students have gone to law school or have earned degrees in business psychology, English, engineering. Girls from the program have attended Brown (Cohen’s alma mater), Mount Holyoke, Howard, Hartwick, and St. John’s.

Recently, the FSH youngsters traveled to Washington and met two Supreme Court justices. Michelle Kwan, the nine-time U.S. and five-time world champion, took them on a tour of the State Department, where she is employed as a senior adviser for public diplomacy and public affairs and as an envoy.

“As they are looking at career opportunities, and they get chance to look at what is out there - public service, perhaps working for the government - it’s a sign that shows this is a program that is so all-encompassing,” Kwan says. “What they learn in the classroom could eventually lead to a career as well. That’s a really eye-opening experience they can apply, apply all that knowledge they get for their careers.”

Kwan and Cohen don’t want to see the lessons learned from figure skating or other sports overshadowed by the chase for medals and money. That’s a major reason the educational component remains foremost for Figure Skating in Harlem.

“We are an academic program first,” Cohen says. “If someone is shooting for the Olympics for their child, perhaps we are not the program for you. We’re not interested in the superstar child. It’s the community-building, highlighting the family within the community.

“We are more interested in our girls getting into Yale or Harvard or Brown, and frankly there is more chance of that than being an Olympian.”

Kwan, who owns silver and bronze medals from the Olympics and on Monday was honored by FSH as an inspiration to its members, bemoans the overemphasis on winning.

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