This month, Figure Skating in Detroit celebrates four years of changing the lives of young women across the city
By Claire Zulkey
Featured photography by Darrel Ellis
Nine-year-old Karrington Mitchell, a fourth grader at Chrysler Elementary School in Detroit, was scared of falling when she first stepped on the ice four years ago with Figure Skating in Detroit (FSD). Karrington had never skated before, but her mother, Gabrielle Blackman, wanted her daughter to reap the benefits of the enrichment program’s interdisciplinary offerings.
“When I first got on ice there was a blue [trainer] you could hold and skate with, so you don’t fall, but the coach took it away,” recalls Karrington of her first time skating. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this, I’m gonna fall!’ Now I’m pretty good. I have to work on my waltz jumps, though.”
Karrington’s transformation from apprehensive to confident is one of many that has transpired since FSD launched in Detroit four years ago this month. The program, which serves girls from ages 6 to 18, is the second U.S. chapter of Figure Skating in Harlem, a nonprofit started in New York in 1997 to boost leadership, confidence and academic excellence in young women of color.
In the organization’s 2017-18 season, more than 90% of FSD participants showed improvement in reading, writing and math based on standardized assessments. “Our job is not to turn them into Olympians,” says FSD executive director Lori Ward. “If we do, that’s wonderful, they can go on and receive scholarships in figure skating. But our goal is to make them understand the sky’s the limit for them.”
A Program of Excellence
Ward, a former teacher and principal in Detroit, applied to work at FSD in 2018 after she read an article about the organization and was piqued by its emphasis on high-achieving girls of color. While working in education, she says, “I was always finding programs that were for boys, or kids that had one foot in the penal system.” She says that girls of color who perform well academically are “sometimes forgotten. ‘The ones who get As and B’s? They’re great.’ A lot of times that wasn’t the case.’”
FSD marries academic achievement and self-esteem development with figure skating. Each girl attends up to 15 hours per week of on-ice instruction and off-ice educational programming under the tutelage of more than 50 teachers, social workers and skating coaches. Students present their report cards upon enrollment and FSD tutors stay in regular touch with the girls’ teachers.
In addition to math, reading and STEM courses, the students also learn about financial literacy, communication, dance, yoga and meditation, as well as fine art and community service trips and entrepreneurship lessons. “Karrington and her brother started a business this summer,” says Blackman, Karrington’s mother. “It helped them understand the concept of money and working. We had a lemonade stand. Karrington took the money, saw how we had to do inventory, and learned how to manage money.” Karrington adds: “People think I’m 35, but I’m only 9 years old.”
Aside from its athletic and educational benefits, FSD provides a program of excellence in a sport too often associated with white skates, pink tights and light skin. “When I was younger, I skated on a synchronized skating team at a predominately white skating club,” says Carrington Conley, a class of 2020 graduate from FSD. “While skating there, I always felt like an outcast. Many people treated my family and I unfairly numerous of times. I enjoyed FSD because I was able to express myself through ice skating and not have to worry about discrimination.”
Seeing their African American coaches excel on the ice, Ward says, is a motivator for the girls. “It’s like, ‘Wow, they can really skate. I can learn to do that.’” The nonprofit acquires hosiery from the company Aurora Tights, which manufactures hosiery in all skin tones and sizes to encourage diversity and pride in performance in all young dancers and skaters.
Ward recalls a student named Olivia whose mother enrolled in her FSD when her daughter struggled to embrace her curly hair and skin tone when living out of state with her father, where she was one of few people of color in her community. Olivia developed behavior issues at school and gained weight.
After some time in the program, Ward says, Olivia’s mother began receiving phone calls from FSD organizers boasting about her daughter’s good leadership and citizenship. She earned the nickname “Banana,” after some FSD smoothie demos got her hooked on healthy snacks. “Her mom saw her do a 180 with regards to her personality, her love for herself, embracing her curly hair,” says Ward, recalling Olivia marveling, “‘My teacher said my hair is beautiful.’”
“I see so much energy and enthusiasm — now — behind the idea of diversifying the sport. I think that’s fantastic,” says Olympic ice dancing champion and Birmingham native Meryl Davis, FSD’s co-chair. “It’s taken a long time.” She’s gratified to see Detroit’s elite skating schools better reflect the city’s diversity, although she says the process has taken longer than it ought to. “It’s high time that we were in a place where people were excited to put energy behind change and diversity.”
Figure Skating in Detroit was faced with a quandary in spring 2020 when COVID-19 hit. How could the organization continue to provide tutoring, mentoring, community and training when its participants couldn’t enter a school, much less an ice rink? The organization did what it teaches girls like Karrington to do: Get up after a fall and forge ahead.
“We pivoted into virtual learning,” says Ward. First, the organization connected Detroit students with those at Figure Skating In Harlem. “Many of the girls felt discouraged, confused and nervous about what was going to happen. This was an opportunity for us to help parents and families, as our girls had to navigate when what was normal for them wasn’t normal. So let’s talk.” FSD then adapted its typical summer camp into a hybrid model of online STEM and leadership courses with in-person, distanced fitness, kickboxing, yoga and dance classes. Since the fall, the program has continued with virtual after-school mentoring and smaller in-person ice skating classes.
Davis, for one, isn’t worried about COVID-19 slowing the program — or the girls — down. “It’s not about all being together in person, playing a sport. It’s about using sport as an example for what’s possible,” she says. “Figure Skating in Detroit is very much in line with the spirit of Olympism: it’s not so much about what happens on the field of play. It’s the spirit of resilience and hard work.”
This includes encouragement from Davis. When she visits, in person or virtually, the students don’t ask much about her gold medals or “Dancing with the Stars” trophy, but instead proudly show her what they’ve learned. “Their excitement around showing me what they’re working on, showing me new tricks and talking about their experience in making that progress is really fun to see. It’s not just the skating itself, but to see their joy and enthusiasm on the ice.”
FSD marked the matriculation of its first high school graduate, Conley, this year, although the pandemic robbed her of a proper celebration. It can’t steal her favorite memories, though. “I will forever remember and be grateful for performing at the Campus Martius Tree Lighting every year and the U.S. National Skating Championships at the Little Caesars Arena, and for the amazing lessons about using my voice and being a proud Black figure skater,” she says. “There are so many things I would’ve never done without FSD.”
Davis sees Conley’s desire to come back to the program and mentor younger girls as the true mark of a winner. “That’s probably the greatest reflection of the program. That the young women who have gone through it actually want to return and contribute and be a part of the program in a different way after graduating is pretty spectacular.”
Other FSD participants say the organization has given them the courage to pursue their dreams. Sixteen-year-old Nala Emani Sparks-Jones, a junior at Detroit’s Jalen Rose Leadership Academy who joined the organization in 2016, is eyeing a career as a Navy diver. “When I first joined the program I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself,” she says. “FSD is big on sisterhood and confidence building. Now I have the confidence to go into the Navy. I wouldn’t have had that a couple years ago.”
Davis has not been able to visit the students in person since the pandemic, but is grateful that they can keep in touch remotely, “just to have a shared space where we can have honest conversations that are meaningful to all of us. That that’s been one of the cool things I’ve learned through the pandemic, having the opportunity to connect with people in a very vulnerable way can be so moving and it can teach each of us so much.”
Speaking of vulnerability, in March, Karrington’s fears came true when, while working on a spin, “I fell and my body went one way and my leg went the other way.” She sprained her ankle and for eight weeks she was on crutches and a boot. “I was like, ‘I’m not ice skating anymore,’ ” she recalls. COVID-19 hit soon after and she hasn’t skated since, but she’s determined not to stay down for long. “Once I go back to skating, I’m gonna try to encourage myself a little more because I want to try harder and not back out.”
Karrington looks forward to modeling those lessons and others for younger girls at FSD. “I can feel the girl power that’s building up,” she says. Eventually “I’ll be able to help the younger girls. When I help the younger girls they’ll learn from my experience and it’ll go on and on.”
To learn more about FSD, or to donate, visit figureskatingindetroit.org.