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Figure Skating In Harlem Gala Brings Out The Stars

By Lynn Rutherford | April 15, 2015, 1:27 p.m. (ET)

1992 Olympic figure skating champion Kristi Yamaguchi poses with Figure Skating in Harlem students at the 10th annual Skating with the Stars Gala in New York on April 13, 2015.

Macy's Inc. CEO Terry Lundgren poses with Olympic figure skating medalists Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek at the 10th annual Skating with the Stars Gala in New York on April 13, 2015.

NEW YORK -- Figure Skating in Harlem’s 10th annual benefit gala, held Monday evening in New York City, had a bit of everything: a paso doble dance from Season 18 “Dancing with the Stars” champions Meryl Davis and Maksim Chmerkovskiy; an original Supreme, Mary Wilson, as host; and Olympic figure skaters everywhere you looked. 

But the stars of the night were the girls of FSH, who mixed easily with business leaders, TV stars and figure skating fans eager to hear about how enrolling in the program has helped shape their lives.

“I’ve learned that in life and on the ice, when we fall down, we have to get back up,” Sanaa Roper, 13, said. “You can’t just sit there and cry because you fell. You’ve got to get back up and show people what you have.”

For FSH founder Sharon Cohen, it’s a simple equation: Figure skating + education = empowerment. The former competitive figure skater made that calculation 18 years ago, when she founded a non-profit dedicated to using her sport to give at-risk youngsters the discipline and tools they need to succeed academically and make good choices in life.

“Back then, I could count on one hand the number of organizations in all of New York City that served girls exclusively in a combination of sports and academics,” she said.

Season 18 "Dancing with the Stars" champions Merl Davis and Maksim Chmerkovskiy performed together at the 10th annual Skating with the Stars Gala in New York on April 13, 2015.

The determined Cohen, whose energy is universally described by friends and associates as a “force of nature,” persevered. Today, the charity serves more than 250 students aged 6 to 18, who attend FSH from 9-12 hours per week, including on-ice skating instruction and off-ice education and life skills classes.

“Eighty percent of our girls have a B+ average or higher,” Cohen said. “A third are straight-A students. The vast majority go on to college.”

Monday’s gala honored 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek as well as activist and author Gloria Steinem, and Nicole, Alana and Juliette Feld of Feld Entertainment, Inc.

For Lysacek, the evening was the culmination of nearly a decade’s work with FSH. He has skated with its students at several New York City rinks and visited their classrooms for mentoring chats. Last year, he chose FSH for Citi’s Every Step of the Way initiative, appearing with 15 of the students in a TV commercial.

“I’ve gotten to know several of the girls very well and watched them blossom into really well-rounded young women,” he said. “They are afforded tremendous resources and opportunities from this program that they might not otherwise have.”

Lysacek, who just completed a tour with “Stars on Ice, moved to New York from Los Angeles about seven months ago to start a new career in commercial real estate. He’s not sure, though, if he is ready to leave performing behind.

“I’m kind of taking it one step at a time,” he said. “I’m definitely enjoying learning something new. It kind of gives me the same competitive fire I had when I skated. Every new thing gives me a satisfaction I haven’t felt in a long time; executing my first lease was like landing my first Axel (jump).”

Last year’s honoree, two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan, attended the gala with husband Clay Pell.

“It’s incredible to see skating friends I don’t get to see that often, and to be here for my friend Evan,” Kwan said. “FSH does so much to empower young girls through sports, but also education and giving them the mentoring they need to succeed in life. To be able to somehow contribute is meaningful for me.”

Actress and longtime FSH supporter Tamara Tunie with Nicole, Alana and Juliette Feld of Feld Entertainment, who were honored at the 10th annual Skating with the Stars Gala in New York on April 13, 2015.

Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion and 2010 FSH honoree, reflected on her own childhood and adolescence balancing schoolwork with long hours in the skating rink.

“Skating taught me to budget my time wisely,” she said. “I was in bed very early and up early and every hour of the day was scheduled with skating, eating, sleeping or studying. There’s no messing around; you’ve got an agenda, you’ve got to stick with it.”

The mother of two girls — Keara, 11, and Emma, 9 — Yamaguchi heads up her own non-profit, Always Dream Foundation, which promotes childhood literacy.

“Knowing that your long-term goal is going to take work, it’s not going to be instant, is an important thing you learn,” she said. “In any walk of life, it’s going to take time and effort before you see the results.”

Davis, who with partner Charlie White won Olympic gold in Sochi, performed with Chmerkovskiy to Tove Lo’s “Heroes (We Could Be).” After the performance, Davis told the crowd she and White are working with Cohen to bring the FSH model to their home city, Detroit.

“(Skating) has had such an impact on my life, and Charlie and I have been talking the last couple of months in particular about how we can have a positive impact,” she said. “It’s not always about Olympic glory, it’s about personal growth as well.”

The sport has certainly made a difference to Sanaa Roper, who has been enrolled in FSH for six years. She aspires to be a therapist, “to help talk people through their problems.” Her friend and fellow FSH pupil, 15-year-old Kemisa Doumbia, began with FSH at age 9. She wants to attend New York University and become an attorney.

“I’ve learned when the going gets tough, you’ve still got to get going,” Doumbia said. “I think that’s the best thing we’ve learned at FSH.”

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

FSH honoree and activist Gloria Steinem poses on the red carpet with FSH students // FSH students perform the spoken word piece "I Am A Figure Skater" at the 10th annual Skating with the Stars Gala in New York on April 13, 2015.

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