Young speed skaters reflect Washington area’s diversity

December 17, 2011

Rarely does a short-track speed skating competition look like this.

Black, white and Asian children donned speed skating suits and circled the ice early Saturday morning at Fort DuPont Ice Arena in Southeast. At least three different languages — the racers’ families had roots in Ghana, South Africa, South Korea, the United States and elsewhere — could be heard as shivering parents whispered to each other in the stands.

“There is perhaps nowhere in the world where you could do this type of competition other than the District,” said three-time Olympian Nathaniel Mills, founder of the DC-ICE urban speed skating club.

“Speed skating is the most diverse of winter sports, but there is still a lot of division,’’ said Mills. “This is a chance to get many of these different [ethnic] groups together.”

This is the D.C. Open, a meet for beginning and intermediate skaters as young as 4 years old. Its blend of 75 racers reflects both Mills’s effort to popularize the sport in the city and the shifting demographics in Washington’s suburbs.

Mills, who is white, founded the club in 2002 to introduce the sport to children east of the Anacostia. It received a surge of interest after Shani Davis — who Mills coached — made the 2002 Olympic team, and again four years later, when Davis became the first black speed skater to win Olympic gold in an individual event. Forty skaters now attend two-hour practices at Fort DuPont each Saturday starting at 6:30 a.m.

“When my daughter first told me that she wanted to be a speed skater, I wasn’t too sure because I had never seen any black girl do that before,’’ said Darlene Jenkins, a 46-year-old from Hyattsville. “But this is what she loves to do, and she can do big things with it.”

On Saturday, they walked down arena hallways where odes to Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the National Hockey League, and figure skater Debi Thomas, the first African American to win a Winter Olympic medal, adorned the walls.

Staff had put up a sign that said “Welcome speed skaters, and good luck,’’ in English — and Korean.

Within the growing Korean American community in the Washington area, parents have begun to hire top coaches to teach children a sport that’s tremendously popular in their homeland. South Korea has won more Olympic gold medals in short-track than any other country.

“Even though they live in the U.S., many parents think a Korean American should do short-track if they are going to do a sport,’’ said Jimmy Jang, a former coach for the South Korean national team who now coaches in Reston. “There’s a lot of pressure to do the sport and to do well.”

So some of the children skated to stand out, others to fit in. Mostly, however, they did it for the speed.

“I like the wind rushing on my face,’’ said Darlene Jenkins’ 10-year-old daughter, Jordan.

Darlene Jenkins had never ventured inside an ice rink before Jordan took up skating. Now, she gives her daughter tips.

“It’s three laps, so don’t work hard on the first lap,’’ mother told daughter moments before the race. “Then, when you’re going straight — pop! — that’s when to go fast.”

“The last time I tried that, I fell,’” Jordan said.

“You can be afraid to fall,” her mother replied.

Jordan stepped onto the ice. Her mother cheered her on as the race began. One of Jang’s students took the lead.

“Come on, pumpkin!” Darlene Jenkins urged. Jordan accelerated and finished third.

When she returned to her mother, she got a “Good job!” — and a high-five.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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