Gliding Into Place

By Les Carpenter
The Washington Post
Sunday, June 28, 2009

The tiny body of Jean Paul Dias shivers in the frigid morning air, his breath dangling in little clouds before his face. Still, he sheds his jacket before the biggest race of his life. Nothing can slow him down on this day. His eyes peer determined from under his red helmet. Across the rink, a starter's arm rises and, as if doing a jumping jack, Jean Paul snaps into position, legs splayed, arms akimbo. Firmly he plants the toe of a skate into the ice. And waits.

He is 8 years old. A speedskater. Already he is so skilled that it is considered unfair for him to race children his age when the D.C.-ICE speedskating club meets Saturday mornings at Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast Washington. In many ways he is outgrowing this program, which is designed to teach speedskating to urban kids. A few weeks ago, the coaches matched him up with the oldest and fastest racers, figuring it was the best challenge they could provide.

Now he crouches between his usual opponents: a 14-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl. They loom beside him like mountain peaks.

Jean Paul has lost to them every time.

But now he has come to the last race of the season, nine laps around a makeshift oval. Medals will be awarded at the end. He dearly does not want this one to be a third-place trinket.

Under the rink's lights, his dark skin, like that of almost all the skaters, stands in contrast to the glaring whiteness of the ice and this sport he has chosen. He does not seem to mind. To his right, through a bank of windows, the dome of the Capitol glistens in the morning sunlight. He does not notice.

Instead, Jean Paul stares at the starter's hand looking for the signal to go.

He wants to compete in the Olympics. This is what Jean Paul recently told his grandmother, Sheila Scott-Bates, in the car one day. He didn't say it the way most 8-year-olds insist they are going to become firemen or baseball players or astronauts. Rather, he spoke with a determination that said these Saturday mornings are about more than fun and learning to skate. They are about purpose. A goal.

Then again, his grandmother is accustomed to such ambition from Jean Paul. He is the same child who learned his alphabet in a matter of weeks, tries to play the piano without looking at the music and insists on being first at almost everything he does.

"He must win," Scott-Bates says.

She smiles.

"I think it's good that he has the competitive edge in him," she adds.

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