Lack of funding may put D.C. skating program on ice

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

With the D.C. Winter Special Olympics just a week away, 11-year-old speedskater O'Conner Anderson III has honed what he hopes will be a winning technique. "I just move my arms and stay low," he said during practice Tuesday at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast Washington.

Of course, O'Conner is not the only competitor who dreams of taking home the gold at next Tuesday's games. Nor is his winning style a secret. Each of the 55 or so Special Olympic speedskating hopefuls learned the sport in the arena's Kids on Ice speedskating program, which was founded in 2002 by Olympic champion Shani Davis.

And all have been taught the same low, arm-swinging style that Davis used in winning a gold and a silver medal last week at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

"Everybody wants to skate like Shani," said O'Conner, who attends the Rock Creek Academy in Northwest Washington.

The relationships that Davis has with Fort Dupont skaters have made this year's Winter Olympics speedskating competitions must-see events. Dozens of youngsters watched him compete at viewing parties at the ice arena and the ESPN Zone downtown.

"There is renewed passion to become Olympians as well as a desire to exhibit the values of an Olympian," said Kathy Cox, executive director of the Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, a nonprofit organization that manages the arena.

Ironically, at the same time those passions for ice skating are increasing, funding for the Kids on Ice program is on the decline. Because of a drop in charitable contributions, as well as cuts in financial support from the D.C. government, Cox says, the Fort Dupont Ice Arena will face a $200,000 budget shortfall when the organization's next fiscal year begins in April.

Fort Dupont is a one-of-a-kind community ice rink that provides affordable skating and academic enrichment programs to more than 10,000 D.C. youngsters a year. Several hundred have learning and physical disabilities, 74 of whom participate in the speedskating program.

"With our athletes, skating is empowering," said Anthony Sokenu, who coaches Special Olympics speedskaters. "When they get out on that ice and learn to do something that many people regard as dangerous, it changes their ideas about what is possible for them."

Before taking to the ice Tuesday for the practice session, some of the Special Olympians seemed apprehensive. Just walking appeared difficult for those with physical disabilities. Some labored to lace up their skates and strap on their helmets.

But once on the ice, they could not have appeared more at home.

"We have a girl with mobility issues caused by one leg being stronger than the other," Sokenu said. "But when she's on the ice, the disability all but vanishes. She skates faster than she can walk, faster than anybody can walk, and she just loves it."

Sokenu works with Nathaniel Mills, a three-time Olympic speedskater who lives in Silver Spring and co-founded the program with Davis. (Mills, a native of Chicago, was Davis's skating instructor when the future Olympic champ was an adolescent growing up on Chicago's South Side.)

"Our focus with the Special Olympians is not so much on competition, but on developing the Olympic spirit, on getting the kids to do their best," Mills said.

The participants also get to travel -- to the Verizon Center for ice skating shows, for instance, and roller-skating parties in front of the White House. Perhaps best of all, they get to meet and compete with ice skaters who seemingly live a world away, in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

The loss of funding would curtail such activities. There would be cuts in the Spring Break ICE (Inner City Excellence) camp, which incorporates math and science instruction into a physical fitness program for dozens of children ages 6 to 13. The arena's summer camp skating program, which serves as a day care for younger children while their parents are at work, would have to be scaled back.

"If we don't close the funding gap somehow, a lot of our kids are going to be disappointed," Cox said.

Including O'Conner and his fellow Special Olympians, for whom competing is not so much about being like Shani as simply having fun like everybody else.

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