"Whey you do it," Jay Connelly of Glenn Dale was saying as he practices his new talent on ice skates at Fort DuPont Ice Rink, "you shouldn't get frustrated. You shouldn't say 'I can't do it,' because you can."
"You've learned that, eh?" coach Neil Desmond chuckled, his smile reflecting price in his 16-year-old student, a special Olympian.
Jay is one of 80 or so handicapped or disturbed youngsters participating in an experimental ice skating and skiing program organized by the D.C. Special Olympics Committee and the Ski Club of Washington. Twice a month students from three area schools gather at the Southeast Washington rink for two-hour free skates and instructional sessions with Special Olympic and Ski Club volunteers.
"It's amazing, the confidence they have developed," D.C. Special Olympics head Ron Beard said. "Special Olympics started several years ago with track and field. Then as we progressed we felt we couldn't work on physical fitness with only one activity.
"We have since added others and this is an experimental program of ice skating and skiing. Based on the results so far, we plan on expanding this program. We're going to start it up again, but much earlier next fall."
On the ice you could watch the children develop before your eyes. After a few minutes of exercise accompanied by piped organ music, those who had timidly set forth on wobbly ankles were calmly gliding about the rink.
As confidence developed races began and fanciful figures were cut ("that's a figure 1," someone called). Some who had abandoned the steadying influence of a volunteer instructor decided to challenge the resident expert for "king of the rink."
Resident expert Bryan Watson, who makes his living playing hockey with the Washington Capitals, handled the challenge easily enough, skating backward circles around the youngsters.
Watson came to Washington from Detroit, where he was chairman of the Michigan Special Olympics. He and his wife, Lindy, have worked with Specail Olympics since 1969.
"As soon as we got situated here we knew we had to get involved. Working with the kids, you learn that they'll try anything if they can overcome the fear of it," Watson said.
"From week to week you can see so much change," Lindy Watson added. She pointed to one small girl slowly skating. "She's proved herself. She's laughing and giggling. Once they get the confidence, they can do anything."
"I want to be an ice skater," Charlotte Pearson, 19, a student at Occupational Training Center, declared midway through the session. "Don't they have schools for ice skaters? I like skating because its good exercise. It helps keep me shape for the track season. I wish all the other kids from my school could come out to skate."
"Skating is something like roller skating," said Tony Wright, 15, of Washington. "It's something like basketball to me. You go out to have a good time, enjoy yourself. You fal down a little bit, but it's fun.
"Our job with these kids is not that different than anyone else working with kids, but it's probably more rewarding," said Desmond. "For me there is a certain sense of joy you get from watching the children's accomplishments. Each child is an individual and their interest in sports depends on each child. But we've gottenkids involved with skating that weren't interested in sports."
It's cold in this place!" one child complained as he skated by.
"Of course," Desmond called out, "Of course it's cold in this place. It's supposed to be cold. Otherwise you'd be skating in a swimming pool."