Figure Skaters Help Raise Money for Fort Dupont Ice Arena

by Amy Rosewater, Special to U.S. Figure Skating Online
Emily Hughes and Tommy Steenberg (with jump rope guru Buddy Lee) show off their "Champions in Life" awards.

(7/27/06) - Emily Hughes blushed. She had just gotten busted.

When she was at the Olympics in Torino, Italy, back in February, she made a point of introducing herself to U.S. Olympic gold medalist speedskater Joey Cheek. They met at the closing ceremonies.

“I just had to meet him, so I just walked up to him at the closing ceremonies and said, ‘Hi, I'm Emily Hughes.' He said, ‘I know.”'

Hughes' mom, Amy, smiled and couldn't help but interject, “Emily came back and told us, ‘He knows me! He knows me!'”

Emily's face turned red, but she quickly added, “Then I got to meet him again at the White House.”

Hughes and Cheek and the rest of the 2006 U.S. Winter Olympic team were honored by President George W. Bush at the White House.

Their paths crossed a third time June 25. This time, however, it was because both were part of a charitable cause - helping Washington, D.C., inner-city youth get the opportunity to skate.

Hughes and Cheek were among the headliners in “Celebration of Champions, Present and Future,” which celebrated the 10th anniversary that Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, a nonprofit group, has managed the Washington, D.C., rink. The figure skating and speedskating exhibition, which included a silent auction, raised more than $5,000 (after expenses) which will be split evenly between the rink's Kids on Ice program and the Youth Fitness and Education Foundation.

To be perfectly clear, there is no romantic link between Hughes and Cheek. (He has been dating Eleanor Collins, a senior-to-be at George Washington University for three and a half years. When a fan asked Cheek if Collins was his fiancée, Cheek replied, “I hope she'll be my fiancée.”)

But, hey, a girl can still dream, right?

Cheek is taken, but Hughes remains a big fan and admirer of his, largely because of his involvement with Right To Play, an international organization led by athletes who use sport to help children in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the world. Cheek, who donated $40,000 - the bonuses he earned from the U.S. Olympic Committee for his medal-winning performances - to Right To Play, spent some time this summer in the African country of Zambia. He was wearing his yellow Right To Play sweatshirt at the Fort Dupont event.

“I've been very busy, but Nathaniel Mills (a speedskater who helped organize the event) is a good friend of mine and I skated with his brother,” Cheek said. “Nathaniel explained the whole program to me and I told him for sure I'd be there.”

Hughes herself has been very active with charitable causes. In fact, the night before she participated in the Fort Dupont event she was in Columbus, Ohio, to help raise money for breast cancer research. That event, called Skate For Hope, raised more than $100,000. Amy Hughes is a breast cancer survivor.

“I think it's great to be able to go out on the ice and raise money for good causes,” said Emily Hughes, who was wearing a pink fleece Skate For Hope sweatshirt before performing in Fort Dupont's event.

In addition to Cheek and Hughes, the event featured 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Timothy Goebel, longtime U.S. competitor Derrick Delmore and 2006 Olympic Speedskating team members Anthony Lobello and Kimberly Derrick. The exhibition was hosted by Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena and Grassroots to Champions, founded by national and Olympic coach Audrey Weisiger to help up-and-coming athletes achieve their goals of becoming champions.

Although Olympians and top U.S. athletes are often paid appearance fees for attending events, all of the headliners participated for free at this event. During the day, they led seminars on and off the ice, and then at night, there were exhibitions. They signed autographs, smiled for photographs and chatted with young skaters, and Cheek even showed off his circular Olympic gold medal from Torino.

The fundraiser was the brainchild of Weisiger and three-time Olympic speedskater Nathaniel Mills. Many of Weisiger's skaters have trained at Fort Dupont. Mills has been a huge supporter of the rink and the surrounding Southeast Washington community.

“This is our way of giving back to the community,” said Weisiger, who often has some of her skaters train at Fort Dupont even though her home base is the Fairfax Ice Arena in Fairfax, Va. “It was really a nice thing to bring awareness to the Fort Dupont Ice Rink. The people at Fort Dupont are just amazing.”

Friends of Fort Dupont uses the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills Program presented by Marshalls, and U.S. Figure Skating actually donates its materials to Fort Dupont and doesn't charge a fee to its members.

When Kids on Ice was started a decade ago by Willem Polak, about a dozen skaters participated in figure skating, hockey and speedskating lessons. These days, more than 10,000 boys and girls are involved in the program. For the skating fans and volunteers who were in attendance, the show was a success. According to Kathy Cox, the executive director of the rink, there were about 100 volunteers involved with the event.

A Night of Fun

The evening began with some younger skaters, one of whom was a 6-year-old Sasha Cohen fan, and progressed up the ranks to more elite-level skaters which included Tommy Steenberg, who was 13th in his debut at the senior level at the 2006 State Farm U.S. Championships, and Goebel, a former U.S. champion, two-time World silver medalist and Olympic bronze medalist.

Although many of the skaters who performed before Hughes skated to classical or slow music, Hughes, wearing a black and silver unitard, performed an upbeat routine to music by Tina Turner. She was surrounded by fans afterward for autographs.

Hughes makes it a point of doing charity events even though her schedule is often jammed. She has been in the middle of a whirlwind this year, earning her first medal - a bronze - at the senior level at the U.S. Championships. Then she was a late replacement for the injured Michelle Kwan at the Olympics in Torino, and she later competed at the World Championships in Calgary, Alberta.

Things haven't slowed down much for Hughes. A week ago, she finished her high school exams and is busy getting her programs ready for the upcoming season. She recently traveled to Toronto to work with choreographer David Wilson, who is designing her free skate. This is her first time working with Wilson. Boston-area coach Mark Mitchell choreographed her short program.

(L-R): Speedskater Anthony Lobello, U.S. Speedskating coach Jimmy Jang, Joey Cheek, Audrey Weisiger, Kimberly Derrick and Buddy Lee
Hughes did not disclose her new program music but said she was excited about the new routines and competing at Skate America in Hartford, Conn., and Cup of China. Following the Fort Dupont exhibition, she planned to stay in the Washington, D.C., area to work with Weisiger and coach Nick Perna. Bonni Retzkin has been Hughes' coach since she was about 4, but Hughes has spent a lot of time in Fairfax over recent years. Likewise, Perna has made numerous trips to Long Island.

Hughes, 17, will be a senior at Great Neck North High school in New York. She hasn't ruled out trying to compete four more years for the next Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver.

“I'm really looking forward to next year, but I also want to go to college,” Hughes said. “But I would love to go to the Olympics again. It was a great experience.”

Goebel, who retired from competitive skating following the 2006 U.S. Championships in St. Louis, continues to live in the Washington D.C., area. He spent the last couple seasons working with Weisiger and had one of his first training sessions with her at Fort Dupont.

Now he'll be moving on, as Goebel recently learned he has been accepted to Columbia University in New York. At the event, he skated to “Stray Cat Strut.”

Delmore, who was born at the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and has spent most of his life in Washington, debuted his new short program to “Malaguena.” Delmore, who trains with longtime coach Shirley Hughes, was the 1998 World Junior champion.

Weisiger honored Hughes and Steenberg with “Champions in Life” awards, and Steenberg also was awarded a $500 scholarship, which is given to athletes with financial aid who have excelled in school, sports and community service and are alumnae of the Grassroots to Champions program.

Following the figure skating portion of the program was a speedskating exhibition of sorts. The Olympic speed skaters had a sprint “competition” with some young speed skaters.

The amazing part of the event is that it almost didn't happen. On Saturday, the night before the show, one of the compressors broke and no one was certain if ice would be able to be made in time for the show. Also, Kaela Pflumm, a pairs skater with partner Christopher Pottenger, had a skate problem and had to perform in borrowed skates.

In the end, however, nearly everyone thought it was a success - so much so that Weisiger said she hopes to hold a similar fundraising event for the rink next year.

“My goal,” Weisiger said, “is to have the event sold out.”

And maybe, if Hughes is lucky, she and Cheek will be back as well.

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