An ice skating organisation in Harlem that serves young women of colour in New York City has been finding ways to overcome the impact of the pandemic.

Last year, members of Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH) did not see the ice from late winter until autumn due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Once they returned, with strict coronavirus-prevention protocols, it was a major step towards normality.

“We had seven and eight-year-olds up to 18-year-olds, and I have to say when you are able to move physically it helps you mentally,” says Sharon Cohen, chief executive and founder of Figure Skating in Harlem.

“In some ways, having skating was like a lifeline for these girls when so many sports were cancelled.

“The first day on the ice, we had very strict protocols in place, everyone had masks on and stayed socially distanced.

“We did everything by the book; that was a change, they had to learn a new routine.

“But once they got used to it, that brought a sense of normalcy amid the abnormal.

“One of our groups of girls, younger and older girls, worked to create a routine they would perform at Rockefeller Centre by mid-January, and they had to think about costumes and music, and then practise to perform it with no physical contact.

“When they were able to get on the ice, that might have been the only in-person experience they had with their peers.

“This was such a critical part of the support for our girls in Figure Skating in Harlem: They could come together and be on the ice and not be isolated or at risk. It was an in-between step for them.”

Starr Andrews performs at the US Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas
Starr Andrews performs at the US Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas (John Locher/AP)

The challenges for the girls, who will pay tribute to skaters of colour at FSH’s 2021 Champions In Life Virtual Gala on Thursday, extended far beyond the absence of ice time.

The programme’s objective for nearly a quarter of a century has been helping girls of colour transform their lives by growing in confidence, leadership and academic achievement.

Figure Skating in Harlem combines the power of education with access to the artistic discipline of figure skating “to build champions in life”.

But with the world going virtual during 2020, those young women were forced to deal with separation caused by the pandemic, as well as economic uncertainty for them and their families, and the racial unrest across America.

So FSH stepped up its involvement.

“We had a class called Real Talk in which our amazing social workers and teachers brought the girls together virtually by age,” Ms Cohen says, “and they were able to have a session to just express their emotions and where they are, and express their fears, and be given some tools to work through that, so they recognised they weren’t alone.

“Nobody could have imagined having a pandemic and what it would mean on a day-to-day basis, with the added unknown for the girls of fear and pressure.

“Everyone in the same household together for periods of time.

“Our girls had a way to be with their peers as much as they could be.

“And we were grateful we were able to continue to support them off the ice, and provide that place where they could get some individual help.”

The pandemic has also forced a second straight virtual gala for FSH.

Being honoured are the late Mabel Fairbanks, a longtime competitor, performer and coach who was a trailblazer for black skaters; Atoy Wilson, the first black skater to compete at the US Championships and a novice men’s champion; and Susan Kittenplan, president of the Skating Club of New York.

Also performing will be US senior level skater Starr Andrews and two-time Olympian Vanessa James of France, who will be introduced by French skater Mae Berenice Meite.

France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres during the ISU World Team Trophy Figure Skating competition in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2019
France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres during the ISU World Team Trophy Figure Skating competition in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2019 (Toru Hanai/AP)

“We could really delve into the history of skaters of colour,” Ms Cohen says.

“Mabel is under-recognised, and the fact we could bring her story to life – this is the most meaningful gala we have ever done.

“But it’s about the legacy of all the skaters of colour she encouraged and coached.

“Atoy Wilson has been a supporter of ours from the beginning. To see it in one virtual, succinct programme – it is powerful.

“And with our programme and that backdrop of understanding, the struggle for skaters of colour to gain visibility and prominence.

“There have been other organisations that have been active in recent years to bring more visibility to skaters of colour.

“We wanted to invite everyone to the table and make it a celebration of skaters of colour from our girls all the way back to Mabel.”