Hard work, pride and fun on the ice


Spinning, gliding, jumping -- Special Olympics Howard County takes a low-key approach to skating


A few days after figure skaters, including Maryland's Kimmie Meissner, captured the attention of many at the Winter Olympics, a group of children and young adults were quietly working on their skills in the same sport.

For 30 minutes Saturday morning at Gardens Ice House in Laurel, about 20 participants worked on their skating, including spins and jumps.

And while they are not trying to imitate the Olympic skaters, it is clear to see they have the same pride in what they are trying to accomplish.

"I want them to have fun and enjoy it," said Stefanie Hanel, the Special Olympics director for the skating program, who lives in Columbia. "This is a great thing for them. They work very hard, and they listen to you."

Special Olympics Howard County runs the figure skating class to teach the sport in a low-key manner. Skill level varies, as do the skaters' ages (7 to 35). At worst, they will have two skaters for each coach, Hanel said, but usually the ratio is one to one.

The coaches work carefully to instruct each skater, and each is learning something different. Last week, some were toiling at the basic skating skills while others dealt with more complex tasks.

"You just try to accommodate the athlete, and you get to know what their skill level is and what they can do," Hanel said. "They do things very well."

Hanel coordinates the program with Summer Kendall and Judy Proia, a Clarksville resident whose daughter fell in love with ice skating after watching Tara Lipinski win a gold medal in the Nagano Olympics in Japan in 1998. Katie Proia was about 8 when Lipinski surprised the skating world by finishing first. Proia quickly became hooked on the sport.

"She was mesmerized by it," Judy Proia said. "It's been the best thing that she could ever do."

Katie Proia quickly took to the sport and became a strong figure skater. She won two silver medals -- one for freestyle and one for ice dancing -- at last year's Winter World Games in Nagano.

Other skaters are working on winning awards closer to home. Special Olympics Howard County will be part of the May Day Open Figure Skating Competition on May 14 at Gardens Ice House. Figure skaters from 50 states will be invited to compete.

Jesse Carrico, who has been skating about three years, is preparing for the event. The 14-year old Ellicott City resident said he is practicing spinning, gliding and jumping.

"I practice a lot," he said. "You get used to it. It's fun. I like it a lot."

Julie Smith, 13, of Fulton has been working on some rather complicated moves of her own. Smith takes pride in explaining some of the things she can do on the ice and what she has learned.

"I get to do things most people can't do," Smith said. "It's hard to do. A change-foot spin is [difficult]. You start at a forward spin, then you go into a backward spin, and then you go into a forward spin."

Cyndi Schmidt agreed with Smith. Schmidt is the program's oldest participant at 35, and the Scaggsville resident has been a longtime figure skating fan.

Schmidt always liked famous skaters, including Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, and she wants to do some of the things they could do.

"My favorite move is the circle and spin," Schmidt said. "It's hard, but I like the sport a lot."

Hanel said the program is the only one of its kind in Maryland, and that those who teach must go through proper Special Olympics training given by the state. Judy Proia was a driving force in starting the skating program in 2002. She said Special Olympics is helped because rink President Clay Carr donates the ice time each week.

"What they do is, they come here every Saturday, and they give us big hugs and they're so happy to be here," Hanel said. "We just love it."

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