A sellout crowd met and mingled with skating luminaries at “Celebrating Excellence & Sisterhood,” this year’s Figure Skating in Harlem (FSH) gala, held at Gotham Hall. Celebrities of the skating world at the event included the likes of Olympic Champions Scott Hamilton and Nathan Chen, along with other well-known skaters, current FSH participants and alumnae, and this year’s honorees.

Honorees were fashion icon Michael Kors; Crystal Barnes, senior vice president, social responsibility and environmental social and governance at Paramount; and FSH alumna Flo Ngala, a rising star in photography. FSH founder/CEO Sharon Cohen was not only thrilled with Ngala’s success, but impressed by how she ties it back her experiences with the organization.

Ngala became emotional in her speech, recalling how her mother and late father helped foster her love of skating and the importance of the nurturing she received from everyone at FSH. 

“I stand before you filled with emotion and gratitude for an organization that literally means the world to me,” said Ngala, who earlier this year was named to the 30 Under 30 list by Forbes magazine. “While some see my career today as intriguing, I kind of joke about how it feels like a second life of sorts, simply due to immersive and empowering experience I received at FSH during my 12 years [in figure skating]. It’s a memory of the past that follows me everywhere I go.” 

High school senior India Freeman joined FSH in her freshman year of high school, introduced to it by her cousins, who had been in the program since elementary school. “All of these doors opened up,” said Freeman, who is a Posse Scholar and will attend Franklin & Marshall College in the fall. “At first, I joined simply because I wanted to do the sport. Then, I found out about the community and the sisterhood. It’s everything in one program and it blew my mind completely.” 

Halle Cespedes, now an 11th grader, joined FSH in sixth grade, missed two years during the pandemic, and rejoined this year. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I came back and I was immersed in all the programming and seeing the girls again,” she said. “Sisterhood is one of the big things.” 

Eighth grader Aschah Jones loved the opportunities of career week. 

Starr Andrews, who this year became the first Black female singles skater to medal at the U.S. Championships in 35 years, was on hand for the festivities. Andrews has been involved with FSH for several years, including performing a tribute to the late Mabel Fairbanks at one of FSH’s virtual galas during the pandemic. 

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“I love coming here and meeting up with the girls and visiting with them,” said Andrews. “It’s always so much fun and they’re all so sweet. Seeing the smiles on their faces makes me so happy.” 

Again this year, there were two tables of program alumnae. 

The gala was hosted by Vladimir Duthiers of CBS News. It opened and closed with FSH alumna Mariama Diop, an actress/singer who performed in “The Lion King” on Broadway, singing while video of FSH was shown. 

Just before the gala, it was announced that FSH was selected as a recipient of a $75,000 grant from Dick’s Sporting Good’s 75for75 program, launched in honor of the retailer’s 75th anniversary.

The evening concluded with a quote from the late Nelson Mandela about how sport inspires people and can change the world. This summer, 11 current FSH participants (present at the gala) will journey to Mandela’s homeland, South Africa, along with Cohen; Bernice Deabreu, dean of students emerita; and two staff members, Ila Epperson and Raquea Hemingway. For the FSH participants, who were selected through an application process, this will be the trip of a lifetime.

“We learned that the [FSH] model held up in Detroit (Figure Skating in Detroit was launched in 2017), and we believe that taking skating peer-to-peer to a country where maybe girls haven’t been exposed to figure skating before is enormously powerful for both sides,” said Cohen. “That’s the way FSH can make a difference to many other communities.”

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