Updated: Apr 30, 2019
Clinton Figure Skating Club’s Special Olympians find joy, accomplishment, and friendship in skating.
Peter Draves, a 20-year-old man over six feet tall, slowly strokes out onto the ice at Clinton Arena. He looks around at the lights, the other skating students, and his team members. He claps his hands and whoops like a cheering fan at a home hockey game. Joy radiates from his smile. Peter’s autism prevents him from speaking verbally, but his happiness couldn’t be more clearly expressed.
On this Monday evening in February, Peter has arrived for his lesson and practice session with the Clinton Figure Skating Club’s Special Olympics team. He’s been a member for 10 years and his mother Sue Draves said she appreciates how much skating has helped build his confidence.
“When someone asks what he’s good at, he says skating,” she said. “He feels it’s something unique to him.”
Peter communicates by typing on a tablet, and when he saw his mom being interviewed he wrote, “I feel happy here. I am part of a great club. I love my club. Great people.”
The Special Olympics movement was founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, President John F. Kennedy’s sister. Their sister Rosemary, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, inspired Eunice, a college athlete, to dedicate much of her life to Special Olympics as a way to offer the benefits of athletics to people with intellectual disabilities. The movement has grown from an event first held in her own backyard to encompass competitions in both summer and winter sports at the state, national and international levels.
The Clinton Figure Skating Club’s Special Olympics team was founded in 2006 by coach Caitlin Senton when a skating student with special needs wanted to compete. From there the program has grown to its present membership of 10 athletes ranging in age from 9 to 66, many of whom compete in the annual Special Olympics New York events or participate in the non-competitive therapeutic program.
This year six members of the team went to Special Olympics New York’s winter games in Rochester. Amy Lloyd, who has coached the team for three years, said each skater prepares an individual program which is set to music and contains all the skating elements at their level.
“They really do amaze you,” she said. “The first year I went to a Special Olympics competition I was 13 and there were skaters out there doing the same things I was working on at the time. It was really amazing to witness.”
Amy, who began volunteering with the Special Olympics team when she was just 13, said she has seen quite a few of Clinton’s Special Olympians bring home bronze, silver, and gold medals every year. This year’s Winter Games medalists include Brittany Bouldin and David O’Hern (4th), Tiffany Rosinsky (3rd), Peter Draves (2nd), and Aaden Jones and Lauren Marraffa (1st).
“It’s awesome,” Amy said. “They get so excited when they hear their name called and they get to go stand up on the podium. They’re so courteous to all the other skaters. They’re out there high-fiving each other on the podium. There’s a good camaraderie between all of them.”
Skaters travel from all over New York to attend these competitions and over the years they get to know each other and make new friends. “It makes everybody feel more involved to see other skaters with various challenges,” Amy said. “They have an equal playing field out there.”
Lauren Marraffa, a 19-year-old who was born with Down’s Syndrome, won a gold medal at last year’s and this year’s Special Olympics New York. She started skating when she was eight and has built up her skills to backward crossovers, spins, and a catch foot spiral which she included in her gold medal program.
At the Monday night practice, she demonstrates it, gracefully stretching her right hand forward, lifting her left leg up behind her and bending her knee until she can catch hold of her skate blade with her left hand while gliding forward on her free leg. Suddenly, she catches her toe pick in the ice and falls forward, landing hard. In seconds Amy is there by her side offering comfort and encouragement with a hug. Lauren quietly catches her breath and keeps on skating, just as all skaters do each time the inevitable falls happen.
Lauren is no stranger to the rigors of athletic training. She competes in six Special Olympics sports: figure skating in the winter games and in the summer games, horseback riding, bowling, bocce, swimming, and golf.
Lauren’s mom Barb Marraffa said, “It gives our kids the opportunity to compete with their peers outside of school just like typical kids, and just like her older brother.”
Clinton Figure Skating Club President Kevin Lloyd (Amy’s dad) said he appreciates the excitement and enthusiasm the Special Olympians bring to the entire club and the opportunities the program offers young skaters to develop their sensitivity to people with disabilities. Many Clinton Figure Skating Club members, like Amy, have volunteered with the Special Olympians.
“The whole club accepts our kids,” Lauren’s mom Barb Marraffa said. “The other skaters are used to seeing them at the rink and they just think of them as part of the club.”
Over in a quiet corner of the rink at Monday night practice, Amy works with some of the newer students. While Tiffany Rosinsky practices stroking carefully around the edge of the rink without any need to steady herself on the side boards, Amy gives Brittany pointers and encouragement on her forward lunges. Brittany bends low, sliding her free foot behind her, spills over on the ice, gets up, and tries one more time.
Richard Miller, age 66, had never ice skated before, but when his Arc housemate Tiffany told him how much fun she was having at the rink, he decided to give it a try. He started just two weeks earlier, and already he’s able to skate out in the middle of the ice with a little support from volunteer Jessica Martin.
When it’s time for the lesson to end, he steps carefully off the ice and says, “I did it, Amy!” Later while taking off his skates, Richard says, “I like it because I’m doing really good and I don’t fall. I love Amy! I’m getting better out there.”
You can see the Special Olympics skaters perform along with the rest of the Clinton Figure Skating Club in their annual ice show next weekend, April 5 and 6 (2019) at 7:00pm, and April 7 at 1:00pm. This year’s theme, “It Takes a Village”, celebrates Clinton Arena’s winning of the national Kraft Hockeyville competition. Each group of skaters will represent a different aspect of the village of Clinton, with the Special Olympics team portraying first responders, wearing costumes of police, firefighters, and EMTs.
Amy said the shows are one of her favorite parts of coaching the team. “It’s always fun backstage before an ice show. When the lights are out and they’re getting ready to go on the ice, it’s a fun excitement back there. These kids just work so hard every year, and they have an awesome, awesome family bond between them all.”
If you know a friend or family member who would like to join the Clinton Figure Skating Club’s Special Olympics team, registration information can be found on the club’s website at www.clintonfsc.com.
(This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of ACCENT Monthly magazine, published by the Utica Observer-Dispatch.)