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Teaching girls life lessons, on and off the ice

By Dexter Mullins
NBC News 

When Paula Assou first started figure skating, she cried.

“I was terrified of skating,” she said. But that didn’t keep her off the ice. “I wanted to try skating as something new and to overcome something I was really afraid of.”

That was nearly six years ago. Now, at age 16, Assou is part of Figure Skating in Harlem's junior synchronized skating team. The girls recently won their first gold medal in a regional competition.

Sharon Cohen founded Figure Skating in Harlem in 1997. It was the first program in the nation to pair figure skating with academics, and since then it has grown to serve thousands of girls, ages 6 to 18. A former competitive figure skater, Cohen was teaching ice skating to girls in East Harlem for about sevenyears when she decided to start the organization she now runs full-time.  With the help of grants and donations, Figure Skating in Harlem teaches about 200 students a year.

“We ended up starting this organization that really had education as its core focus and figure skating as the hook,” Cohen said. “So the girls get the physical benefit of fitness and grace and artistry through skating, which is very unique and not truly accessible to kids especially from inner-cities. And they also get core educational lessons that help them to get into some of the best colleges.”

To stay on the ice, the girls must maintain a minimum of a B average. The girls come after school to get help with homework, receive tutoring, and practice their skating technique. The organization also teaches financial literacy andwriting, and offers communications classes.

Of all the students enrolled in the program, 85 percent have maintained at least the required B average, while 31 percent are straight-A students.

“They go on to four-year colleges and have gone onto places like Spelman College and Howard University. We have a student on a full academic scholarship to Brown University,” Cohen said.

For students like Paula, Figure Skating in Harlem was just a way to enhance the talents she already had.

“I've always been a really strong student and I just think skating strengthened that because I had to work hard to stay in the program, and in order to maintain my grades,” she said. “When I started out I was really shy and quiet, and I wasn't very vocal, and I also came from a school and a summer camp where I was bullied a lot because I was smart and because I was quiet. So coming here was just a way for me to escape from that.”

Figure skating can be a very expensive sport, even for recreational skaters. According to Cohen, it can cost $40,000 to $50,000 to train an elite skater at the highest levels. Even for a recreational skater, the costs can be in the low thousands. High costs like that make sports like skating out of reach for a lot of students, especially those in the inner-city.

“We're looking at kids who wouldn't have the opportunity because financially they're in an obstacle from their parents to provide them with this sort of sport, which is tremendously expensive,” Cohen said.  “Nobody is turned away because they can’t pay.”

To help make the sport affordable, the organization only charges $350in tuition and provides the girls with skates, a place to study and learn, and access to career-building experiences.

Last year, Cohen took some of the girls to meet Supreme Court Justice Sonja Sotomayor. Just a few weeks ago, the organization received a letter from First Lady Michelle Obama commending them for their hard work. The group has also brought in top executives from companies like Viacom, MTV, UPS and more to expose the girls to the opportunities that are out there.

Sharendalle Murga, who joined the organization 10 years ago,was thinking of becoming a doctor, so last year Figure Skating in Harlem arranged for her tosee a live surgery. Andwhen she heard about the girls who met Sotomayor, she began to consider what else she could do.

“Some of the girls went to Washington last year and when they came back I thought maybe I want to be a lawyer,” she said. “All these different trips that we go on, they open my mind, so I'm not really sure what I want to be yet, but all of these things they help me.”

Cohen says those type of experiences are what the group is all about.

“What's so beautiful is that so many girls have come through our program, thousands since we began 15 years ago, that the young ladies now don't think it's odd at all to be a figure skater in Harlem,” she said. “So by having this organization, they've come to realize that anything is possible.”

To find out more about Figure Skating in Harlem, visit their website