Six-year-old Korie Gannon says the best part about speed skating is falling down.
“It’s important that you fall down because then you learn to get back up on your own,” says seven-year-old Tolulope Kowole with an infectious smile as she quickly agrees with her friend.
This lesson can be credited to Speedy Kids, a non-profit organization that provides underserved groups in the Halifax Regional Municipality a chance to speed skate. Without Speedy Kids, Gannon and Kowole likely would have never laced up speed skates.
“The first session was really hard, I kept falling. I practiced a lot every time we went to the oval, and someday I hope I can race really fast. I might even go to the Olympics when I’m 18 or 20,” says Kowole. She is one of approximately 50 regular participants in the program.
It’s all the brainchild of Lisa Gannett, an associate professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University. Gannett saw the potential for the Emera Oval to be a community rink for children living in the North End.
“It is important that the oval is a place where the kids, African-Nova Scotian kids, feel it is a place for them, and that our sport is for them,” says Gannett.
Since the first session of Speedy Kids in January 2012 , Gannett has put all her energy and enthusiasm into finding volunteer coaches, as well as grants to fund the cost of speed skates and safety equipment. As Speedy Kids wraps up its second season and looks at what is to come, Gannett makes it clear that it is all about the kids.
“It’s kid driven. We want to feed their love of skating, their friendships and their love of going fast,” says Gannett, adding that the kids that come out to skate are a tight knit group.
“There are older kids who really look after the younger ones. They are in these groups five days a week so they are all very supportive of each other,” says Sheila McGinn, who provides support at the sessions and sits on the Speedy Kids board of directors.
“One day, I was helping one of the kids skate a little by himself, without the frame, and although he was shaky, when another boy who was a stronger skater fell, he nonetheless reached out his hand, even though that placed him in a precarious balancing position,” says Gannett in an email, noting that the kids are supportive and generous with each other.
Eleven-year-old Tiffany Calvin, who takes part in St. George’s YouthNet after-school programs, just completed her second season with Speedy Kids and Natasha Condé-Jahnel, YouthNet Program co-ordinator, says she has come a long way since her first session.
“Tiffany had a difficult time last year, I think she had a hard time with blisters and it was painful for her to take off her skates,” says Condé-Jahnel, who mentions that this year, Calvin competed in a competition.
Condé-Johnel says she is really proud of Calvin for taking ownership over an activity. Calvin isn’t the only one who has improved since the beginning of the season.
“Many of the kids fall, and just get right back up again. They could have gotten embarrassed but they have no fear of feeling silly. They really put their hearts into it,” says Condé-Jahnel, who says that for many of the kids, taking away their support chair was a big step.
Each of the coaches is amazed by how dedicated these kids are to improving.
“It’s fun to watch that within the span of a lap, they can go from hardly being balanced to taking strides just by coaching them through,” says Todd Landon, coach of the Atlantic Long Track High Performance program.
Many of the kids have gotten over their fear of skating. The ones who at the beginning of the season had to be persuaded to get on the ice are now grabbing their skates enthusiastically in anticipation of the hour of speed skating that is to come.
“In speed skating, you begin a non-skater. You are scared of falling, it’s slippery, but within a short period of time, you learn to push, to skate without support and to skate fast,” says Gannett, whose lessons in technique and speed are quickly translating into life lessons.
“Engaging in sport when you’re young is vital,” says Condé-Jahnel, adding sport teaches better focus at school, teamwork, fair play, confidence and above all, gives the kids the knowledge that they are truly good at something.
“I learned how to be a good skater. Every practice I skated 10 laps. My legs ached but I still finished the laps,” says Kowole after the last Speedy Kids session of the season.
“We have a rewards system at YouthNet and for the most recent reward, the kids chose to go skating at the oval,” says Condé-Jahnel, adding many of the kids wished that they had been able to skate in their speed skates.
One boy told a volunteer that he was getting very good at telling time at school. When asked why, he replied because he knew to watch the clock because on Tuesdays he’d be skating at 4 p.m..
Gannett hopes to start an inline program this spring to give the kids the opportunity to work on their technique during the off-season. She hopes some of the children will join Calvin in signing up for races, but is clear that Speedy Kids doesn’t just want to nurture champions.
“We want to nurture all the kids so that they can benefit from the sport. They don’t all have to continue in speed skating, it’s about meeting them where they are and seeing what sport will work for them,” says Gannett. She knows that at this age, the sport is about having fun with their friends.
“Speed skating can’t change the world, but it was a way to take a responsibility for my sport,” says Gannett.
Speed skating may not change the world, but it has certainly changed the lives of kids like Gannon, Kowole and Calvin, who, without the program, may never have had the opportunity to try speed skating.
“That’s what sport is about, it prepares you for many paths in life,” says Condé-Jahnel. The kids who participate in Speedy Kids will always have the memories, life lessons and friendships that grew through speed skating. While each child has his or her favourite experiences from the program, Towole is clear about the best thing she learned this season.
“Speedy Kids taught me to get back up again.”