The first thing the new skaters learn before they step onto the ice is how to fall. Balancing on the carpet, coaches model how to safely land during a fall and how to stand back up in the rink. Their audience of wide-eyed children mimic the wiggle from backside to all fours —“like a puppy,” one coach encourages —and then back to an upright position. Then, one by one, they are helped onto the ice and followed closely by a fleet of coaches from Learn to Skate USA, which partnered with U.S. Figure Skating this month to execute SkateFest at the Air Force Academy Cadet Ice Arena.

“Eighty-five percent (of attendees) are brand-new skaters,” said Susi Wehrli McLaughlin, senior director of membership for U.S. Figure Skating, “and we hope they’ll have a great time and continue skating.”

That’s the goal of SkateFest: personal coaching for skaters of all skill levels and abilities, and the availability of specialized equipment so that skaters with disabilities also have access to the ice. The April 6 SkateFest was the second of five adaptive skating sessions planned nationwide, all funded by a $52,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and meant to benefit veterans, active duty military and their families, and people with disabilities.

There were more than 80 people at the recent SkateFest, considerably more than the 50 or so skaters who participated in the first SkateFest in Arlington, Va. The uptick in attendance is encouraging to the event’s organizers and coaches, some of whom are retired military themselves.

“We felt like more people need to learn to skate,” said Erika Lehman, manager of marketing at U.S. Figure Skating. “Not many things are that freeing, or can give you that feeling of flying and floating.”

Lehman and her colleagues wanted to provide a safe, controlled environment for new skaters to experiment and learn. In fact, Lehman and her team underwent specific training to hone their skills as coaches and instructors, to help ensure a positive experience for their participants.

“It’s healing and therapeutic,” said Lehman, and while there are lots of specialized skating opportunities out there, “there’s not much adaptive skating. We have a whole curriculum for therapeutic and Special Olympics skating, and more than ,1000 programs across the U.S.”

The grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs allows every location that hosts a SkateFest to keep a set of adaptive skating equipment, which means the Air Force Academy Cadet Ice Arena now possesses a set of specialized tools meant to provide access to the sport for people with disabilities.

For those who didn’t have a chance to attend SkateFest, Lehman said there’s no need to worry.

“We host a free SkateFest around the holidays, downtown at Acacia Park,” she said, “where people can get a free lesson, a photo, and group skate time.

“Skating is a challenge, but people are always smiling when they do it.”

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