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Skate Today

Winning Against the Odds, Skate for Hope

I always believed that positivity was a necessity in life. That we don’t always have control over things that happen to us, but that we do have control over how we respond to these life challenges.

On June 20, 2009 I attended the “Skate for Hope” breast cancer benefit. It wasn’t until I reflected back on the experience that I realized how privileged I was to witness these principles in action.

My first encounter was an introduction with Skate for Hope’s founder Carolyn Bongirno. Bongirno is a stage three breast cancer survivor who overcame adversity by using her passion for figure skating to cope with the realities of ten grueling months of cancer treatment. When she was diagnosed, she was given a survival rate of 40%.

“When I was going through treatment, I was really touched by all the little skaters at the RDV Sportsplex, I had directed in Orlando, Florida,” Bongirno told Skate Today about her motivation for the show. “They would talk to me about people in their life that had been touched by cancer. They seemed so fearful. I knew then I wanted to do something. I wanted to help kids cope and empower them to take control in the tiniest way, and to enable them to do something if a diagnosis of cancer hit their family.”

Bongirno started skating at the age of 11 and competed on the juvenile level until she was 17. She returned to the ice at age 28 and began competing again at the adult gold level. She competed until she was thirty-three — when breast cancer side-lined her for ten months while she underwent surgery and chemotherapy.

When she was diagnosed Carolyn decided she would not be victimized by this disease — which affects one in eight women in America. Determined to prevail she turned her darkest moments into triumph.

“I was so sick that I could not work,” she recalled. “During that time I would frequently have conversations with myself about what my dream job would be? About halfway through my treatment I realized what I wanted to do was run an ice show. It was that desire and the purpose behind it — to help young kids – that brought the idea together in my head.”

“It was literally an idea in my head for four years, but I did not have the courage to take the first step,” Bongirno confessed. “It was my dearest friend Jenny Needham, who gave me incredible support and acted as my cheerleader. She encouraged me and believed in me so much I had to do it.”

Once Bongirno made the decision, she knew she had many challenges in front of her.

“I had to start a 501c3 (an application to start a charity) and I didn’t have money to hire an accountant or for an attorney. Nevertheless, I finally got up the courage to do it, and I was determined. I just downloaded the form off the internet.”

“At that time, the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) would let you call in and ask two questions a day. So I called them every day for four months and filled out the form myself,” she said chuckling.

Bongirno wanted to get the youngsters involved, so she decided to have young skaters raise sponsorships in order to participate in the event.

“Once I got it straight in my head of what I needed to do, I went and talked to Wendy Herb — the General Manager of The Chiller Ice Rinks here in Columbus. I told her I wanted to put on an ice show to raise money for breast cancer research. I laid out the specifics of what I needed from the rink. Wendy just sat there calmly and said yes to giving SFH (Skate for Hope) a free building from 2004-2006. It just blew me away,” the forty-three-year-old charismatic brunette said with amazement.

The show began on the practice sheet of ice at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, in 2004. It was later moved to the main arena after a new general manager asked Bongirno to come see him a week after the third show.

“At first I thought there must have been some problem with the show. I had all these scenarios running through my head.”

However, when Bongirno went to see him, the general manager said with a smile: “Your audience was over capacity for the local fire regulations, and I want to help. I want to invite SFH to move into the main arena for the next show.”

“I was so excited I just screamed!” she reported. “I just knew God had smiled on me along the way. What people do for me and how much they do for me — is just incredible. Sometimes I just have to stop and think I am one lucky woman to have so much support from the community.”

Bongirno credits the success of the show to the fact that once people have come to the show, experienced the show, worked for the show they become endeared to the process.

“I think maybe because it was started by a cancer survivor. I think they realize the show was started out of sincerity.”

This year Skate for Hope celebrated its sixth anniversary and to date the annual event has raised over $225,000 dollars to help fight the disease and give hope of one day finding a cure. The amount raised during this year’s show won’t be known for about another two weeks.

“The economy really hit the show this year. We lost over $30,000.00 in corporate donations,” she added about the effect of the current recession.

On the weekend of the show Skate for Hope met another obstacle, which posed a different threat to this year’s success. A hail and lightning storm hit Chicago’s O’Hare International airport stranding most of the special guests of the show.

Olympian Emily Hughes who appeared in the show for the fifth time was trapped in Chicago along with her mother Amy – an eleven year survivor of breast cancer.

2008 and 2009 National silver medalist and World Team Member Rachael Flatt and her family along with the family of two-time U.S. Pair Champion Rockne Brubaker (with Keauna McLaughlin) were also among thousands of passengers stranded in one of the busiest airports in the World.

“It was a most grueling night. It was such a hard trip to get here,” Amy Hughes stated of their trials to make the event. “If Emily had two hours of sleep, it is two hours more than I think. We just wanted to get here so badly. This show is just that important. I really can’t say it enough.”

“When we could not get a flight out of O’Hare airport, I tried calling all the car rental companies – but they were all sold out,” she added of the ordeal. “We would have taken any car to get here, but unfortunately we had no luck. We ended up having to get a hotel overnight and even that was a story. Finally, we found a flight out of Midway Airport, and we just got in a day late – but Emily’s skates did not make it. We have people out at the airport stalking every flight, but Emily was determined to skate. She would have borrowed skates if she had to,” she continued.

“This show is so important, because let’s face it, breast cancer is a terrible disease and not everyone is winning the battle,” Amy Hughes said emphatically. “And it’s money that has been raised for cancer research that has made great strides in treatment.”

Amy Hughes was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 1998. The prognosis was extremely poor.

“The treatment is so different now,” the New Yorker added. “When I was diagnosed, I not only had high dose chemo, I had a bone marrow stem cell transplant plus six weeks of radiation. They don’t even do the bone marrow transplant anymore. It was so toxic and they found it did not really improve your chances of survival. Today they have better drugs and even anti-nausea drugs that they didn’t have when I was going through it. I was so sick, I couldn’t even work,” she recalled.

“The mammography equipment is so much improved, and they can even test for a gene. Although the gene only accounts for a small percentage of cases –- if you have the gene, you definitely want to know it. All this is possible because of breast cancer research.”

Amy struggled to find out all she could about the disease and possible treatments.

“When I was diagnosed, breast cancer was not something people even talked about,” Hughes stated. “I really needed someone to talk to about it. I was very lucky. My spouse was very supportive and let’s face it, he didn’t marry me for my boobs — and he proved that!” she laughed.

“There was no internet and information was hard to come by. So when Sarah won the Olympics in 2002, and there was all that media hype, I made it my mission that I was going to talk about it. I told myself I would always tell the truth about my health. At that time, I didn’t know anyone who survived stage three breast cancer, and I wanted others to know that you can survive,” she said with conviction.”

Emily seemed just as thrilled to perform at this event. Her skates arrived shortly before rehearsal. She seemed so natural and genuinely happy posing with the local skaters.

“It means so much to be here and to have my mom here,” Emily said smiling. This is my fifth year here and each year the show gets bigger and better, and I realize even more how important this show is. I was only eight turning nine when my mom was diagnosed. It was really hard, but I really don’t think I understood at the time.”

Despite what was going on with Amy’s health the Hughes family tried to keep things as normal as possible – the girls kept skating and the boys played hockey.

“No matter what was going on with my mom, we just tried to be positive,” the 2006 Olympian said of how the family coped.

“I remember going to the hospital to visit my mom and bringing all these comedy movies. It’s easy to get depressed. It’s such a serious subject, and it’s important to remember to be positive and to still laugh.”

Emily who will return to competition later this summer plans to make a second run at the Olympics.

“I really miss competing,” the 20-year-old said with fire in her voice. “It feels so great to be back on the ice training, and I’m really looking forward to competing.”

Hughes who skated two numbers in the show admitted the highlight of the show for her was being able to present the cancer survivor pink flower to her mother.

“I just wanted to cry,” Amy Hughes stated. “Emily has been such a gem. It was a hardship to get here because of the weather. I wanted to cry, but I just couldn’t cry because I am so happy to be here, and I am so happy for everyone. No one should get this disease and everyone should survive it.”

2008 and 2009 American Champions and 2007 Junior World Champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker are all too familiar with the word’s Breast Cancer as Rockne’s grandmother Mary Demeron is a fifteen year survivor of the disease. It was so important for Rockne’s family to be here. When they were unable to secure another flight out of Chicago Rockne’s mom, Monica, called a family friend who took Rockne’s mother, grandmother and sister home. At home for merely minutes they hopped in the car and drove to Columbus, so they did not miss the show.

“It means a lot to be here,” Brubaker stated. “To be here and to be able to skate for my grandmother is just so special. It’s a real special night for everyone to come together for the same cause and to raise money and awareness of the disease is just great. You can tell everyone loves to be here and wants to be here…. it’s just such an incredible atmosphere. There is a lot of extra energy here and that makes this night extra special.”

The show itself went off without a hitch. It blended 98 of Central Ohio’s local skaters with adult skaters and a star-studded field of America’s top Olympic hopefuls. Each local skater in this show had to earn their place in the cast by raising at least $400.00 to help find a cure.

“Skate for Hope teaches young people to honor and do for others. That is the show’s greatest triumph,” Bongirno said.

The skaters dazzled approximately 3400 spectators with their technical and artistic wizardry on ice. All on one ice surface, all with one purpose – to Skate for Hope. Hope that one day the battle with breast cancer would be won and a cure would be found.

McLaughlin and Brubaker skated with passion and presented a sensuous number to the music “Something” by The Beatles. Their program was highlighted by two throw jumps, a forward inside death spiral and a pair combination spin.

“We love this program and since Rockne had his surgery (hernia repair) we haven’t had time to choreograph anything new,” McLaughlin explained.

“The injury is about 90-95 healed now,” Brubaker explained. “We are pretty much doing everything on the ice now, but there is still one or two things we are not training yet. There is still a little soreness. I’ll probably have that for another four to six weeks.”

The duo recently moved from Colorado Springs to California to train with legendary coach John Nicks.

“It is going really well, and we have a lot that we can learn,” Brubaker said of their new training environment. “We are entering a new phase (of our skating) with a lot of new experiences. We really miss Colorado – it’s a great training environment and there are a lot of good coaches there also.”

2008 Junior World Champion Rachael Flatt and 2008 Skate Canada silver medalist Ryan Bradley turned out to be the lucky ones and were able to secure a flight Friday evening to Columbus. Flatt spent seven hours stranded in Chicago. Luckily, she carried her skates with her as her luggage did not reach Columbus until Saturday afternoon.

Flatt captivated the audience on Saturday with two sparkling performances to the music “One Night Only“ from Dream Girls and “Some Day I’ll Fly Away” from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.

“When Carolyn contacted me for this show we gladly said yes,” Flatt said smiling. “We know people with breast cancer, and we are really hoping for a cure.”

“Actually, I’m dedicating my programs to my first coach, and to the mom of my best friend in California. Both are breast cancer survivors and have been such inspirations,” Flatt said.

“When my coach was diagnosed my parents didn’t even want to tell me…. but I found out anyway. I felt really sad and it was really scary,” she recalled. “When breast cancer strikes you don’t know what is going to happen. You just have to hope for the best.”

The 16-year-old American performed remarkably in the off season. She presented a wide-array of triple jumps plus an Ina Bauer that seemed to sail forever.

“I am just so pleased to be here,” the exuberant teen stated. “This is such a great cause and just seeing the joy on people’s faces is just such an experience that you never forget it.”

Fellow Broadmoor based competitor Ryan Bradley surely agreed.

“This show is such a blast and the energy, here is sensational. Getting together and seeing all my friends here is just great,” Bradley said with an impish smile.

And when Ryan Bradley takes to the ice charisma is never in short supply. Admittedly, the 25-year-old soaked up the crowd’s enthusiasm and thrilled them with a medley of Kanye West songs. His high-flying back-flip was a crowd favorite. Screams could be heard everywhere.

“There’s a special place in my heart to find a cure for breast cancer. My maternal grandmother Katherine passed away from breast cancer before I was born. So I saw this as a great opportunity to give back to the cause,” the 2007 American silver medalist stated as to his motivation for participating in the show.”

Skating to “What a Wonderful World” Adult National bronze medalists Ellen Zurfluh and Les Ascher paid tribute to their friend and cancer survivor Carolyn Bongirno.

“It’s a very emotional and heartwarming experience to be here and see all these young skaters do dedications to their moms, their grandmothers, or their other loved one’s. Sometimes it is amazing what these kids have been through themselves,” Zurfluh said.

“We met Carolyn before her cancer, and I talked to her often throughout her illness so when she asked us to be part of the show, we knew just how important the research is. We are very lucky we can skate and feel fortunate we can help,” Ascher added.

2009 National silver medalists and 2008 World Junior Champions Emily Samuelson and Evan Bates took their dance moves to the ice and rocked the house to the disco music of the Bee Gee’s. The duo dedicated their performance to the people in their lives who have been touched by breast cancer.

“This is the first charity show we have ever done and breast cancer is very prominent in both of our lives,” Samuelson shared. “My Grandmother Elizabeth Wooden and my aunt had been touched by breast cancer; as well as my best friend’s mother Janet Cross and our rink manager Diane Wilson. It really has been part of our lives, and we are just so thankful they are all survivors. Skating today is so meaningful to me, and I am just so happy being here and being part of this important event.”

“Skating for a cure or for any research they can do or whatever little part a figure skater can do – that’s what we’re here to do,” Bates added.

2007 American Pair Champions Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski looked exquisite on the ice and skated a heartfelt tribute to breast cancer survivors utilizing a gospel version of the music “Let it Be” by the Beatles.

“We both just feel really lucky to be here and that breast cancer has not been part of our lives.” Castile said. “We just want to dedicate this program to all the breast cancer survivors. This is such a beautiful piece of music. The minute I heard it I fell in love with it. I think it has a wonderful message. Especially for a show like this, I just think it is the perfect choice.”

Novice Champion Kiri Baga highlighted her program to Demi Lovato’s “This is Me” with impressive jumps and spins. Moving up to the junior level this season the 14-year-old appeared to be ready for prime-time.

“I have never known anyone with breast cancer. But, my mom had another type of cancer, so I know how important it is to find a cure,” Baga said. “I think it is exciting to be here and to support such a great cause.”

One of the most poignant numbers in the show, for me, was the performance by Adult National Champion Shannon Keeler. Keeler a breast cancer survivor of approximately six years says she met Bongirno when she did an article on her and breast cancer in 1999. Several years later she said her own heart sank when she realized that she, in fact, had breast cancer.

“I found a lump when I was shaving in the shower. The minute I found it, I knew exactly what it was,” Keeler stated. “At first I wondered if I would make it through the next Christmas, but once I made up my mind on the treatment, I just went through it and tried to keep my life as normal as possible.”

Skating with her daughter Mallory to “In my Daughter’s Eyes” the performance was extremely inspiring.

“I want to dedicate this to my daughter and all the daughters of this generation with the hopes that they don’t have to go through what I did,” explained Keeler about the meaning of the program.

Skate for Hope began as a dream in Bongirno’s heart to help her overcome and heal her soul from her own experience with cancer. She reports it has been the best medicine of her life.

“What continues to inspire me to run Skate for Hope is the lesson it has taught me. No matter what challenge or hardship we face in our lives, good can grow from it. This is a life lesson I want to teach my daughter Natalie,” Bongirno said in her closing remarks of the program.

“Always let life, even the difficult times, inspire you and shape your character,” she continued. “Never cower from adversity. Rise up in every way and walk through it. This is my message for all of the daughters here tonight. That and always get an annual mammogram!”

For more information or to make a donation please contact — WWW.SKATEFORHOPE.ORG

Photos courtesy of Leah Adams and Liz Chastney

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