‘A Magical Sport:’ Skating Community Rallies to Bring a Smile to Critically Ill Children

By Amy Rosewater

Tara Sankner, wearing a Casey Cares T-shirt, hits the ice with Alexandra Williams, right, and Audrey Weisiger, coaches at the Fairfax Ice Arena. Sanker has been diagnosed with an astrocytoma, a type of brain tumor. She turned 13 on Feb. 17.

Tara Sankner, wearing a Casey Cares T-shirt, hits the ice with Alexandra Williams, right, and Audrey Weisiger, coaches at the Fairfax Ice Arena. Sanker has been diagnosed with an astrocytoma, a type of brain tumor. She turned 13 on Feb. 17.

On a typical day at the rink, Audrey Weisiger concerns herself with the takeoff of a skater’s Lutz or Axel. As a skating coach who guided Michael Weiss to two Olympic Games and mentors skaters around the country, Weisiger certainly sweats the details.

But on this particular day, Weisiger is not too worried about medals or upcoming competitions.

She just wants these particular skaters to enjoy their time on the ice and escape the everyday routine of doctors’ visits and hospital stays.

Weisiger and her team of coaches and skaters at the Fairfax Ice Arena in Fairfax, Virginia, have donated their time to take families with critically ill children onto the ice for group skating parties for the last three years. The rink has generously provided the ice skate rentals and admission to public skating sessions, and Weisiger and her team provide individualized skating lessons and guidance.

“This is my profession, coaching skating, but [it’s nice] to be able to do it in a way that’s not about winning and medals,” Weisiger told the Fairfax (Virginia) County Times. “It’s about helping people feel better about themselves, so it was a real opportunity for me to take my sport and help other people through my sport.”

I should mention here that I have worked with Weisiger for years as a sports reporter and have written about her and her skaters at times for SKATING magazine. I now work for an organization called the Casey Cares Foundation, which provides ongoing opportunities for families with critically ill children. When I started working there nearly three years ago, I called upon Weisiger because I wanted to connect my passion for skating with helping others.

What I envisioned initially was a way to help families with kids battling cancer, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell and many other debilitating illnesses. That goal was met immediately.  What also happened, however, was that these opportunities made a lasting impact on the skaters and coaches. It took their minds off the grueling rigors of training while giving them a chance to give back to the community. For a couple of hours, the skaters and coaches were not so worried about triple jumps or twizzles, and the kids and families were not thinking about chemo.

Two-time Olympian Michael Weiss gives Anastasia Christy, whose brother, Quentin, is critically ill, some skating tips and pointers at the Pandora Ice Rink in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Two-time Olympian Michael Weiss gives Anastasia Christy, whose brother, Quentin, is critically ill, some skating tips and pointers at the Pandora Ice Rink in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Among the skaters who volunteered his time with the families was Antonio Maravilla, an intermediate skater whose father is battling cancer.

Weisiger has given back plenty over the years through skating, helping efforts at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Washington, D.C., and last year, along with 2011 U.S. champion Ryan Bradley, Weisiger helped organize a benefit show for Olympic pairs skater Jeremy Barrett whose wife, Lucy, was diagnosed with leukemia.

Weisiger is not the only one from the skating community who has partnered with Casey Cares. Weiss invited one Casey Cares child and her family to his annual Michael Weiss Foundation skating show a few years ago, and he recently performed at the PANDORA Ice Rink in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where Casey Cares families skated along with him. He even performed his signature back flip for the families, which, of course, was a huge hit.

“I feel like a gesture to show your support can maybe inspire a little,” said Weiss, a three-time U.S. champion who was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame this year.

The University of Delaware, thanks to coach Jeff DiGregorio and assistant athletic director James Kaden, invited several families to the rink’s annual send-off show for the U.S. Championships.

One young girl named Anastasia found her passion for skating several years ago after attending a skating party with Casey Cares. Anastasia had never skated before and fell in love with the sport with her first step on the ice. Her mom bought her skates and today, she skates at Ice World in Abingdon, Maryland, (where World champion Kimmie Meissner got her start) and competes in free skate 4 and with the Chesapeake Synchro Level 2 team.

Anastasia is not battling an illness but at Casey Cares, siblings of sick children are invited to events as well because often they get left out of the equation when parents have to focus on an ill child. Her brother, Quentin, is ventilator dependent and suffers frequent seizures. When this opportunity came up, their mom, Verangela, juggled her schedule (she now works at Ice World) to make things happen for Anastasia.

After the show in Delaware, Anastasia and the other families enjoyed meet-and-greet opportunities with longtime international ice dance competitors Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus, senior men’s competitor Emmanuel Savary and U.S. novice men’s competitor Jordan Evans.

“There are many times when you’re an athlete training and your mind gets so lost in training and perfection,” said McManus, who now coaches at Delaware with Cannuscio. “As athletes, you sometimes lose sight of the joy of skating and what it can do for people. Skating is a magical sport. For as much as Stasia and I focused on getting our technical scores as high as we could, we always focused on the way we connected with the audience on the ice. Skating is so personal to people, and I am always excited when I can be involved in these kinds of projects and give back through skating.”

Former Team USA ice dancers Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus hang out with Madeline Peris (right) and her sister, Violet, from the Casey Cares Foundation. Madeline suffers from cystic fibrosis.

Former Team USA ice dancers Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus hang out with Madeline Peris (right) and her sister, Violet, from the Casey Cares Foundation. Madeline suffers from cystic fibrosis.

Read more about the Casey Cares Foundation in the March issue of SKATING magazine and CaseyCares.org.