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Hughes blog: Fencing for London, Stamford ice

Olympic gold medalist shares insights on three-day adventure, Chelsea Piers expansion

Sarah Hughes (right) grins with sister Emily and Olympic speed skating champ Joey Cheek at the Chelsea Piers rink in Stamford, Conn.
Sarah Hughes (right) grins with sister Emily and Olympic speed skating champ Joey Cheek at the Chelsea Piers rink in Stamford, Conn. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(07/03/2012) - With the Summer Olympics only three weeks away, enthusiasm for the Games is proving to be contagious in New York City -- and neighboring Stamford, Conn.

Tuesday, June 26: Fencing Masters

Kickoff to London

On June 26, Olympic silver medalist and founder of "Fencing Masters" Tim Morehouse put together a stunning, spectacular display of foil, epée and sabre matches featuring the world's best fencers in a "USA vs. the World" format.

"Fencing Masters is currently the largest spectator fencing tournament in the country," Morehouse said.

Close to 1,800 attendees filled the Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan during its 2010 inaugural event, and the foundation was able to provide $25,000 worth of grants for Olympic hopefuls.

This year's follow-up, held at the Hammerstein Ballroom again, proved to be just as -- if not more -- popular. The U.S. Olympic fencing team jogged onto the stage as inspirational Olympic-themed music played. Following a demonstration of the rules, the matches began on a stage designed by a Broadway set designer. Large screens flanked the stage and showed instant replays, something everyone seemed to enjoy in close calls.

After mingling with a few Olympic fencers, including double gold medalist Mariel Zagunis -- who will compete for another gold in London -- I watched the matches alongside Olympic fencers, speed skaters (hello, Joey Cheek), my sister Emily and Ice Theatre of New York's founder Moira North.

"This year, we will again give close to $25,000 worth of grants to Olympic fencing athletes. In addition, proceeds [from the event] will also go to support a new initiative that I have launched called Fencing-in-the-Schools," Morehouse wrote in a welcome letter.

"My goal with this new foundation is to make fencing a regular part of physical education in our country, and we will do so by training PE teachers to teach fencing."

Morehouse will be making his third appearance in the Olympics in London, as he vies for another medal.

For someone who has never seen fencing live before, it was a great introduction to the sport by the team I will be cheering for in the coming weeks as they travel across the Pond to represent our country. The entertainment, food, refreshments, company and atmosphere served as the perfect accompaniment to a sport whose modern era commenced in the 1700s.

Wednesday, June 27: Olympic Day

This year's Olympic Day was the largest ever -- almost doubling the number of events last year -- with more than 700 official Olympic Day celebrations held all over the country. The events are centered around what it means to be an Olympian and to promote the values the Games strive to achieve: fair play, perseverance, respect and sportsmanship. Created by the International Olympic Committee in 1948 to mark the birth of the modern Olympic Games -- and to celebrate the Olympic ideals and spirit with kids around the world -- the events bring Olympic athletes to the doorstep of their local communities throughout each country.

They also help get kids excited about living a healthy life, making good choices and helping others. The events do this by fostering an understanding of the rewards of discipline and dedication, providing an opportunity for kids to participate in sporting activities together and giving them a chance to ask their Olympian any questions they might have.

Olympic Day was June 23, launching a week of events held between June 22 and July 1.

When I was first asked to take part in Olympic Day, I looked at the list of events being held. None of them -- not one of the 700 -- included figure skating. Knowing that Chelsea Piers, located right in Manhattan, has a busy, bustling summer sports camp comprised of energized and passionate kids eager to get on the ice and skate, I suggested hosting one there.

Wade Corbett, director of the skating school at Sky Rink (located in the Chelsea Piers Sports Complex), worked with the U.S. Olympic Committee to help make Sky Rink's first Olympic Day a success. The skating camp is run more like a sports camp than a typical skating camp, with the kids enrolled taking full advantage of all that Chelsea Piers has to offer: gymnastics, bowling, rock climbing, soccer, volleyball and basketball, among other activities.

Skating is the main sports component of the their camp experience. As such, every other Friday the kids put on a performance for their parents and friends. When I went to visit on Wednesday, all age groups were rehearsing for their first performance of the summer, to be held two days later.

I first visited with the "Champs Camp," the highest level of campers, and visited the tots next. The tots are between 3 and 5 years olds -- so small, it's hard to believe they're already on the ice! After the tots, I visited all the levels in between.

During each visit, I spoke about how I got involved in skating and what I liked best about it. Corbett and I did a Q&A with each group, with Wade asking questions about the importance of good sportsmanship, fair play and perseverance -- and its role in my skating journey -- such as "What was it like to represent the United States in the Olympics and wear a Team USA jacket?" and "What did it take to become an elite athlete?"

After I answered whatever questions Wade thought the kids would be most interested in, we spoke about some of our favorite Olympic sports or moments.

I then skated with them and demonstrated a skill. The skills elicited the biggest response from the kids -- seeing a fast spin right in front of them is different than watching it on the computer. A lot of the kids had prepared for Olympic Day, telling me they'd watched a YouTube video or shared a fact they knew about the Olympics.

"Do you know what she won?" an instructor asked one of the tots.

"A gold medal ... and I have it!" the kid responded.

And he did -- he was wearing a gold medal around his neck.

He proudly held his medal up to show all his friends in the group. The moment could not have been more illustrative of what Olympic Day is about.

I would be remiss not to give a shout-out to last year's "Olympic Day Event in Foreign Country" that looks like it was awesome:

Location: Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany

Activity: Held at a local soccer field, the kids received a participant card the morning of the event and each was tasked to complete eight sport stations in order to win a medal. The day also included face painting, a balloon toss and a BBQ lunch.

How much fun does that sound like?

Thursday, June 28: Chelsea Piers Stamford

After skating at the construction groundbreaking for the Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers in 1994, the ribbon-cutting event at Chelsea Piers Connecticut (CPCT) was a much more impressive site. The Sky Rink groundbreaking featured a small sheet of plastic ice set up between pillars of concrete. CPCT's ribbon-cutting event, on the other hand, featured a magnificent finished product. Modeled on the supremely successful New York City Sports Complex, Chelsea Piers Connecticut is a 400,000-square-foot, multi-sport, multi-level recreation facility in Stamford, Conn.

The $50-million project includes two ice rinks, an aquatics center, a gymnastics training center, a baseball/softball training center, a field house, squash courts, a rock climbing wall, a fitness center and tennis courts. Most were lively with activity on Thursday, even though the official opening is July 9. The Skyliners synchronized team held court in one rink while a youth hockey team practiced in the other.

Dannel P. Malloy, governor of Connecticut, and Michael A. Pavia, mayor of Stamford, spoke with great pride about the completion of this new state-of-the-art athletic facility situated in their district.

"Stamford," Pavia said, "Is the place to be."

Roland W. Betts, Tom A. Bernstein and David A. Tewksbury -- the CPCT principals -- have put together an impressive coaching staff in each division of the facility. For example, Olympic champion and International Tennis Hall of Fame member Gigi Fernandez will direct the tennis program.

The enthusiasm for CPCT is contagious.

"It's just been a lovefest from the first announcement," Mr. Betts said. "Hopefully, we'll have enough parking."

After touring the new facility, he just might need to start making plans to construct an additional parking lot soon.