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Figure skating program gives Special Olympians a place to belong

Melea Riley, 12, confidently steps out on the ice and practices her waltz jump, half lutz and half loop. Then, with determination on her petite face, she attempts her latest stunt, the salchow. After wobbly success, Melea looks up at her mom, Shana Riley, for applause.

Bystanders would never guess that Melea is a Special Olympics athlete, but only two years ago, they would have questioned putting skates on her feet.

“She had no balance and very little muscle tone,” says Shana, who explains that Melea has tuberous sclerosis, which affects her physical and mental development. Two years ago, Melea was physically weak and extremely shy. Today, Melea looks like a ballerina, strong and graceful, and she has many friends.

Melea is just one of 25 Special Olympics athletes benefiting from the University of Denver’s figure skating program. The University donates skating lessons and weekly ice time in the Joy Burns Arena to Special Olympics athletes. If the athletes don’t have skates, the University even donates skate rentals.

Shana says ice skating at DU has changed her family’s outlook on life.

“When I think about where we were two years ago as opposed to where we are now…” she says with tears in her eyes. “We feel like normal parents, like a typical family. It can be very isolating to have a special-needs child. DU has been incredible. Not only do the Special Olympics kids participate, but they are welcomed. Other DU athletes stop and say, ‘Hi.’ Our family belongs here.”

According to Susan Williams, director of DU’s Learn to Skate program, the University has been donating ice time and lessons to Special Olympians for a decade. “This is an important way that we reach out to the community,” she says. “The University should be very proud.”

Karen Schleu, BA education ’73, has been coaching the figure skating team for more than 15 years. She proudly notes that her team is the largest Special Olympics figure skating team in the West. “When we go to competition, we win everything,” she says, and then laughs. “There are probably only five other skaters in the state, so it’s not hard to win when you overwhelm the ice.”

Schleu has long been a skating coach, but her affiliation with Special Olympics began when her daughter, Mallory, who is a special-needs child, began skating. Now 18, Mallory is one of Melea’s best friends. You can see Mallory shadowing Melea along the ice as Melea practices her routine. The girls lean their heads together as they skate, gaining confidence from one another.

“The biggest value of this program is social, not physical,” Schleu says. “Most of the athletes didn’t have a lot of friendships before they met here. Now, they have tons of friends. They have sleepovers!”

Schleu takes the team to Special Olympics meets all over the state, culminating in an all-state meet in Copper Mountain every February.

“We all stay together for three days,” Schleu explains. “When we first considered doing this, Susan and I looked at each other and said, ‘Are we nuts?’ Now, here we are 10 years later.”

The Special Olympics athletes also participate in DU’s annual ice show each May. This year, they’ll share the ice with world champion figure skater Todd Eldredge.

Shana says Melea is very excited for the state meet and the ice show, where she will dress up like Annie and perform to the song “Tomorrow.”

“Just look at her!” Shana exclaims, watching Melea on the ice. “She’s a phenomenal little skater. This has given all of us so much.”


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