A Simple Gesture By An Olympic Medal Hopeful Inspires A Young Skater At Florida Hospital Center Ice
Serena Kemble had only been figure skating a few months when she first saw Olympic medal hopeful Vanessa James at a 2016 competition at the Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex in Bradenton.
The then-five-year-old was transfixed by Vanessa’s beauty and grace, the way she glided across the ice and so elegantly twisted and turned as she leapt through the air.
And by her skin color.
“It was the first time Serena saw anyone in person skating that was her own skin color,” said Deserree Kemble, Serena’s white, adoptive mother.
“She was bouncing in her seat, as happy as she could be.”
During the Winter Olympics, which begin today in PyeongChang, South Korea, Serena is likely to once again be happily bouncing in her seat, as she hopes to see Vanessa and her partner, Morgan Cipres, who have been training at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel since May, represent France as they compete for a medal in the pairs figure skating competition. The duo recently finished fourth at the European World Championships.
As she cheers on her skating idol, Serena just may be clutching a pair of new brown tights in her hands, given to her by Vanessa, a significant gesture that has left a significant impact.
Deserree and Serena, who is 7 years old and has been skating for two years, grew dismayed by a lack of equipment for skaters of color, especially tights, which are primarily supposed to match the skater’s skin tone, while adding protection in case of falls.
“We bought her tights, but I recall they never did look right,” Deserree says. “Tights are supposed to resemble the skater’s skin tone and hers stood out. They were obviously not close to her skin tone.”
Deserree tried dyeing the tights they had, but nothing seemed to work. One competition, Serena skated without them, but fell and suffered ice burns on her legs. They managed to locate a used pair from Nyman, and by mending holes and double-layering the tights, made them last.
Deserree connected with Vanessa, whom they had met at a skating event in Ellenton, on Facebook and shared some of the difficulties she and Serena encountered being a skater of color. Having endured her own obstacles, Serena’s story touched Vanessa.
The next time she saw Serena, she vowed she would be ready. Her coach, John Zimmerman IV (a 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame inductee), and FHCI Ice Skating Director Shari Klutz, helped orchestrate a future meeting.
On Jan. 24, Deserree was on Facebook when she noticed a post announcing the final practice for Vanessa and Cipres before they headed off to the Olympics, with an autograph session to follow.
She rearranged her schedule so she and Serena could drive across the state to see Vanessa up close, although she kept it a secret. Traffic, though, caused them to miss the morning session. So, Serena free skated while they waited for the night practice session.
After a few hours, as Deserree and Serena stood at the Guest Services desk at FHCI, Vanessa came in the door and also walked up to the service desk.
“Serena was just in shock,” Deserree says of the unplanned meeting. Serena stared at Vanessa. She had no words.
A star-struck Serena mumbled, “She’s so pretty.”
Vanessa looked down and realized it was Serena, the little girl from Facebook who couldn’t find a pair of tights in her skin tone.
“Let’s meet after the night practice session,” Vanessa told her.
Serena got a front-row seat for Vanessa and Cipres’ practice session, where the figure skaters performed their long program, or free skate, to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” She excitedly provided the play-by-play for her mother.
“Serena told me every move they did that she knew the name of, and when she didn’t, she just sang their song,” Deserree says. “When it was over, Serena looked over at me and said, ‘This was the best day ever.’”
Little did Serena know that the best day ever was going to get even better.
After the training session, Vanessa signed autographs, including a copy of SKATING, the U.S. Figure Skating magazine, January issue. In the Kid Zone section of the magazine, Serena is featured, and named Vanessa as one of her skating role models.
Vanessa sped home to nearby Seven Oaks, where she has lived while training at FHCI. With music playing in her head, a beaming Serena waited in the lobby, practicing axel after axel, nearly 75 in all.
Deserree stood nearby, smiling.
Vanessa returned with gifts — tights for Serena.
The first two pairs were tights in Serena’s size, and skin tone, that Vanessa’s mother shipped her from France.
The third pair actually belonged to Vanessa. “One day,” she told Serena, “you will grow into these.”
“Serena was over the moon excited,” says Deserree. “When we were in the car driving home, Serena said she would never wash the tights Vanessa gave her, and would never wash the hand that she shook.”
Deserree chuckled. “I told her she might want to think about that, but left it there for the time being.”
Serena may have had trouble finding tights to match her skin tone, but she definitely didn’t have any trouble finding a role model who does.
The Kembles, Deserree and Lance, adopted Serena and her 6-year-old biological cousin, Elijah, at birth, rescuing the children from their rough background, through a program with the Kembles’ church.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Deserree said.
The Kembles hardly imagined that their daughter would discover figure skating, of all things, but a 2016 family trip would change Serena’s world forever.
At a ski resort in Gatlinburg, TN, Serena saw ice, and people skating on it, for the first time. She was mesmerized as the skaters whizzed by her, and begged her parents to let her try it.
A few moments later, Serena had laced up a pair of cheap, worn rental ice skates and was gliding around the ice with surprising aplomb, charming the other skaters, many of whom couldn’t help but notice.
“How long has she been skating?,” someone asked Deserree.
“Oh, about two minutes,” she replied.
When it was time to leave, Serena begged to stay. She has been skating ever since, inspired by Vanessa on that night in Bradenton, just a few months after she began. Her mother says Serena has already been in about a dozen competitions, earning nine gold medals, one silver and one bronze. She also skates with a performance team called Theatre On Ice, and is the youngest member of the team coached by Katie Nyman, who also coaches at one of Serena’s home rinks, the Space Coast IcePlex in Rockledge (near Cocoa Beach), which is known for its strong figure skating program.
Serena is heading into competition season now, and will have her first competition in a more competitive classification this March, in Coral Springs. The Florida State Games are coming to FHCI in Wesley Chapel this summer, and Serena plans to compete there.
She will be wearing her new tights.
The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 9 in PyeongChang Olympic Stadium and continue through Sunday, Feb. 25. Vanessa and Morgan will skate Feb. 13-14.