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Mattis recounts inspiring time at 'Skate for Hope'

Choreographer surrounded by stars of U.S., Canadian skating at June 16 benefit show

Left to right: Adam Rippon, Doug Mattis, Paul Poirier and Jeremy Abbott strike intimidating poses backstage at <i>Skate for Hope</i>.
Left to right: Adam Rippon, Doug Mattis, Paul Poirier and Jeremy Abbott strike intimidating poses backstage at Skate for Hope. (courtesy of Doug Mattis)

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By Doug Mattis, special to icenetwork.com
(06/19/2012) - Hi! I'm Doug Mattis.

Some skating fans know me as a choreography coach and co-producer of "Young Artists Showcase" (with creator Audrey Weisiger). I was delighted to have been asked to go to Columbus, Ohio, and help promote Skate For Hope (SFH) through social media and conduct on-camera interviews with the cast.

I can't wait for you all to see the broadcast of this year's SFH on icenetwork.com--you're going to love it! The show raised money for the Stefanie Spielman Fund at the Ohio State University James Cancer Center and the Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer.

But in the meantime, I thought I'd tell you a little more about how fun SFH's creator, Carolyn Bongirno, makes the weekend.

I arrived in Columbus on Friday (June 15) afternoon, jumped into a taxi, dropped my stuff at the Lofts Hotel (umm ... loft apartment-style hotel rooms? Awesome!) and ran over to Nationwide Arena to watch a rehearsal. The talented cast included Alexe Gilles, Rachael Flatt, Adam Rippon, Emily Samuelson and Todd Gilles, Caitlin Yankowskas and Joshua Reagan, Emily Hughes, Lee Harris, Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, Ashley Wagner and Jeremy Abbott. (**Exhale!**) Basically, this is a championship collection of twizzles, triples and twists, people. Mad skills in this show!

I sat in the stands with the Gilles family. I told mom and dad Gilles that how they manage to keep up with their plethora of skaters reminded me of "plate-spinning." (That reference will totally make sense to folks my age [46] and older. Google it!) I really don't know how they do it.

Meanwhile, choreographers Kristen Izzie and Kate McSwain were working with cast members on different parts of the show. One of the many cool parts of SFH is that young skaters skate with the stars (what a thrill, right?), and in a few numbers, the stars work as an ensemble. For example, wait until you see Caitlin, Josh, Piper and Paul in Kate's "Sway" routine. It's quite a steamy little Latin ballroom-esque number, and let me tell you: Caitlin and Piper can move like mercury on a hot griddle.

After rehearsal, we all went back to change for dinner, hosted by Carolyn at the Founder's Club, a gorgeous glass-enclosed set of glossy rooms in the Nationwide Arena. I got myself a glass of wine and immediately started laughing with Paul ... and Todd ... and Adam ... and Jeremy--as well as the ladies. (Ashley is particularly funny.)

I was speaking with each of them--getting ideas for what we might talk about during my little sit-down chats on-camera the next day--and there was tons of laughter. It made me think back to my era--Debi Thomas, Chris Bowman, Jill Trenary, Paul Wylie, Susie Wynne, Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo, Todd Sand (I could go on and on)--when we all got along famously, too. But today's group is a little different. They're closer, I think. Perhaps because of technology (social media, phones, etc.), they're better friends--with tons of inside jokes and lots of support for each other in times of need. In my competitive days, we were a family, no doubt. But these skaters, including the SFH cast, are closer. It's really nice to see that.

Throughout the evening, the cast and the rest of us exchanged stories about how cancer has touched our lives. Even the few people who haven't been directly affected by cancer have best friends who have been. Carolyn is right when she says that the horrible disease has or will touch everyone in some way. She and a couple guests spoke about their personal experiences with cancer--as survivors, as clinicians--all to help the cast see that giving of their time matters.

The next day consisted of hours of show rehearsal--including opening and closing numbers--and some tech rehearsals. During this time, the arena filled up with the 100 or so kids and skaters who raised money for cancer research so they could be a part of the show. Their excitement backstage was palpable. In keeping with their good nature and ever-present humor, the cast enjoyed the meet-and-greet every bit as much as the kids did.

Around that time, my camera crew arrived. I donned my Guys and Dolls jacket (you'll see what I mean ... LOL), a pink tie and a pink ribbon, and started getting footage of the meet-and-greet. For the next couple hours, everyone in the building (including the cast) was kind enough to honor my every goofy request as I filmed all kinds of snippets, took photos, tweeted, etc.

As the skaters once again took to the ice for more rehearsals, I grabbed them one at a time to film our sit-down chats. All of them were forthcoming about not only their skating but also why SFH is important to them and their experiences with being touched by loved ones with cancer.

The show started, and it was cool to see the cast backstage watching a monitor, enjoying each other's performances.

At one point, Lee skated a number as a surprise dedication to his mom, seated in the front row. His mom has been battling cancer, and she recently--proudly--shaved her head during treatments. Lee's number began with the JumboTron showing family photos of him and his mom. Then he skated, to be joined for a lovely pairs skating section by Caitlin. I was watching the monitor with the rest of the cast backstage. It was powerful, the cast and I close to tears during Lee's tribute.

(I was fortunate enough to meet Lee's mom after the show. Like a lot of skating moms, she was bananas funny, smart, loving and so incredibly positive in the face of the fight for her health. An amazing woman.)

After the finale, I watched the cast stay on the ice in the arena and interact with the crowd: signing autographs, posing for photographs, meeting fans. I kept thinking, "Wow, this is a GREAT group of young people."

After the show, Carolyn once again hosted the cast, family and SFH volunteer staff members for a meal at a local restaurant, Max & Erma's. All too quickly, it was time for me to leave the party and return to my MBA school work!

I was honored to have been a part of this year's Skate For Hope--and I hope this peek into what the weekend was like gets you excited to watch the broadcast on icenetwork.com very soon!