Craig Licorish Jr., a 16-year-old speed skater from Chesterfield County, will compete in 500- and 777-meter events at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. He's shown here in the 2016 Speed Skating Championships in Richmond. (Photo by Rich Terrell, courtesy of Special Olympics Virginia)
Two local speed skaters will compete this month at the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria, where the Richmond region will also be represented by the School of Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC) directing a Live Art performance at the opening ceremony and by Mechanicsville native Jason Mraz. The games take place today through March 25 in the cities of Graz, Ramsau Styria and Schladming-Rohrmoos.
Christina Dryer, 27, of Chester and 16-year-old Craig Licorish Jr. of Chesterfield County will join 2,700 other athletes to compete in the games. Dryer and Licorish both began skating through an after-school program that was started by one of their coaches, Marjorie Loya. She was a special needs teacher when she began volunteering with Special Olympics. She is now the local Special Olympics Virginia coordinator for Chesterfield schools.
“This is the third time we’ve had skaters from our area going to the games,” Loya says. “We have the biggest team in the state, and the reason for that is the school involvement. We have entire classes coming to skate who start off young and grow into strong competitors.”
Fred Dryer, Christina’s father, said that she first touched her skates to the ice when their family moved to Virginia from upstate Washington about 10 years ago.
“Every year when we get ready to kick off her first practice, I bring her to the rink and there is a big old smile,” Fred says. “I put her skates on and when she gets out there on she just glides across. She could do it forever.”
Loya confirmed this sentiment, explaining that Christina is not actually competitive by nature — she simply enjoys skating and has grown her skill set over the years.
“When we told her she made the competition, she just smiled because she knew she was going to get more skating in,” Fred said.
Christina Dryer, 27, of Chester, will compete in the 222- and 333-meter events at the World Games. (Photo by Rich Terrell, courtesy of Special Olympics Virginia)
Licorish is not only a successful speed skater, but one of the fastest sprinters in Special Olympics Virginia, shining in the 100-meter dash as well.
“Craig began skating in middle school,” Loya says. “He has become so much faster as he’s getting older, and bigger and stronger. We actually only have one or two other athletes that can stay close to him anymore.”
While Licorish has developed as an athlete, Loya says that his most notable transformation has been in the confidence he has found through being part of the Special Olympics program.
When Loya first met him, he was quiet and shied away from big crowds. Special Olympics holds events such as dances for the participants, and Loya says that the first time he went to one, he did not want to dance. The last few times, however, he has been one of the best dancers. He also has become a good speaker.
“I have watched both Craig and Christina become much more independent and self-assured, and I know Special Olympics has a lot to do that,” Loya says.
In order to be eligible to be a part of Team USA, contestants have to receive a gold medal in their event at a state-level competition. Come the days of competition, Christina will be competing in the 222- and 333-meter events, where Craig will be in the 500- and 777-meter events.
SPARC’s Live Art
Since its inception in 1981, SPARC has been a leading organization in the community for offering classes for children in the performing arts. Director Erin Thomas-Foley says that the organization’s Live Art program, which is being featured in the opening ceremony, has emerged in the last five years.
“Live Art is SPARC’s inclusive program for both students with and without disabilities who work together for a year using performing arts to share messages of acceptance, compassion and empathy,” Thomas-Foley says. “The program culminates in a yearly performance that brings together the Live Art students and nationally recognized recording artists.”
She said that Live Art classes bring together students with and without special needs in order to put them on the same platform, no matter their circumstances or abilities.
Mraz, who took SPARC classes as a youth, is a long-time partner of the program. Thomas-Foley said that when Mraz was asked to perform his hit single “I Won’t Give Up” at the ceremony with “America’s Got Talent” winner Grace VanderWaal, he proposed the idea of making it a Live Art show.
“Jason’s finale song will involve a Live Art staged piece,” Thomas-Foley says. “We aren’t taking students from Virginia; rather, we are taking the creative process in order to work with students and athletes in Austria.”
The opening ceremony will air live on ESPN at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 18, at Schladming’s Planai Stadium. The team will have three days to train a group of youth, with and without disabilities, who speak many different languages, to create the performance.
Those being directed by SPARC include the Schladming’s youth choir and the Special Olympics International Global Messengers.
“The most important thing about Live Art is the relationships we form with each other. Trust, respect, and support are the big things we try to establish here,” Thomas-Foley says. “This is the first time that we’ve had to create a show in this short of a time, but our creative team is determined to do everything to instill the premise with Austrian students and world athletes.”