Breaking the Ice: A Woman’s Inspiring Journey to Becoming an Ice Skating Coach

On a frosty Saturday morning, the Zamboni cleaner is going, and Tenaj Gueory sits in the ice rink reviewing her lesson plans while lacing up her skates before her lively students burst into the rink.

Tenaj Gueory is a 21-year-old ice skating coach at Fort Dupont Ice Rink, which is the only indoor ice rink in Washington, D.C. She has been working at Fort Dupont for five years. Aside from coaching at Fort Dupont, she has her own coaching business entitled Coach Tenaj.

As business at Fort Dupont continues to boom, the affordability of the organization is likely to decrease. Parent volunteer Sheldonna Harris stated, “Fort Dupont is in the midst of trying to secure funding from DC council.” 

DC committed $25 million if Friends of Fort Dupont could raise $5 million. On January 25, 2019, Mayor Bowser sent a letter to the D.C. city council saying she was going to take the money from the ice arena renovations and redirect them toward emergency repairs for D.C. public schools.

WJLA reported that FDIA quickly took the issue to social media to publicize the issue. Councilmember Vincent C. Gray introduced a Disapproval Resolution to reject the mayor’s request to redirect funds.

In a statement released by Councilmember Vincent C. Gray, he said, “the Bowser administration, the council, my office, and the Friends of Fort Dupont will work together in pursuit of an agreement that protects the funding, placing it in-effect into a lockbox, and establishes a timeline and a concrete plan of action to renovate the ice arena.

Tenaj Gueory, a Ward 8 native, learned how to skate at six years old. Gueory talks about how her mother pushed her to participate in non-traditional sports. She recalls how nervous she was in the beginning. The bustling ice rink was filled with unknown faces, and she was in foreign territory. 

It was her very first time putting on the massive ice skates, and she struggled to stand up, and she felt wobbly. She was scared to take her first steps on ice; it seemed as though she was a baby learning how to walk again. The temperature did not make it any better; she was freezing. She could see her breath as she tried to concentrate on stepping on the ice.

“It was my first time on ice skates, and I remember my mom and my dad standing at the window like, ‘you can do it you got it,’” says Gueory. These words helped Gueory take a glide of faith on the ice. While Gueory started to advance in the sport, she sometimes got discouraged because the lessons got harder. Trying to skate and falling on the solid, rigid ice again and again; going back home with scraped up knees. Having her mom put sticky ointment and a brown band-aid on her knees.

Late at night, she decided that she would once again walk into the freezing rink for her ice skating lesson. She notes, “the stigma for ice skaters is they are very small but to be a black girl and fat was hard.” 

She was often times met with a constant stare from the people around her. Gueory was not exceptionally tall or size two. Despite the bullying, Gueory would pursue her dream of gliding like a character on Disney on ice.

Tomeka Gueory, Tenaj’s mom, says, “my daughter is not small or petite, and it forces kids to understand the importance of truly believing in yourself because it’s not about size it’s not about where you are from none of that really matters.”

FDIA is Tenaj’s home rink and where she learned that she had a natural love for kids and a love for teaching. She enjoyed showing her younger siblings how to do never ending turns and perfected lunges. When Gueory teaches the eyes of her students were locked into the movement of her arms and legs. 

Gueory’s dream was not always to be a coach, but with younger siblings at home she felt that she needed to take care of them. 

“I had little sisters, and I didn’t want to make them suffer because of what I wanted to do,” she said. “They would have had to sacrifice a lot.” 

She has been coaching for five years, and she loves every day of it. Gueory says, “I do whatever they want to do to make them happy, feed into their curiosity, never stifle what they have, and try not to be biased.”

For Gueory, a typical workday for her includes working as a contracted coach at FDIA. The students come running in, swarming around their teacher. Everyone is excited to tell her about their new hairstyle, what they had for breakfast, or even their fresh new kicks. She helps them put on their skates and hop on the ice, even though some children are struck with terror. Some students tightly hold on to her hands not willing to let go.

She slowly releases their hands without them noticing, and she watches them tiptoe on the ice. She says, “if I didn’t get paid to do everything I do on Saturday I would still do it.” She understands that she was once in her kids’ shoes. “She is a great example to the kids at 21-years-old, and she skated through this program,” says Harris. “She motivates them with positivity and helps them on and off the ice.”

Amid the FDIA funding controversy, turning on the television and hearing the unsettling news, Gueory was distraught. It left her questioning if D.C. understood the positive impact the rink had on students. Day and day a child transforms into a charismatic child who floats onto the ice with a new found confidence; a confidence that no person or thing can take from them.

Gueory describes her students as “little people.” 

“They aren’t adults, yet they are not necessarily teenagers, but these kids are smart and so ahead of their time,” says Gueory. The children of FDIA watched the news stories about the rink, and they looked as if they had seen a ghost or had awakened from a bad dream. Gueory wanted it to be just a bad dream. At FDIA memories are created that cannot be rewritten or erased.

Gueory is excited about the possibility of the ice rink expanding into an evolving ice rink. The expansion will allow Gueory to better serve her kids. On practice days, one will see three synchronized teams skating circles around each other. They are trying to remember the moves that their coach teaches them and perform them well enough to impress Gueory. The three teams are running through their routines. Each team takes a turn to run through their performance with intense orchestral music. Distracted younger skaters move their attention from Gueory to the older skaters who dance to the music. All of this is happening on one sheet of ice. “With the new changes we can mold these kids to be a better skater but prepare them to go to other skating clubs,” says Gueory.

The Zamboni cleaner will continue to run at the FDIA, and there will be more giggling, energetic children that want to skate, the popcorn will continue to pop, and Coach Tenaj will continue to teach. 

Gueory says, “I am going to invest with people here, people there, people everywhere and give back to my city.”