As Cody Cwiklinski braced himself on the ice with a walker, he leaned into the microphone, sang the high notes of the national anthem with clear assurance, and won the attention of the Saturday afternoon crowd at the First Niagara Center for the Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped’s 38th annual ice show.
And, as usual, he made his mother cry.
Lisa Cwiklinski had tried watching her 13-year-old son in a sparkly silver suit from the big screen above the ice rink but it was hard to see through the tears. By the final “O say does that star spangled banner yet wave – ,” the audience applauded and his volunteer partners helped him off the ice.
People behind the scenes gave him high fives. Someone asked him to sing the national anthem for the opening day of a local baseball league. Cody had one word for how he felt. “Happy.”
His mother had trouble finding words for her happiness about her son with cerebral palsy and epilepsy who doctors said would never walk or talk.
His father Chuck, waiting rinkside, put it this way. “When he sings and people smile, he loves it.”
Twenty performances by 660 skaters with disabilities and 500 volunteer skating assistants followed Cody’s opening song. The show by the SABAH group also known as “Spirited Athletes Bold at Heart” was a culmination of a year’s worth of “adaptive physical education” classes, similar to physical therapy on skates, held at rinks around the region for school groups and as group evening and weekend lessons.
Groups of skaters came out in costumes and skated together in line and pinwheel formations as music from a theme song played.
Hard hat wearing “blue collar workers” moved across the ice to Alabama’s “40 Hour Week” and “mechanics” in coveralls and sparkly back pocket handkerchiefs skated to “Grease Lightning.”
Between acts retired Sabres player Andrew Peters joked with the crowd, posed for selfies and interviewed skaters.
When he teased one shy young woman for saying there was no one she wanted to say hi to, she beamed and relented: “My mom, my dad and my uncle,” she said blowing a kiss in their direction. “I love you guys.”
For SABAH Executive Director Sheila O’Brien, the joy of SABAH skaters and their families is the best part of the annual “Celebration on Ice.”
“When I look up and see the faces of the families –” she said between performances and before heading off to help coordinate.
Cody’s turn to skate with fellow “dance instructors” in sparkly costumes to “Twist and Shout” was the fourth performance in the lineup. He, with a volunteer partner on each side, skated in one of four lines.
As the music played the lines came together at one end and skaters made a moving pinwheel.
From his place at the end, his volunteer partner Taylor Aquino and former competitive figure skater led their group in a faster, freer push across the ice.
“I love working with him … He always has a good attitude,” said Aquino.
“Everybody knows Cody. It was like skating with a famous person.”
When it was over, Cody had the same good feeling about the skating as his song. He was happy.