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Howard students originate first-ever HBCU figure skating team

Two Howard students create a figure skating team, the first of its kind at an HBCU and not affiliated with Howard Athletics, to address the lack of diversity in the figure skating world, partnering with Diversify Ice to create a lasting legacy of inclusivity and representation in the sport.

Howard University Ice Skating Team preparing for the upcoming season at the Gardens Ice House. (Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Francis)

History has been made at Howard, as several Howard students have come together to form an intercollegiate figure skating team – the first of its kind at an HBCU.

Although not affiliated with Howard Athletics, they will compete against different teams from across the region on an intercollegiate level. Their first competition against the University of Delaware is slated for February 2024. 

According to US Figure Skating, only two percent of figure skating fans are African-American. The barriers to entry are expensive and there’s a lack of exposure to Black communities, according to one NBC News article. There have only been a few Black figure skaters to qualify and even compete in the Olympics, the article says.

Practice locations for the team may vary, but they frequent either the Gardens Ice House or the Herbert Wells Ice Rink, which are both in Maryland.

The co-founders of the team, junior psychology major Maya James and senior political science major Cheyenne Walker, both began skating when they were seven years old. 

James started with synchronized skating, similar to Walker, and eventually began competing individually. Missing the feeling of being on the ice, she grew a desire to compete at the intercollegiate level. 

So she reached out to Walker after reading about her in an article about skating. Soon, the pair started working together to form a team.

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The team partners with Diversify Ice, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to helping minorities find successful careers in figure skating, to provide the team with Black coaches and “ice time,” James said. 

Founder Joel Savary said Diversify Ice is happy to be involved and feels what Howard’s ice skating team is doing reflects the core of their mission. 

“Our entire team is really invested in this,” Savary said. “Of course, the historical opportunity, but also it’s an opportunity to break barriers to get a brand new team up and running as a lot of challenges.” 

Members of the skating team noted how the formation of Howard’s ice skating team is addressing the issue of representation in sports.

Ariel Clarke, a senior community development major from the Bronx, New York, who serves as community service chair for the team, said, “There’s definitely a lot of lack of diversity in the figure skating world, and it’s something that isn’t often marketed to young Black individuals.”

Toni Smith, a sophomore psychology major from Maryland, heads public relations for the team and discussed the challenges of joining the world of skating as a Black athlete. “It’s not a very diverse community at all, mostly because it’s very expensive. And it’s just not a well-talked-about sport in the Black community.” 

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Smith recalled times when she felt excluded on the ice because of her race. She said, “In my 12 years of skating, there were a lot of times where I did not feel welcome. I actually felt like I was not welcome– like I was not wanted there.”

One way the team is challenging figure skating norms and embracing inclusivity is by allowing students of all experience levels to participate. Daoud DeLane, a freshman biology major from Athens, Georgia, had only skated recreationally prior to joining the team.

DeLane joined the team because he believes that more representation is needed and he views the sport as his art form.

“I wanted to be able to combine art with sport. Ice skating is like a really beautiful art form if you really think about it,” DeLane said. “And I think that’s what made me want to join the team.”

Gabrielle Francis, a junior biology major, acknowledged the wide range of experience levels in the organization. Despite these differences, Francis described that among the team there is a shared ambition to “put our best foot forward when competing or when we’re doing exhibitions,” she continued, “because, for some of us, it’s our first time ever being on the ice.”

For Francis, as well as many of her teammates like James and Walker, Howard’s figure skating team signifies a return to the ice. “I took a long break– I skated from five to 18. And I’m really just now getting back into the swing of things as a 20-year-old,” Francis said. 

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Clarke believes that “positive mindsets” and “encouragement” will take this groundbreaking team of diverse talents far this season. 

Clarke also feels there’s no need to be intimidated and recalled her first time on the ice. She says once skaters get comfortable, the experience is liberating.

“Even if you’ve never skated a day in your life, we’re hoping to introduce you to something that can help alleviate the stress of college or whatever you have going on at home, Clarke said. “So, open to all.” 

As far as goals for the season, Walker wants to see the team grow and strengthen even after she and James graduate, hoping the team will have longevity. 

“It’s something that’s really important to me to help people so that next semester or next school year, we have a group of solid individuals who can come and then help incoming skaters as well, continue to grow and develop,” she said.

To find out more about the team and stay updated on their upcoming season, follow their Instagram page.

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Copy edited by Alana Matthew


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