For Howard’s ice skating club co-founders, love of sport drove them to make history

By Mia Berry

Howard University junior Maya James and senior Cheyenne Walker have been avid ice skaters since age 7. However, after high school both hung up their skates after deciding to attend Howard because the school didn’t have a skating program.

When James and Walker traveled home during school breaks, they occasionally would visit local skating rinks to brush up on their skills. After James returned from winter break during her sophomore year, she decided to team up with Walker in hopes of creating an ice skating program at Howard. That way, current and future students wouldn’t have to decide between ice skating or attending the historically Black university.

They started the paperwork to create the program in January 2023 and by July it became a recognized student organization on campus. James and Walker co-founded the Howard University Ice Skating Organization, the first intercollegiate figure skating team at an HBCU, and began reaching out to other students to gauge their interest.

“We had a lot of people interested [and] a lot of people that used to skate before and wanted to come back to the sport,” James said.

The club team is split into two divisions, those learning to skate and those who want to skate competitively. The learning-to-skate division has around 30 members currently and the competitive team has roughly 14.

James and Walker partnered with the Diversify Ice Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to promote minority ice skaters by helping remove systemic barriers that prohibit many from entering the sport. The nonprofit helps the team find rink time to practice and provides coaching. The Diversify Ice team consists of four coaches, Joel Savary, Denise Viera, Megan Williams-Stewart and Jordan McCreary Graham, who have been working with the Howard ice skaters.

The club debuted at the University of Delaware’s Blue Hen Ice Classic in late February, becoming the first HBCU program to participate in an intercollegiate competition, and drew the attention of Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna.

Savary, the founder of Diversify Ice, encourages the skaters to be themselves and helps them choreograph routines to popular songs from artists such as rapper Kendrick Lamar.

He hopes seeing a majority-Black team will help change the way people view ice skating.

“It’s just getting over these preconceived notions, getting over these hurdles that are on the ice, making the sport more transparent because once we are out there, skaters of color, they are amazing,” Savary said. “They can do everything they put their minds to, so it really is about not only breaking down those barriers within the sport but also changing the thoughts around figure skating within the Black community.”

Andscape spoke with James and Walker to discuss the formation of their club team, the impact the figure skating program has had on the Howard community and the future of the program.

Why was it so important for you to include a learn-to-skate team within the program? 

James: I wanted figure skating to be more inclusive than it is now ’cause it’s very exclusive, unfortunately. So having that ‘learn skate’ portion was one of [the] big things for Cheyenne and I to do so we can have people have a new passion, start something [new].

Walker: That was definitely one of our biggest things is recognizing that you can start skating at any age. You can be in the sport at any time, and you don’t have to feel like you have to be the best of the best, considered [an] athlete, to be considered like a figure skater. It was very important and also not only limiting it to just girls and young women, letting it be open to the whole campus community, because the sport is open to so many different people.

When did you know this would be the first HBCU with an ice skating program? 

James: Well, we didn’t at first, but I remember one of the U.S. Figure Skating, like, directors of the collegiate sport. She was like, ‘Oh, I think this might be the first HBCU to do it. Like, you guys might be making history here,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, really?’ So I don’t know, it didn’t really hit us until, you know, all this stuff came out.

What has it meant to the two of you to get back to that love of skating at your HBCU?

James: It just feels really great because it’s something that I’ve grown up with and something I’ve always loved. It’s kind of like a release from all the stress from school. It just feels good to be back into something.

Walker: I definitely feel like in college it is very hard to get lost in the environment not having skating. I feel like coming back to skating is where I felt the most grounded more recently. So having that opportunity to come back to it has made me feel like my college career has been [what] I set out to do, what I want to do. Especially as a senior looking back, I’m just happy that I was able to meet Maya, and everyone was able to start this now so people who come up after us will have the opportunity. They don’t have to wait all the way into their senior year or junior year to start to skate. They can start it from their freshman year.

How was the first team practice?

James: It was really exciting, and it was kind of crazy to see because our very first practice or gathering was, like, it was at 6 [or] 7 in the morning on a Saturday. We had rented a bus for everybody. It was just cool to see that everybody was just so excited and dedicated to come out on a Saturday morning.

Walker: The energy was definitely up, especially for us to be early in the morning. We’re college students – no one wants to be up earlier than 9 a.m. But it was definitely a great time just seeing how people were falling but not giving up. They were getting right back up, laughing at it all and just being open to new opportunities.

What was it like competing during the program’s first meet?

James: It was very, I keep saying exciting, but it was also very emotional ’cause it took a long time. Well, it took a decent amount of time to get to where we’re at, and just the fact that we’re finally being included into this aspect of collegiate figure skating, and everybody was just so welcoming. All the other universities were just like, ‘Oh, so proud of you guys.’ So it was just a really great environment.

Walker: I just got back to the skating community really fully this school year. So it’s easy to say that you’re diversifying the space, but then to walk in and actually see that diversity in action is definitely something because we really were the only people there. And just to see, like, how welcoming it was, how we didn’t feel, like, ostracized or anything. I really enjoyed the competition as a whole because we think of it as very competitive. … It was more open, very much like we’re here doing this together.

This is just for fun to help us develop our skills. And I think that was really important, like, for me especially, just being my first time and I know some other people’s first time competing individually. Although we’re competing for our team [we’re] going on the ice by ourselves, not as a team.

What has the public support meant to the figure skating program?

James: It feels really good ’cause all the work that we’ve put in, all the, you know, trials and tribulations that really paid off and to see everyone that supports us and seeing how much it was needed [for the] Howard community.

Walker: I agree with Maya. It’s been a little bit surreal because I’m in my reflective era right now. I’m graduating … so I’ve just been going over my time at Howard and just in general, how much of an impact it’s had on our campus community in just a small amount of time. Even walking on the Yard and seeing people like, ‘Oh, my gosh, can I come to learn this skate?’ Things like that where you just would never expect as many people to be interested or we didn’t even expect this much attention.

How do you think having a program at an HBCU helps the next generation of Black girls who want to go into figure skating?

James: I know it’s really heartwarming because growing up I didn’t have that many skaters that look like me. So the fact that I could be that for little girls and boys coming up now is just something I didn’t really expect to do. It’s kind of like a full circle moment.

Walker: I definitely think just looking toward the future and how it could impact the younger generation, I look at how it would have impacted me. Even knowing coming into Howard, knowing that there would have been skating, just knowing that you have that community here on campus and that you can make even the smallest impact on [the] community you’re in.