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Howard University students form America's first HBCU figure skating team

Cheyenne Walker and Maya James of Howard University's figure skating team practice their skills at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Cheyenne Walker and Maya James of Howard University's figure skating team practice their skills at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.

"Black people don't skate."

That's what figure skating coach Jordan McCreary Graham was told when she tried to start a club when she was attending North Carolina Central University, one of the nation's Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU.)

Now, two of the coach's students are proving that wrong.

Maya James and Cheyenne Walker are the co-founders of the Howard University Ice Skating Organization.

It's the first figure skating club at an HBCU, and on Saturday, they'll be the first to compete at a collegiate competition.

"I don't think it's hit me yet how big it really is," James, the team's president and a psychology major, said. "I'm just happy that we actually were able to move this thing forward. This small idea really turned into a big one."

Speaking to NPR's Morning Edition, Walker, the club's vice-president and a political science major, seemed to realize the historic nature of their achievement.

Cheyenne Walker of Howard University Ice Skating Organization on the ice at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
/
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Cheyenne Walker of Howard University Ice Skating Organization on the ice at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.

"It is such an amazing thing to see how we're bringing people into the sport and really diversifying the sport," Walker said. "And at the end of the day, that's really what the goal is."

The club attracts new members from Howard to learn to skate on Monday nights, which Walker loves.

"They get on the ice and they have so much ambition and drive and they're just excited to be here," she said. "I think that's what's most important about being in this sport is that you can start at any age and you're still going to be able to have a good time."

Iced out

But the rink where those lessons happen highlights the biggest challenge the new club faces - getting ice time.

The team carves out an hour of private time at an otherwise public facility in Washington DC.

It's a great spot to bring kids, but the small, outdoor rink is a far cry from the Olympic-sized arenas other university teams have access to.

Cheyenne Walker, Co-Founder and Vice President with Maya James, Founder and President of Howard University Ice Skating Organization at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Cheyenne Walker, Co-Founder and Vice President with Maya James, Founder and President of Howard University Ice Skating Organization at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.

The only similar rink in Washington, Fort Dupont Ice Arena, is currently closed for renovation, but has been helping the club find time on the ice elsewhere.

For that big arena experience, the students have been traveling to a rink in College Park, Maryland for training sessions.

"We're probably going to be competing against people who skate on the ice maybe two or three times a week," said Walker, reflecting on the advantage the teams Howard will be facing this weekend have.

Maya James shows off her skills at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
/
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Maya James shows off her skills at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.

"We didn't really have that opportunity to get consistent ice time until this semester, and it's only [been] one month," she added.

James said that means there's not really any pressure on the team for the upcoming competition.

"Since we're like a baby organization, I'm not too concerned with winning as of right now, but I'm just happy to be there, and be included into the collegiate figure skating space," James added.

Growing up on the ice

Both James and Walker were just glad that they're able to keep skating.

The 21-year-olds have both been training since the age of seven.

For James, growing up in Chicago, that wasn't always easy.

"[There weren't] many people that look like me doing it. So when I would go to a new rink or even sometimes in my home rink, I'll be the only black person on the ice," James noted. "And I kind of felt like eyes are on me."

The experience was much different for Walker, who was raised in New York.

She got into skating via a group called Figure Skating in Harlem.

Toni Smith of Howard University's figure skating team prepares to practice at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
/
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Toni Smith of Howard University's figure skating team prepares to practice at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.

"I was fortunate enough to be in Figure Skating in Harlem, which was unique of its kind because it was an organization for women of color," Walker said. "So I grew up seeing women of color and people of color skate and being present in the sport."

Now, the Howard team is getting support from another non-profit, Diversify Ice.

The organization is helping the club pay for ice time and providing the team with coaches, such as Graham, who was impressed by what James and Walker have achieved.

Cheyenne Walker, Co-Founder and Vice President of Howard University Ice Skating Organization prepares to perform a scratch spin at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.
/ Dee Dwyer for NPR
/
Dee Dwyer for NPR
Cheyenne Walker, Co-Founder and Vice President of Howard University Ice Skating Organization prepares to perform a scratch spin at Canal Park Ice Rink in Washington, D.C.

"It's really amazing what they're doing and how they're actually going against odds and actually making a difference and showing that they can do anything possible," Graham said.

"The fact that they're at an HBCU skating and it's affordable for girls of all colors to be out there to skate and represent their school is really amazing to me," she added.

Graham's also not putting any pressure on the young skaters to perform.

"To just be on the same ice as collegiate skaters that are [at] various levels will be an experience in itself," she said.

The Howard University Ice Skating Organization will compete in US Figure Skating's Southeast divisional competition at the University of Delaware on Feb. 24 and Feb. 25 in Newark.

The audio for this story was edited by Barry Gordemer. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.