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Howard University's ice skating team is set to make history this weekend

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, Howard University's ice skating team is set to make history this weekend. The first figure skating team at a historically Black university is about to take part in its first intercollegiate competition. NPR's Adam Bearne laced up his skates and took to the ice to meet the team's founders.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ooh, lord.

ADAM BEARNE, BYLINE: In the middle of a small outdoor rink in Washington, D.C. Maya James and Cheyenne Walker are showing off their scratch spins. Arms above their head, they turn like a top, slowly at first, before getting faster and faster.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Whoo (ph).

BEARNE: Both have been skating since the age of 7. But for James, growing up in Chicago, it wasn't always easy.

MAYA JAMES: 'Cause it wasn't many people that look like me doing it. So when I would go to a new rink, or even sometimes at my home rink, I would be the only Black person on the ice. And it kind of felt like those eyes were on me.

BEARNE: Cheyenne Walker had a much better experience getting into the sport in New York.

CHEYENNE WALKER: 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. So I grew up seeing women of color and people of color skate and being present in the sport.

BEARNE: But when it came time to go to college, Walker faced a tough choice.

WALKER: It was very difficult to figure out, like, whether I wanted to go to school and continue to skate or if I wanted to go to a school that I knew was meant for me. I ultimately ended up choosing Howard because Howard just felt like home when I visited it.

BEARNE: It might have felt like home, but she was missing skating. So was James.

WALKER: She DMed me and was like, I'm thinking about starting a club. So when Maya reached out to me, it just felt like fate.

BEARNE: After a couple of months of paperwork, the Howard University ice skating team was born, with James as president and Walker as vice president. But that was the easy part. The biggest challenge has been finding ice time, says James.

JAMES: There's only one rink in D.C., and it's a little ways out from the Howard campus. And it's also closed for renovation right now.

BEARNE: So for now, the team has to travel to neighboring Maryland to train. And to teach brand-new members how to skate, they grab an hour of time on this small public rink on Monday nights. It's a far cry from the resources some of the colleges they'll be facing this weekend have, Walker says.

WALKER: We're probably going to be competing against people who skate on the ice maybe 2 or 3 times a week. We didn't really have that opportunity to get consistent ice time until this semester, and it's only one month.

BEARNE: That's one of the reasons James says they're not putting too much pressure on themselves for Saturday's competition.

JAMES: 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, you know, and be included into the collegiate figure skating space.

BEARNE: One of the team's coaches, Jordan McCreary Graham, feels the same way.

JORDAN MCCREARY GRAHAM: It's honestly going to be a challenge. To just be on the same ice as collegiate skaters that are various levels will be an experience in itself.

BEARNE: She admires what James and Walker have achieved.

MCCREARY GRAHAM: I went to an HBCU, and I tried to recommend it. And they were like, what? Black people don't skate. So having that actual thing in an HBCU is going to start a trend for other HBCUs to do it.

BEARNE: That's not sunk in with Maya James yet.

JAMES: I don't think it's hit me at how big it really is. I'm just happy that we actually were able to, you know, move this thing forward. This, like, small idea really turned into a big one.

BEARNE: One that Cheyenne Walker hopes will leave a legacy.

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

BEARNE: Inspiring a new generation of Black skaters all over America.

Adam Bearne, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOS DEF SONG, "UMI SAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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