Howard breaks the ice with the nation’s first HBCU figure skating team

Image Credit: Instagram/@hu_iceskating

By Originially published by theGrio

Howard recently became the only HBCU among more than 100 schools with a collegiate program under U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body for the sport. The Bison made history Saturday when they competed in the Blue Hen Ice Classic at the University of Delaware.

Princeton, North Carolina State, Maryland, and South Florida were among the schools that participated in the event. “It was our inaugural competition and all of our kids skated amazingly,” Howard skating coach Joel Savary told theGrio. “It was just an absolutely wonderful event.”

Savary said the Bison took nine skaters and they demonstrated specific skills in team maneuvers. He said junior Maya James competed and placed fifth in a solo competition that featured 11 schools. “That was really great, especially coming in as a brand new school,” Savary said. “We are really proud of them because there were a lot of schools participating. It was a great starting point for Howard University.”

The process began over a year ago when James and a fellow student, senior Cheyenne Walker, explored the idea of starting a school figure skating team. Both had skated since childhood but chose Howard over other schools that had figure skating opportunities.

“I just missed the sport honestly,” James told U.S. Figure Skating (USFS). “I didn’t really skate that much during the pandemic; I stopped skating for like two years. As I was coming to college, I also saw a lot of the U.S. collegiate Instagram pages and how they went to competitions and how the competitions look so fun and welcoming.”

James learned about Walker during winter break in 2022 and suggested they join forces to build a skating team at Howard.

“When Maya reached out to me, I was so excited because I was speaking to other girls from Figure Skating in Harlem who go to Howard and we would always speak about how we wish there was skating, but we didn’t know how to go about it,” Walker told USFS. “So, when Maya was like, ‘Yeah, I want to start this,’ I was on board for sure because it’s definitely something that I wanted to see on our campus community.”

That’s where Savary came in. A national figure skating coach in the Washington, D.C., metro area, he’s the CEO and founder of Diversify Ice, an organization that sponsors and supports figure skating opportunities for minorities across the country. James reached out for help and Diversify Ice jumped in, working with the school and USFS to ensure a smooth process in Howard’s registration for an official team.

They held a kickoff event in October, dividing attendees into students ready to compete right away, and students looking to build their skills for future competition. Many schools have their own ice rink, but Savary must book time at several area rinks for Howard’s use, including outdoor facilities. He’s assisted by coaches Denise Viera, Megan Williams-Stewart, and Jordan McCreary, who bring a wealth of national and international experience.

“We literally took some students from square one,” Savary said. “We’re so happy and thrilled to work with them. Having a coaching staff that looks like them really makes a difference because we’re able to understand the same experiences, different body types, and even styles of music that come across better. To actually establish an HBCU team is groundbreaking and we hope to get other HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, too.”

The team has a number of skaters set to graduate in the spring. Recruiting efforts are ongoing, with some prospects needing information as much as coaching and mentoring. Savary’s goal is to increase awareness at all levels, including K-12 organizations that can feed college programs and national clubs.

“One of the hardest things in general with figure skating is this sport is so opaque,” he said. “Primarily people of color don’t have the background to understand what it takes to be a competitive skater, with all the training that is required and the costs associated with it. We’re trying to build and recruit skaters so we have a team that can live on and grow for the future.”

James was often the only Black person on the ice growing up in Chicago; conversely, Walker was surrounded by Black skaters as a child in her Harlem group. Now the two take pride in bringing their sport to its first HBCU.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet how big it really is,” James told NPR. “I’m just happy that we actually were able to move this thing forward. This small idea really turned into a big one.”