Figure skating-Students aim to increase Black representation on the ice

(Reuters) - Students Maya James and Cheyenne Walker from Washington's Howard University entered the world of figure skating because of what they did not see in the sport: people who looked like them.

So, the pair co-founded the Howard University Figure Skating Organization in the summer of 2023, the first figure skating club at a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in the United States.

“Sometimes I would be the only Black figure skater on the ice,” James recalled.

Their 14-member team recently became the first HBCU to compete at a collegiate figure skating competition at the University of Delaware in February. James finished fifth in her event, the Juvenile Women Short Program.

For James and Walker, it represented a groundbreaking moment for the sport, which has struggled historically to increase Black representation both in viewership and among its athletes.

In 1988, Debi Thomas became the first Black American to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. Decorated athletes such as Suraya Bonaly of France and Thomas were the only visible Black figure skaters for young hopefuls like James and Walker. Decades later, diversity among Black athletes has not improved much.

According to 2023 data from U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body for the sport, only 2% of skating fans identified as African American.

Demographics on athletes was not readily available but U.S. Figure Skating adopted a diversity, equity and inclusion plan in 2020 aimed at attracting new viewers and athletes and at breaking down cultural and financial barriers to the sport.

“There are stigmas around skating for people of color... people not thinking that you can do it because you look different. There's no one that looks like you at the top of the medal stands,” said Joel Savary, founder and CEO of Diversify Ice Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes diversity within competitive figure skating nationwide.

He is also one of the coaches for Howard University’s ice skating team.

“One of our goals is to definitely spread our figure skating club type thing to other HBCUs or other diverse institutions,” James said.

At the group’s last skate practice of the school year, novice skaters received a lesson from Savary, while James, Walker and other Howard University team members practised their skating skills with pop music blasting in the background.

“Having like younger skaters -- people who are in like the fifth grade, sixth grade -- in our DMs saying that they're so excited to come to Howard just to skate, it's something that you wouldn't have necessarily thought of,” Walker said.

(Reporting By Alexandra Sarabia; Editing By Kat Stafford and Clare Fallon)

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