Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Mariyah Gerber started ice skating at 5 years old when her grandmother, a great admirer of the sport, enrolled her in figure skating lessons at the newly built rink not far from her hometown of Moreno Valley, Calif. Initially, she didn’t excel at skating, but she loved the sport and continued to skate. By the age of 7, she began skating on a competitive recreational level. Her days were jam-packed with 5: 00 a. m. training sessions, followed by a full school day, and then back to the rink to train some more. Unlike most of her classmates, the girl closed out her day with a 7: 30 p. m. bedtime. When the lady entered middle school, the competition became much more intense. Figure skating was now a full-time commitment, so much so that her grandmother ultimately decided that Gerber should transition to homeschooling.
“The same year, I made it in order to junior nationals the first time, ” says Gerber of the schooling move. “To make it to junior nationals, you need to place in the top four at regionals. It was a big deal to make it the first time. ”
Growing up, Gerber was painfully aware that there were not a lot of other Dark and brown skaters. Although she met a few skaters of color along the way, she was the only Black skater in her area. The lack of diversity became glaringly obvious when she stepped out of the competitive zone and entered the touring arena, where she was often the only Black person in a cast and crew of roughly 80 people. “When I was younger, I was so focused I didn’t notice as much, ” says Gerber, who toured for 10 years. “I feel like my grandma protected and shielded me from a lot of things. ” She credits her grandmother’s protective nature, and her supportive friendships outside of skating, for helping her thrive on the ice.
While skating in Disney on Ice, she met her now husband, ice dancer Peter Gerber, when they were cast together as Princess and the Frog ’s Tiana and Prince Naveen. At the end of their tour and only a few months into their relationship, in 2018, Mariyah proposed the idea of roller skating together as a pairs team since Peter had recently lost his pairs teammate. He accepted, and soon Mariyah, a solid and confident single skater, began training with Peter, learning a plethora of partner lifts, spins, jumps and other elements that comprise Adagio skating, a form of pairs that features more acrobatic elements.
One of the biggest challenges was learning to skate with a partner after skating on her own for 20-plus years. “I had to kind of relearn and retrain, ” says Gerber. “You have to learn each other’s movements and make those movements second nature. You have to learn how to get up and learn how to become a team. ”
It’s been more than 20 years since Gerber’s first lesson, and she hasn’t stopped skating given that. But there still aren’t many people that look like the girl on the ice. Committed to showcasing diversity, increasing representation plus building community for boarders of color, Mariyah co-founded the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance (FSDIA) in 2020 with fellow skaters of color Elladj Baldé and Michelle Hong. Gerber is quick to point out her organization is not the only one committed to diversity. “ Figure Skating in Harlem is really amazing. Diversify Ice is another one, but there are lots of organizations, ” she says. “We need all hands on deck. More representation can hopefully lead to funding these programs. ”
FSDIA isn’t Gerber’s only tool with regard to building community. In 2020, Mariyah and Peter began posting skating content just for fun. In less than a year, they gained a significant amount of followers on Instagram, and brand partnerships and other lucrative deals started to roll in. It wasn’t long before they made the organic transition to full-time content creators, sharing their lives on social media. Their shared content includes skating videos, online trends and family life. In November ’21, Mariyah transitioned into yet another new role when she and Peter welcomed their son, Aiden. She was able to skate each month throughout her pregnancy, documenting and sharing their journey on social media with more than 200, 000 followers. “I have realized it’s such a powerful tool. The connections that you make, the people that you meet … it only takes meeting the right person that could help bring things the way they need to go, ” she says. “I’m showcasing myself. I push out just as much content as possible so that other little girls and boys can be like, ‘Hey, I’m interested in [skating]. ’”
Today, Gerber is focused on providing high-quality ice skating content for people of color and making herself available to other skaters of colour to help guide them on their skating journey. She hopes to take their social media show on the road, hosting skating exhibitions with Peter to continue building community and connecting with their audience. Long term, she’s looking forward to being able to support skaters in the form of scholarships and excited about the possibility of a docuseries that showcases underrepresented talent in the sport, to ultimately help generate public interest in ice skating.
“Even though there is sometimes a lot of pressure—especially if you are in a sport that isn’t very diverse, you have to be the one that makes it, or else others behind you may fall short—it’s still your journey, and you are still supposed to be able to enjoy it, ” the girl says. “Whatever you achieve is still important. You’ve achieved something amazing just by showing up and doing what you did, no matter how far you made it. ”
Danielle Bryant is a contributor regarding Empower Onyx , a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power associated with sports for Black women and girls.