The white slopes of Park City, Utah, had a distinctively different look. Everywhere I saw black: in groups on the bunny slopes, in line on the race course, in pairs ripping the steep trees of Jupiter Bowl. It was a significant role reversal: As a white skier, I was suddenly in the minority—a feeling that African-American skiers are accustomed to. "You would be surprised by how many white people still don't know that blacks ski," says Betty Smith, a member of the Sippers and Sliders Ski Club of Denver, Colo. But on the slopes this day, African-American skiers ruled with authority.
The change at Park City was due to the presence of the Black Summit, the biennial gathering of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. With 14,000 members (60 percent of whom are women) in 82 ski clubs spanning 32 states, NBS is the biggest ski club in North America, and it is growing. Yet nationwide, there are only about 150,000 African-American skiers on the slopes, less than 2 percent of the skiing population.
While the NBS has been successful at luring new members, one of its long-time goals has remained just out of reach: putting an African-American skier on the U.S. Ski Team. For more than two decades, the NBS has raised more than $1 million to train black racers. And it has come tantalizingly close to realizing its dream: Suki Horton, a 17-year-old racer from Anchorage, Alaska, made it as far as the USST Development Team last year, as did her 18-year-old brother Andre. In 1998, Suki was the Alaska state champion in slalom, GS, super G and downhill, while Andre took the state downhill title. Many people look to Suki to be the first black skier on the U.S. team in its 75-year history. "She is one of the top six girls in her age group," says Aldo Radamus, USST alpine development director. "If she works hard and continues to improve over the next few years, she has a very reasonable chance of making the team."
But the challenges facing young African-American ski racers are daunting. First, there is the cold cash needed to groom a winner: The NBS says that it takes about $30,000 per year to send a child to an elite ski academy and pay for travel to races. In addition, notes Radamus, "African-American racers face a geographic challenge: There are not many African Americans living in resort towns where the majority of kids who make the national team are coming from. They are not living in close proximity to skiing on a daily basis from the time they are very young." One result was evident at the USST training camp at Whistler, B.C., last year, where the top 36 racers between 11 and 14 years were invited: There were no African Americans among them. And in the world of elite sports, Radamus observes, "It's a little late to get started at age 13 and 14."
For Suki Horton, being a pioneer for her race and a role model for young African-American skiers is a huge burden for a young athlete, but one that she accepts. "When I saw Tiger Woods, and the way that everyone started playing golf after he won, I thought, maybe I can make an impact by making the U.S. Ski Team," Suki says. "I realized that what I do out there could affect a lot of people."
Having skied since age 3, and always being one of the few black skiers on the slopes, she was amazed to discover the NBS last year. "It was so weird to have so many black people around!" she exclaims. But Horton acknowledges that carrying the torch for black skiers takes a toll. "There is more pressure because there are people that have helped me along the way, and I want it to pay off."
Many black skiers find themselves in the unsought—but inevitable—role of trailblazers, where they occasionally encounter racist attitudes. Laura Hardenburgh, 62, of Cleveland, Ohio, was the first African-American woman on the National Ski Patrol when she joined in 1972. "I had one person on the ski patrol who actually made some racial remarks," she recalls. "But then my other friends said to him, 'If you don't like this peerson on the patrol, then you should leave.' And he left."
The NBS and USST have just begun working together to bring more young African Americans into the sport. This season, the USST will train NBS race coaches and will co-sponsor an NBS event at Copper Mountain, Colo., next month. The NBS sees itself serving as an "extended family" for its young skiers, according to Schone Mailliet, the NBS youth race director. "By having our race camps and seeing African-American coaches and officials, kids see that we're involved, we care, and we are playing a role in the infrastructure of skiing," he says. The NBS provides about $250,000 in scholarships to 20 black youths on its national team for race fees, travel and tuition at ski academies.
But obstacles remain to increasing African-American participation in skiing. "For most of our young skiers, their parents aren't skiers," observes Charles Smith of Denver, a black ski instructor at Loveland Basin. "It's a real big deal for a parent to put an African-American kid out there in a whole different world."
The NBS wants to do more than help black skiers win races: It also plans to move them into skiing's corporate offices and boardrooms. "We want to make an impact on the ski industry," asserts NBS President Bessie Gay. "We feel that we have some very talented youths that we've sent to elite ski academies, and they should be able to go back to the industry and apply for jobs at the ski resorts."
As evidence of this economic clout, the NBS pointedly reminds industry reps that during their 1993 Black Summit at Vail, which was attended by 6,000 skiers, they pumped more than $10 million into the local economy in one week. Local NBS chapters sponsor 400 ski trips per year, with a total spending of about $35 million. The ski industry has done little to reach out to minority skiers. But money talks, and some resorts are starting to listen.
"I think the two Summits that Vail has hosted are some of the best weeks of business, in terms of a large group, that we've had," said Steve Swenson, director of industry sales for Vail Resorts.
At a lively outdoor barbecue at the base area of Park City, I found Rodney Wright, a 31-year-old marketing manager from Chicago. He looked around in awe at the throngs of African-American skiers eating, racing and line-dancing. "I'm dumbfounded," he said with a surprised grin. "I never knew this organization existed before." He observed, "Every time my family and I went skiing, we were always the only black family on the slopes. There's nothing bad about that, but I guess you like to see that you are not the only one in your group participating in this great sport."
After a quarter-century of dreaming, the NBS believes the great sport of skiing is nearing a breakthrough period. "In 2002, I would like to see at least one or two of our youths on the U.S. Ski Team and competing in the Olympics," says a determined President Gay. "By 2006, I would like to see our youth reaching the podium."
Gay invokes the names of black athletic trailblazers Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods. "Once one of our youths makes it," she asserts, "the whole sport of skiing will open up to more African Americans. It's going to change the face of skiing."
SKI contributing editor David Goodman is the author of Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa, a book on post-apartheid life published by University of California Press. He lives and skis in Vermont.