Black people rarely hit the slopes, but those who love winter sports are working to change that

Henri Rivers' son, Henri D. Rivers IV, 2021 in Snowmass, Colorado.  (Photo courtesy of Henri Rivers)
Henri Rivers’ son, Henri D. Rivers IV, 2021 in Snowmass, Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Henri Rivers)

Like many skiers, Dr. Ouida Brown cannot reduce his love for the sport to just one element.

“I love the landscape,” said the Chicago orthopedic surgeon. – I love people. She likes to be the first to make tracks in the fresh powder in the morning. He likes the physical and mental challenge of trying to improve his time on the racetrack.

But it’s a different kind of challenge when Brown, who is black, tries to convey her excitement. “No one else in my family skis,” the Mississippi native said. And when she talks about sports to other blacks, they sometimes look at her and say, “Blacks don’t ski!”

It is true that black skiers are a real rarity. According to a 2021-22 National Ski Areas Association survey, just 1.5% of resort skiers were black — numbers that have barely changed in the past decade. In comparison, nearly 89% of skiers surveyed were Caucasian, 5.7% were Asian or Pacific Islander, 5.5% were Latino, and less than 1% were American Indian or Alaska Native, with some respondents choosing more than one race or ethnicity.

Non-skiers are missing out on a healthy opportunity for winter fun. A review of research, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology in 2019, says that regular skiing can contribute to healthy aging. A 2016 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that both downhill and cross-country skiing can be a solid workout and boost heart health. Other studies have shown that being in nature is associated with stress reduction and overall well-being.

But historical, geographic and economic factors contribute to the lack of black skiers.

Henri Rivers is the president of the National Ski Brotherhood, which supports the development of black Olympic athletes and encourages participation in winter sports. Rivers said most mountain communities are small, affluent, predominantly white and far from urban centers where many blacks work and live. It takes time, dedication and money to get from those centers to the mountains. And ski equipment and lift tickets can be expensive.

Rivers, who lived in Queens, New York until he was 10, learned to ski when his parents bought him a house in the Catskills. Now a resident of Long Island, he has teenage triplets who are accomplished skiers. The nearest mountain in New York is three hours away – and ski academies for teenagers are even further away, in New Hampshire and Maine. He and his wife are willing to drive on weekends.

“It’s not common,” said Rivers, who was a renewable energy consultant before becoming a full-time volunteer at NBS, which includes 54 clubs and is celebrating its 50th anniversary of celebrating and recruiting black skiers.

Members of the Rivers family in 2013 in Windham, New York.  From left: Henri D. Rivers IV, Henri D. Rivers III, Henniyah D. Rivers, Helaina D. Rivers and Karen A. Rivers.  (Photo courtesy of Henri Rivers)
Members of the Rivers family in 2013 in Windham, New York. From left: Henri D. Rivers IV, Henri D. Rivers III, Henniyah D. Rivers, Helaina D. Rivers and Karen A. Rivers. (Photo courtesy of Henri Rivers)

Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colorado, said the racial gap in skiing has broad, systemic roots.

Much of the modern ski industry can be traced back to veterans of the Army’s legendary 10th Mountain Division, who put their elite training to use as they founded more than 60 resorts after World War II. However, in the segregated military of the era, most black soldiers were restricted to service.

“So you have a history where the people most involved have often been white,” Isaac said. Although, she emphasized, “this is not a valid reason why skiing is still so dominantly white”.

Part of the problem, Rivers said, is that “resorts don’t sell to people of color.” Ski publications, he said, rarely feature black skiers and riders. “We’ve spoken to many of those publications, letting them know they don’t represent people of color.”

Unsolicited attitudes could also deter new black skiers, Rivers said. “You know, they’re going to get some sideways glances and people wondering why they’re there.”

Isaac acknowledged that the sport has issues around transportation, access and inclusion, “specifically, people don’t feel like skiing is for them.” Ski culture itself has masked such problems, she said, and some people think that if you’re a good skier, race, ethnicity, language or gender aren’t a problem. But like much of the nation, the 2020 protests were a turning point in racial awareness, she said, and the industry has worked to develop a better understanding of systemic issues and unconscious bias.

This is in everyone’s interest, she said, because America is becoming more and more diverse. So if sport wants to attract more young people and keep people participating, it needs to make everyone feel included.

Many groups work to help young, aspiring skiers feel that way. Isaac praised the efforts of organizations such as the Share Winter Foundation, which provides grants to make winter sports accessible and diverse; Hoods to Woods, a New York nonprofit that teaches snowboarding to inner-city kids; and Colorado’s Blackpackers, which helps provide equipment and training for skiing and other outdoor activities.

For Rivers, such efforts are crucial. “It starts with exposing young kids of color to sports,” he said. They need to see “that being outdoors is for everyone.”

Clubs affiliated with his organization support programs to include children from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in winter sports. “Skiing, horseback riding, downhill skiing, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, tubing—it doesn’t matter. I want to get them to experience what’s out there.”

In early February, the NBS will hold its annual summit week in Vail, Colorado, providing an opportunity for black skiers to have fun while raising money to help develop black winter Olympic athletes.

Brown plans to be there, one of several ski trips he will take this year. She is a member of the Sugar and Spice Snow and Social Club, a national group affiliated with NBS. The opportunity to meet other people drew her to the sport before she entered medical school in North Carolina in the 1990s. “I know a lot of people who would never ski if it weren’t for NBS,” she said.

dr.  Ouida Brown in Sun Valley, Idaho during the 2020 Ski Brotherhood National Summit (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ouida Brown)
dr. Ouida Brown in Sun Valley, Idaho during the 2020 Ski Brotherhood National Summit (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ouida Brown)

It was through Sugar and Spice that she took her 15-year-old godson from Mississippi on his first ski trip last year; this year he will also bring his 19-year-old godson. Overall, Brown found the people on the mountains she went to, from the coaches at her race camps to her fellow skiers, to be warm and welcoming. “Most people are really supportive,” she said.

This is important, because everyone is clumsy the first time. “You’re going to fall a few times,” she said. “You won’t look so cool when you first start.”

That means everyone on the mountain can play a role in making the sport more welcoming, Isaac said. “Skiers and riders should be better ambassadors of the sport. Because being new to something is scary.”

If you have questions or comments about this American Heart Association news release, please send an email [email protected].

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