Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

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February 5, 2009
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Black Ski Summit hits Snowmass slopes

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado " By 2014, the National Brotherhood of Skiers hopes to have fostered the first black alpine Olympic skier.

It's a project that has been long in the making. The group, which brought roughly 1,000 skiers to Snowmass Village this week, has been funding young black skiers for about 25 years. The funds are raised, in part, by national summits like the one being held this week in Snowmass Village.

The dearth of black athletes in the upper echelons of alpine skiing " and on many ski hills " begs the question: What does it take to move any demographic into a sport?

For the National Brotherhood of Skiers, the strategy has been to start young, offer funding and require commitment.

To reach out to beginning skiers, it has set up programs at local ski areas, said National Youth Director Kelvin Bush. As long as a student completes roughly 20 hours of beginning lessons, the organization pays for the lessons.

Later, the National Brotherhood of Skiers pays for students to join its local race programs " asking them only to document completion of a minimum number of hours.

The group continues to support its young skiers all the way up to the highest levels. Currently, 11 students have risen to the level of national elite skiers, said Henri Rivers, the Olympic School Director for the National Brotherhood of Skiers.

For those students, the organization covers a portion of their costs to attend 15 to 20 national and international competitions each year, purchase new gear and attend ski academies, Rivers said. That program alone costs the organization about $120,000 a year.

Adrienne Wiggins, an 18-year-old skier from Alaska funded by the organization, said the financial assistance has made a huge difference in her training.

"It helps so much," she said. "My mom's a single parent and she's trying to support two kids in ski racing."

Lauren Samuels, whom Rivers believes could be the first National Brotherhood of Skiers-sponsored athlete to make the U.S. Ski Team, agreed. The 16-year-old from Minnesota, who started skiing when she was 2, noted that elite ski racing requires much travel.

But 36 years ago, when Art Clay and Ben Finley held the first Black Summit in Aspen in 1973, they hadn't yet envisioned the youth scholarship program. They just wanted to bring black skiers together, Clay said, as he attended a picnic on Wednesday afternoon " dressed in in a red scarf, top hat, long wool coat and ski boots.

"It started as a social organization," said Haymon Jahi, the current president.

At the time, Clay was the chairman for the Snow Gophers, one of four Chicago clubs of black skiers. Clubs like the Snow Gophers started, he explained, because black skiers " like most people" wanted to ski with someone with whom they had something in common.

"In the late '60s and early '70s, if you went skiing [as a black person], you'd be out there by yourself," he explained.

Skiers also felt a club would negate any possible discrimination, Clay said.

"It's not hard to get 40 lift tickets," he said. "They weren't going to give you any problem."

Since the first summit in 1973, the National Brotherhood of Skiers has held annual summits. In 1975 it incorporated as a nonprofit. From the original group of 13 clubs and 350 skiers, the National Brotherhood of Skiers has grown to include 77 clubs and 8,000 members.

Clay has fond memories of the early summits " like the pajama parties, held for many years, that brought out women in leather and lace and men in pink baby doll negligees.

(In the middle of reminiscing, Clay pointed to a National Brotherhood of Skiers member walking around clad only in a pair of black spandex and ski boots. "You can see we've got some guys willing to take it all off," he said.)

But he also remembered one year at Heavenly Valley, in California, when someone at the resort called out the U.S. National Guard as the black skiers arrived.

The goal of incubating a black Olympic alpine skier emerged quickly from the first summit, according to press materials from the organization. Today, it's still one of two stated club goals " the other being to increase participation in winter sports among minorities.

Jahi noted that it's important for black youth to be aware of options other than basketball, football or baseball " sports Wiggins said most black youth focus on.

"Our goal is just to open up other avenues for our young," Jahi said.

But Rivers pointed out that encouraging black youth to seriously take up the sport of skiing isn't just good for the youth " it's good for the U.S. Olympic program, as well.

"You want to pull from every area to field an Olympic team," he said.

kredding@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Feb 5, 2009 02:57PM Published Feb 5, 2009 02:57PM Copyright 2009 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.