A founding generation of Black skiers looks back and forward to expand the sport | AspenTimes.com

A founding generation of Black skiers looks back and forward to expand the sport

National Brotherhood of Skiers summit supports young athletes of color through Olympic Scholarship fund

You could say Naomi Bryson learned how to ski on the race course when she tried the sport nearly half a century ago.

She was just getting into the sport then, spurred by a “really cute guy” who was a member of Detroit’s Jim Dandy Ski Club, the oldest Black ski club in the United States, she said. The club encouraged newbies to take to the start lines to learn the sport, the logic being that staying upright and making it through even some of the gates would instill some of the skills of skiing.

“They said, ‘Oh, you have to race,’ and I said, ‘Are you kidding?’” Bryson recalled. “At that time, they had a beginner’s race, and they said, ‘If you can stand up on your skis til you get to the bottom, maybe you win a prize’ … and that year, they were giving big prizes, fur coats.”

Bryson didn’t win a prize that year. But she did get hooked on skiing — and on that “really cute guy,” who would become her husband.

Bryson has been skiing for 49 years and has yet to miss a single National Brotherhood of Skiers annual summit, a convention of Black ski clubs from across the country gathering this week in Snowmass Village for winter sports, camaraderie, and, yes, ski racing.

The ski-racing scene looks a bit different now — no fur coats for the winners, anyway — but it’s still very much a central component to the efforts of the National Brotherhood of Skiers to grow participation in the sport for people of color.

The annual summit is a major fundraiser for the Olympic Scholarship Fund, an initiative of the organization that aims to identify, develop and support promising young athletes of color with the aim of getting them to the top level of competition.

“We needed an objective other than throwing a party every year, so the objective we sought was to basically find, select and provide funding to put a Black kid in the Olympic Games,” said Ben Finley, who co-founded the National Brotherhood of Skiers with Arthur Clay.

“If we’d known how hard that was going to be, we might have done something else,” Finley said with a laugh.

Now, though, there seems to be more “enthusiasm” from people excited to fight for and support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, inspired by the movement that emerged from protests over the murder of George Floyd, Finley said.

There’s certainly no shortage of talent among the kids supported by the Olympic Scholarship fund, either, with around 16 young athletes currently on “Team NBS” across multiple disciplines, all with top-caliber aspirations. Many of them are attending the summit this week and were out at the Spider Sabich Race Arena on Tuesday afternoon, along with hundreds of others from nearly every living generation for a barbecue, club photos and competition.

“It’s just heartwarming, because this is one of the dreams everybody had to see the generations pass this along, and we got 72 new members this year in our club, and they’re all probably below 35, so that’s music to our ears,” said Mark Jackson, a member of the Jim Dandy Ski Club who has been skiing for three decades and also coaches young athletes.

Henri Rivers IV, 14, left, Jayna Davis, 14, and Henniyah Rivers, 14, tease one another after their lap in the Showcase Race at the National Brotherhood of Skiers summit at Snowmass on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

That next generation is emerging now as the founding generation begins to enter their sunset years.

Clay, who is a member of the Sno-Gophers club in Chicago, is turning 85 next month; he thinks next year’s might be the last one he’ll attend on skis before hanging up his equipment.

He’s determined to “carry it on” one more year and said he imagines retiring from skiing will be, for him, harder than it was for Tom Brady to retire from football. But he’s confident, too, in a new round of skiers and snowboarders who can carry on the legacy of the summit and the organization.

“Initially, nobody thought this would happen but me … and this is still a small sampling of what it could be,” Clay said.

“Once something starts, if it’s good, and everybody tags on to it, it won’t be long before somebody else creates competition for the first one, and then it’ll keep (up with more) competition, competition, competition,” he added. “But I think this will stand up, the National Brotherhood of Skiers will stand up.”

Finley, too, said he thinks the future is bright. His feelings for the next generation of Black skiers?

“Hopeful, hopeful, hopeful.”