Eds. note: Victoria Gaither, pictured above, is a contributing editor. This is her personal essay.
January 15 is a holiday that celebrates Martin Luther King’s birthday. It also marks one of the most popular and busiest ski weekends of the year. Yet, in many places and on many mountains, there is still a myth that Black people don’t ski.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., my only exposure to skiing was on television and usually the Olympics. It was a thrill to watch skiers race down the mountain, lean into turns, and throw their hands up at the finish line.
Of all the winter Olympic sports, downhill skiing was my favorite to watch because I could identify with the feeling of excitement; it was the same kind of excitement I got when I accomplished something big, like when I spoke in front of the D.C. City Council and shared my thoughts on why we needed a playground in my neighborhood.
One day, in my teens, on a school trip to Liberty Mountain in Pennsylvania, I got a chance to see what it felt like to ski downhill. After a how-to from a ski instructor, I was ready, feeling like the next Olympic hopeful.
But my dream of being a skier crashed and died that day. It was a disaster! Either I should have paid more attention to my lesson, or skiing just didn’t come as naturally to me as I thought it would. I was sitting on the side of the slope with tears in my eyes when a Black woman skied next to me and helped me get up.
She asked if I was okay. I cried, saying no, that skiing wasn’t for me, and I didn’t belong here. Like lightning, her response to me was: Never say that! You always belong here on this mountain.
It wasn’t until college, when I took a weekend trip with friends, that I really started skiing.
We Are Here!
I am now a skier and have had a successful career as a broadcast journalist. While I know that even today only 1.5% of the ski population is Black, every time I reflect on that first experience learning to ski, I remind myself that Black people have been skiing for as long as we have had snow on the ground.
We aren’t new to this! Failing to acknowledge that Black people are in the mountains skiing and have been forever is saying we don’t exist. Diversity and inclusion for People of Color in the ski industry are separate issues from acknowledging the already active and thriving Black ski and snowboard community.
You only have to look at the National Brotherhood of Snowsports (NBS), a non-profit organization that lists over 57 chapters all over the U.S. made up of African-American skiers. Some of those chapters date back to the early 1970s when its members were leading the way for inclusion.
Henri Rivers, the president of NBS who works tirelessly to promote youth and underrepresented communities in the sport, has said: “We have been skiing as long as there has been snow. We have been doing this since I was a little child; long before my father and his father. We didn’t have communication at the level that we have now with technology. Now, you can open up your phone and see Black people skiing all over the world.”
The NBS has ski racers in the pipeline and supports Black athletes in the industry who are looking to push their way to the top. The organization’s Olympic scholarship fund has helped 45 athletes since it was launched and can now count two NBS athletes in the Paralympics (Bonnie St. John and Ralph Green), and two in the Olympics (Seba Johnson and Errol Kerr), both representing Caribbean Nations.
Last season, Stratton Mountain School skier Bronson Culver, 17 —also supported by the NBS—finished in the top 30 in slalom at the 2023 National Championships in Sun Valley. Rivers’ son and three daughters (triplets) are accomplished ski racers. His son, Henri Rivers IV races for Gould Academy and two of his daughters, Helaina and Henniyah, for Holderness.
In snowboarding and freestyle, Black skiers and riders are already in the media spotlight. An example is pro snowboarder Zeb Powell. Powell is a Stratton Mountain School grad who won a gold at the X Games. Both he, and Okemo Mountain School and NBS skier LJ Henriquez, 15, are sponsored by Burton, Oakley, Red Bull and a host of other major brands.
[Related: See Join the Clubs]
A Growing Presence
Every winter at my home mountain of Killington Ski Resort I am meeting more and more Black skiers and riders. In fact, I met my best friend Nichelle Sanders, who is a person of color, at Killington, the mountain she calls home.
Sanders, a marketing executive who lives in Mendon, shared this story: “My father, Harold Sanders, was a Black man who was born in 1940 in North Carolina and he fell in love with skiing. He was famous with his friends at Howard University for taking them skiing despite the fact that in the early 1960’s they were likely the only Black people that might have ever skied at some of these hills in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He instilled a love of skiing in me, and I’m continuing the legacy and the love of the sport with my family, especially my son, who is four years old now.”
I met another Black snowboarder, Justin Bibb, from Boston at the Killington World Cup; he talked of his father teaching him to snowboard, but he struggled. “I am at a point now where I am loving it, and it’s one of the best sports around,” said Bibb.
Bobby Johnson, another Killington local, was the first African-American ski school director in the U.S. He’s been skiing since 1978 and has been a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America for over 30 years.
Johnson has a lot to say about what he has seen over time. “In the 1970s, I was often the only Black skier, but now that’s no longer the case. However, there’s still a lot of ground to cover professionally in snowsports. I still face a lot of skepticism about my abilities as a PSIA Gold Shield [Level 3] instructor and professional because of the way I look—that is, until they ski or ride with me,” he says. “Now that I’m outside of a ski school environment, my focus is on introducing and welcoming other people of color into the sport through my club, Follow the Snow.”
Johnson now privately coaches skiing, telemark skiing, and snowboarding. He set up “Follow the Snow” on Facebook to welcome everyone into the snowsports lifestyle and to fundraise for nonprofit organizations driving inclusivity on the snow.
Schone Malliet, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Winter4Kids, a non-profit organization in Vernon, New Jersey, focuses on getting kids on the mountain to ski and race. When I spoke with him at the Killington World Cup, he noted that growing diversity in our sports is about making space for everyone, “’Welcoming’ means making a safe place for everybody and that you embrace that it doesn’t matter what you look like — whether you are male or female, black or white, able-bodied or not.”
‘Welcoming’ also means the media will show Black skiers and snowboarders as we are: people who enjoy snow sports. Don’t relegate us to a sound bite, a quote in a story, or a picture for an article when you need us.
Remember, we are here all the time! We must escape this old narrative of the Black Skier, being new on the mountain.
The Black Skier isn’t like Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster; you can see us, we are alive, breathing, in the lodges, on the slopes, lifts, and ski shops— not something invisible but already here. Let’s acknowledge it, cheer for it, and celebrate it!
Perhaps the myth of the Black skier will fade if we see a Black racer push off from the starting gate at professional-level events like the Killington World Cup.
That’s a visual that wouldn’t be lost on the world. At the Killington World Cup, I saw a young Black girl in the stands watching Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin race.
She had the same excitement on her face that I did as a child watching the Olympics on television. u
Victoria Gaither, pictured at top is a broadcast journalist and a contributing editor to VT Ski + RIde. Gaither is a Killington skier and writes regularly for The Mountain Times. Photo by Michael Buccerio