Carving connections

Matt Zalaznick
Craig Hart, of Los Angeles, shades his eyes with a napkin relaxing after lunch at Mid-Vail Saturday. The Black Enterprise Ski Challenge held a private lunch party at Mid-Vail.

But that seemingly intimidating distance is more myth than reality and is easily surmounted, says skier Kenneth Solomon, a native of the island who now lives in New Jersey. Another myth that Solomon says is quickly being eroded by groups like the National Brotherhood of Skiers, and events like the Black Enterprise/AXA Advisors Ski Challenge being held on and around Vail Mountain this weekend, is that African Americans, in general, are strangers to the slopes.

“Black skiers are extremely diverse,” Solomon said at the bustling Ski Challenge picnic at Mid-Vail Saturday afternoon. “We have expert skiers and expert snowboarders and even a group of mono-skiers, of which I’m a member.”

More than 700 skiers and snowboarders are attending this weekend’s Ski Challenge, which also includes social events and financial seminars.

There are an estimated one million black ski enthusiasts in the U.S. who ski more than 14 days a year. And the country’s oldest ski club is an African American organization called the National Brotherhood of Skiers, whose goals these days are to involve people from big cities and urban areas in skiing and also for black skiers to win gold medals in the Olympics and World Cup competitions.

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The organization comprises more than 80 clubs in 40 American cities.

Misconceptions vanish

“The myth is slowly being eliminated – the myth that African Americans stay away from the sport because of access and that it requires certain income levels,” said Sheryl Flowers, a skier from Los Angeles who produces the highly respected Tavis Smiley Show for National Public Radio.

Flowers said it’s African American ski clubs, rather than the ski industry, which are integrating the slopes.

“It’s all about access for athletes,” she said. “I don’t think the resorts have done outreach, but the various clubs have helped resorts realize there are hundreds of thousands of black people who ski.”

That may be changing, however, as Vail Resorts and other large ski companies, such as Intrawest, form closer partnerships with organizations like the National Brotherhood of Skiers. But, Flowers said, she still notices segregation on the slopes when she’s not skiing with a large group of African Americans.

“The mountain is still pretty white – the snow and the people. It’s getting better, but we’re not there yet,” she says.

Dayna Wilkinson, a skier from the Washington, D.C. area, says the slopes are integrated – it’s skier who aren’t.

“Skiing reflects society – people ski with their friends,” Wilkinson says.

Craig Hart, a snowboarder from Los Angeles, agreed. He said he knows plenty of black skiers and snowboarders. For him, the sport is integrated, he said.

“In the circles that I run in it is – I have a lot of friends,” Hart said.

Ernest Graves, a part-time Beaver Creek resident who publishes Black Enterprise magazine, says the biggest barrier in skiing these days is economic.

“I can’t think of one time when I’ve been skiing that I haven’t seen another African American couple,” Graves said. “I think Colorado has been making a real effort to make everybody a part of skiing.”

Graves, who was on Beaver Creek Mountain the day it opened in 1980, says he and his wife were the first African American couple in the neighborhood when, 10 years earlier, they bought a house in Smuggler’s Notch, Vt., next to Stowe ski resort. By the time they sold the house, however, they had African American neighbors.

“If you look at our country, it’s still not perfect, but as a democracy, it’s the best in the world,” Graves said.

Skiing networks

Showing the valley that African Americans ski is not the purpose of the five-day Ski Challenge – activism is not a big part of the event. The main purpose of the Ski Challenge, aside from rest and relaxation, is to bring together African American business leaders from across the country, to meet each and share secrets to success, says Drew Palmer, from Los Angeles.

“It’s a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to get together and make some contacts,” Palmer says.

Dana Brewington, a trial attorney from Washington D.C., said the Ski Challenge has become a tight-knit group over the years.

“It’s kind of like a family. Some people come year after year after year,” Brewington said. “The Ski Challenge is like Martha’s Vineyard, which is hub where African Americans go in the summer to relax and network. But this is wider, it draws from communities of African Americans all over the country.”

The hub of the Ski Challenge is the slope-side Cascade Resort in Vail. It’s estimated the event will pump more than $2 million into the local economy.

“I’m surprised more resorts aren’t reaching out,” Brewington says.

“The resorts know,” Solomon adds, “that when African Americans come, we spend more money per capita than any other group.”

Tiger, Venus and Serena

Over the last few years, three black athletes have come to dominate the most un-integrated of sports. Tiger Woods has won an extraordinary number of golf tournaments – major and minor – over the last few seasons and sisters Venus and Serena Williams are now so dominant in tennis that they often have only each other to play in championships matches at the U.S. Open and other top tournaments.-

Skiing’s rising African American star is a 23-year-old named Andre Horton.

-“Skiing, all in all, has been a very expensive sport,” said Kenneth Meeks, the managing editor of Black Enterprise magazine. “You can see how that would eliminate some African Americans from participating.

“And to ski as a competitor,” he added, “that’s even more expensive.”

But, Brewington said, skiing is not the only sport where color barriers are again crumbling.

“We’re breaking in on all different fronts, like horse-riding and professional bull riding,” said Brewington, a self-proclaimed rodeo enthusiast.

In 2000, American Vonetta Flowers became the first African American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, when she and her partner, Jill Bakken, won the woman’s bobsled in the games at Salt Lake City, Utah.

Meeks said success is all about exposing kids to skiing when they are young.

“When we see the Tiger Woods, the Venus and Serena, of this sport, that will really mobilize focus,” Meeks said, “and you’ll definitely see an increase in African Americans skiing.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at [ ]

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