Remember the name: Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s Ava Keenan wants to be the first Black mogul skier to win an Olympic gold medal
12-year-old was featured in latest Warren Miller film, 'Daymaker'
Starring in a Warren Miller film and winning an Olympic gold medal would satisfy most skiers’ bucket lists. Ava Keenan is halfway there.
The 12-year-old Ski and Snowboard Club Vail mogul skier was featured in Miller’s “Daymaker,” which aired at Beaver Creek last Saturday. Her next objective: become the first Black mogul skier to win an Olympic gold medal.
“That’s really important because I want Black skiers on the hill to be the norm,” the trailblazing Keenan said of her ambitious goal.
“It would be inspiring to other people and a big accomplishment for myself.”
Ski bum past to ski club fast
Jim Keenan, Ava’s dad, arrived in Vail after his college days. The Boston-born natural athlete grew up playing football, basketball and track, but skiing captured his heart after one day on snow.
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“My dad left me at the bottom of the hill and went skiing with his friends and just said, ‘hey, just hike up and ski down,'” he recalled. The 10-year-old spent the day marching his Goodwill-bought skis — bear-trap bindings and all — up the hill. The gliding sensation down was unforgettable.
“It was just the feeling of sliding downhill — I loved it,” the 54-year-old admitted. After graduating from a two-year college, he intended on becoming a Killington ski bum, but when Vail showed up on the cover of Ski Magazine as the No. 1 North American ski destination, “I changed all my plans and moved out here,” he said. “And then never left.”
When Ava’s older sister, Kenna, grew out of the DEVO program, all three of his daughters, including 8-year-old Ava, and 11-year-old Elle, enrolled at SSCV. Even though she had her eyes on following Kenna into the park and pipe program, Ava remembered her dad saying “all the best skiers on the mountain are mogul skiers,” and so, she decided to try it…at least for a year.
“Basically, I really liked it and I was really good at it, so I just stayed with it,” Ava explained.
In her first competition — against 10 12-year-olds, she placed second. During her 9-year-old season, she beat everyone, prompting SSCV coaches to urge Jim, the author of the bestseller “Gap Selling” and owner of a sales consulting and training company, to move his family from Denver to Vail — where he serendipitously had bought a place back in 2004 — so his kids could attend Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy (VSSA) full-time.
Of her first coach, Brad Kreuz, Ava, who beat competitors as old as 18 in a competition last year in Vail, said, “He’s the guy who really made me driven to go into skiing because he was a fun guy to be around. He just made skiing fun. I just enjoyed going to training.”
“When training fifth through eighth grade-aged competition athletes, I think it’s important to find a balance between fun and training,” Kreuz stated.
“Some kids want to be better but for Ava improvement is more like eating breakfast; she could manage without it but she’d be less complete. Keeping it fun for Ava was about finding a way for her to improve in different locations. We spend a lot of time training on our competition course but we can focus a lot of those same things around the mountain in different conditions and I think that variety really helps keep it fresh.”
Her current coach, the calculated John Dowling, is guiding Ava as she continues to build her fundamentals.
“At this stage, we’re still working on all aspects of the game. Ava’s a really aggressive skier and able to take on risks really well; she’ll step up to challenges,” Dowling said. “She’s still young, so we’re still doing technical turns, building out her air-game for inverts. She’s working on a 360, 360-mute grab, her flip with the iron cross — so kind of all the technical pieces.”
“Being a coach, especially with kids who want to take skiing far is a very, very important role in that kid’s life,” Ava said. “Especially in my life, John Dowling is the guy who’s there. He’s a great coach.”
Ava’s already done some trailblazing. Not only was she the youngest skier to podium and compete in the 2022 Rocky Mountain Freestyle Comp Division, and winner of last year’s RMF freestyle rookie of the year, she was also the first Black skier to win a sanctioned RMF competition. Her Olympic dream was birthed watching the World Cup in Deer Valley, when she saw France’s Black mogul skier Martin Suire compete.
“I was like, holy crap, there’s a Black skier on the World Cup right now,” Ava recalled of being a fan at that event. “What Martin’s doing right now, that was really like, ‘Woah, like, I could be doing that.’ So, that’s exactly what I want to be doing for kids right now.”
Her and her dad realized she was the only Black mogul skier in the program.
“I was like, I should do something about that,” she said. “I was like, I’d think I’d want to win a gold medal. Then it came to, I’d be the first Black person to win a gold medal.”
Dowling, who has helped multiple athletes reach the Olympics, understands that a step-by-step approach is necessary, especially for athletes with big goals, like Keenan.
“A lot of things have to happen,” he said. “Years of training — and you know you have to be lucky. And it happens; we’ve had a bunch of athletes go on to great careers, so there’s no reason to think it can’t happen. It just takes a lot of work.”
Following in the footsteps of individuals like Seban Johnson, the first Black skier to compete in the Olympics, Andre Horton, the first Black skier on the U.S. Ski Team, or Sabrina Simader, a 2018 Kenyan Olympian, is what drives the youngster, who is part of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an organization dedicated to attracting more Black people to the sport.
As of 2021, just 1.8 percent of American skier days are logged by Black people, according to the National Ski Areas Association, a number which hasn’t risen in a decade. For the past 49 years, NBS has gathered thousands of Black snow-sports enthusiasts for a week-long summit, the goal of which is “to provide financial support to the NBS Olympic Scholarship Fund in pursuant of its mission to identify, develop and support athletes of color who will WIN Olympic and International winter sports competitions, representing the United States, and to increase participation in winter sports.” The 50th will take place Feb. 4-11 in Vail.
Ava and Elle (who is also coached by Dowling) are the first Black mogul skiers in SSCV’s program history, according to Dowling. Together, Jim and Dowling worked to create an NBS-sponsored scholarship for the Rocky Mountain Freestyle division.
“It’s a really cool thing that we’ve been able to work on together to sponsor what we’re calling the National Brotherhood of Skiers Grand Prix,” Dowling said. In last year’s inaugural Grand Prix, approximately $32,000 was given away to the top finishers in the region.
“They can put it towards their ski career and their education. It’s a cool partnership,” Dowling said. “Our second event on Feb. 4-5 is right at the beginning of Black Ski Week, so we’re hoping to have kind of a broader involvement of NBS there.”
Keenan’s involvement with NBS was how she became involved in Warren Miller’s “Daymaker.”
“I’ve watched Warren Miller before in our theater. I saw actually some of the NBS athletes in it before,” Ava said. “I was like, that would be really cool if I could be in there. And then, the next year it happened, so that was really amazing.”
“It’s really cool,” Dowling said of the opportunity. “It’s outside the regular competition spectrum — it’s got some other flavor to it.”
Warren Miller took video of Ava skiing in Aspen, where NBS founders Ben Finley and Art Clay held the inaugural gathering in 1973, last winter. What was going through her mind as she repeated different runs for multiple camera angles?
“I was just like, ‘everybody is going to see this, everywhere.’ So, that was kind of nerve-wracking,” she said. “And then when I watched the movie, I was like, why couldn’t they have filmed it now, I’m so much better now.”
In regard to her favorite part of the process, she said, “Everybody was really nice and I just really enjoyed being around all the people and getting to go to all these places. I think just meeting new people was probably the best part because now I know these people I definitely would not have known.”
Keeping a smile on
One of Ava’s trademarks — beyond her aerial package which includes a ‘back truck driver,’ ‘back X,’ and hopefully, by the 2024 U.S. Junior Nationals, a cork — are the two smiley faces patched onto her knees.
“When I started mogul skiing, everybody knew my name, and I was like, ‘how do you all know my name?’ They were like, ‘how could they not know your name? You’re the only one with smiley faces on your knee pads,’” Ava recalled of the logo, originally patched onto all three sisters but now found only on her and her dad’s kneepads.
Even though Ava’s podcast, where she’s talked to Olympians Tess Johnson and Jaelin Kauf, is appropriately coined “The Happy Podcast,” her naturally bright exuberance isn’t immune to being dimmed by the daily unseen doldrums inherent to world-class athletic aspirations. She skis every day, lifts weights every other day and does trampoline work and film sessions as well. She admits her weakness — a word some might find surprising to find in such a prodigy’s lexicon — is consistently finding joy in the daily grind.
“When I’m not having fun, I just feel like I want to stop and get away from it for awhile. You can’t really do that; you have to stay at training,” she said. “Skiing can get really not fun sometimes; like right now I’m going to training at 7 a.m. in the dark. Finding the fun in anything is something that I’m trying to do better.”
She’s gotten some help from one of her local idols.
“Tess (Johnson) is really nice; she says herself, having fun is the most important thing, but you also don’t always have fun,” Ava explained of her conversations with the 2018 Olympian. “She said you have to kind of find the fun in things that aren’t fun … or, if you just can’t find it, you just have to kind of push through it.”
Kreuz has witnessed Ava’s mental toughness on the hill many times.
“Though clearly Ava’s a talented skier, her real talent is her grit; her willingness to push through challenges and keep going when everyone else calls it a day,” he stated. “I’ve seen her (more than once, haha) take crashes that would put most kids out emotionally as well as physically and instead of asking to take a break, she’ll argue aggressively to be able to go back up and give it another go.”
Even at nine, that desire was on display.
“She wanted a 360 so badly and kept sitting back a bit on takeoff and would keep backslapping the landing, but she just kept going back,” Kreuz continued. “Making changes when you keep wrecking is hard. It’s a mental battle between what your body thinks will work and what your mind knows will work. it was really impressive stuff.”
Her dad describes his daughter as having a personality that is both “intense” and “jovial.”
“She’s a super happy, funny, outgoing girl, but at the same time she can be pretty intense and in your face. In a lot of ways she’s very similar to myself. She’s not afraid to speak her mind,” he said. Jim is aware of the balance between offering her kids real-life lessons in the all-consuming ski world.
“I give my kids lots of freedom, they get to make all their own choices,” he said of his approach. “I say, ‘what are your goals, what do you want,’ and once they pick it, I hold them accountable.”
When desires inevitably bump against a goal’s requirements, Keenan is ready to shepherd his kids, too. “OK, welcome to the world of hard decisions; it’s not always fun,” he explained. “You have to focus on the outcome, not the action; and so it’s just constant conversations like that.”
Even though she’s been on the big screen, and hopes to compete on the big stage, Ava has plenty of moments where she’s just a kid. She dressed up as an alien abducting someone for Halloween and went trick-or-treating with her friend, Liz Lemley, the latest Dowling-taught SSCV mogul skiing product to burst onto the World Cup stage before acquiring a driver’s license. Keenan could be next in line.
“I feel like having fun is a big part of getting better,” she said, summarizing her dualistic happy and goal-oriented competitive persona.
All the more reason to heed Fort Minor’s words: “Remember the name.”
“It’s been great working with Ava,” Dowling said. “I think she has a really bright future.”
“Ava’s skiing is close to unique among kids her age, irrespective of gender,” Kreuz stated. “She understands the concept of mogul skiing, of contouring the ski to match the shape of the bump, in a way that many adults struggle to manage. That allows her to ski with both power and finesse and if that’s not the ultimate goal of our sport, I don’t know what is.”
“What an amazing person. The few days I’ve have the privilege of skiing with her I’ve been amazed by her passion for the sport, her work ethic and determination to win, but mostly her character,” Tess Johnson stated.
“She’s a just great teammate and person and I can’t believe she’s only 12! I really can’t wait until we can be U.S. Ski Team teammates.”