Giving African-American skiers a lift

Email|Print| Text size + By C. Kalimah Redd
Globe Staff / November 9, 2003

BETHEL, Maine -- Leaning forward, gently shifting her weight at each turn, Janet Anderson coasted into the base hill at Sunday River with a swoosh, then taxied her way back into the lift line. Her runs that day were not her best, she admitted: "My knees are killing me."

There was a time when Anderson's only discomfort on the slopes came from the stares and double-takes she received from other skiers, almost all of them white and, she suspects, almost all of them unaccustomed to seeing an African-American skier. "You just feel isolated," said Anderson, 44, a writer and labor advocate from Baltimore.

But that weekend was different. That time, at the end of last season, she was joined by more than 400 black skiers, because Sunday River was host to Winterfest, the eastern regional ski festival hosted by the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an umbrella organization for 84 black ski clubs in 46 cities.

The national group's popularity illustrates a shift in the social and athletic outlets traditionally shared by African-Americans. Now, moving up the economic ladder, blacks are enjoying winter resorts in larger numbers, and raising their children to be involved.

The growing market has sparked the interest of a ski industry that has been looking to expand into the ethic and urban populations in recent years. Resorts are forging stronger relationships with the organization and, in some cases, offering discounted rates to many black ski groups.

Leslie Jones, a brotherhood spokeswoman, said it only makes sense. "If you can get them on the slopes and get them interested than generally, they will keep coming back if it's accessible," she said.

For years, the inconvenience of getting to resorts was a barrier to blacks, who mostly lived in urban and southern regions. The high cost of lift tickets, equipment, and lessons didn't help. Cultural habits have also played a role. According to David Becher, a senior researcher for Colorado marketing research firm RRC, the number of African-American skiers still remains low, at 2 percent. Four percent are Asian, 3 percent are Latino, and 1 percent are Native American.

Nonetheless, the National Brotherhood says its 30-year-old national summit is the largest continuously running ski convention in the nation. Its members have considerable spending money, pouring about $16 million annually into the ski industry, according to Frank Jones of Pennsylvania, the group's eastern regional vice president. The summits, meanwhile, add an estimated $2 million to the local economy. Nationally, according to the group's website, 74 percent of its members are college graduates, and 60 percent live in households with annual incomes of between $50,000 and $100,000.

Such spending is a major selling point as the brotherhood looks for ski resorts to host its events. The clubs' ability to retain new skiers -- nearly seven of every 10 -- is an even bigger attraction, especially since the industry's growth has flattened since the 1980s.

"Any new skier that we can bring to these winter sports is critical to the future of our industry," said Kelly Ladyga, a spokeswoman for Vail Resort in Colorado.

At last year's Winterfest, a broad range of professionals, including doctors, accounting vice presidents, and retired professors, shuffled from resort hotels to slopes, stopping for lunch or to chat with friends. At happy hour, a dance party featured a New York disc jockey playing the sounds of reggae artist Sean Paul, rap star 50 Cent, and old-school favorite Frankie Beverly.

The camaraderie was infectious. For some of those interviewed, the chemistry boiled down to one simple truth: Being together is more fun than not.

"I want to ski with black folks," said Maxine Morgan, 44, of Queens, N.Y., as she rushed off to pick up lift tickets. "I know it sounds trite, but it's true. Skiing is a white thing, and you always stand out."

Added Elise LaMotte, 40, of Stoughton, who skis with the Boston Ski Party: "People are looking to have a good time with people who look like them."

While many people join the brotherhood to ski, party, or show off the latest in winter fashions, others are drawn by the group's core mission: to identify and support young skiers of color to represent the United States in the winter Olympics.

Each event serves as a fund-raiser to help the organization's youth programs as well as the group's national ski team. Team NBS, as it is called, includes about 24 nationally selected skiers who receive financial support toward their athletic development and the opportunity to train and compete with other elite skiers at brotherhood summits.

Okolo Schwinn-Clanton, 31, of Methuen has been a member of the National Brotherhood of Skiers since the age of 3, and coaches young skiers to race. He said he often travels to competitions to represent "the only black face in the crowd" to cheer them. Schwinn-Clanton has seen the number of new skiers grow, but said he doesn't believe the industry is maximizing the potential of the black market. "If [the ski industry] understood the Tiger Woods phenomenon and how many blacks started playing golf, the ski industry would be doing everything they could," he said.

C. Kalimah Redd can be reached at

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