National Brotherhood of Skiers founders enter ski hall of fame
In March of 2020, 600 members of Black ski clubs from around the country gathered in Sun Valley for a weekend of skiing, dance parties and reunions.
The clubs form the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an organization that supports and organizes African American skiers and hosts an annual summit at a rotating list of ski resorts.
A club from Florida sported their signature teal and gold jackets inside the lodge, a crew that flew in from London grouped together at the base of Bald Mountain for a photo. And Ben Finley and Art Clay, the two founders of NBS, both in their 80s, sat in chairs on the patio soaking it all in.
“We got Eastern hardpack out there, and it’s a son of a gun to ski,” Finley said.
A few weeks later, the pair was set to return to Sun Valley to be inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame for their contributions to the sport. The ski clubs have more than 3,000 members nationwide and the annual summit brings tens of thousands of dollars to mountain communities.
“I never thought I’d be in anybody’s hall of fame,” said Clay in 2020. “I didn’t know the skiers had a hall of fame until somebody told me.”
The next week, Idaho detected its first case of COVID-19 and within days, the resort shut down. The ceremony was postponed and the skiers headed home.
Of the group that was in Sun Valley that week, five NBS members died due to the virus, Finley said. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
But after a two-year delay, Finley and Clay were officially inducted into the Hall of Fame last week at Sun Valley – the first African Americans to enter its ranks.
“It’s probably one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me in life,” Finley said in an interview before the ceremony.
“The NBS family is so extremely proud and thrilled and happy for them,” said Peggie Allen, a former NBS president who worked to get the founders into the Hall of Fame. It took three tries. She needed to make sure people in the ski industry — and those with voting power — were aware of what they do.
“We still had a lot of ‘Black folks ski?’ going on,” she said.
The organization has come a long way since the first summit in 1973 in Aspen, Colo.
Anticipating that hundreds of Black skiers arriving simultaneously at the resort would turn heads, each local ski club made its own reservation. Then, organizers sent a press release to the Aspen Times a week before, announcing their plans.
“It caused so much anxiety that the governor put the National Guard on a standby alert,” Finley said.
The group had a great time in Aspen, and Aspen enjoyed having them, Finley said. So, by the time of the second summit in Sun Valley two years later, NBS had become a real organization with a real mission, one it’s stuck to more or less throughout the years: Identify, develop and support winter sport athletes of color who will eventually win Olympic medals.
On that front, the organization has been “moderately successful,” Finley said. Bonnie St. John was the first African American to win medals in the Winter Olympics when she took home a silver and two bronzes from the 1984 Paralympics in Austria.
Andre Horton became the first Black skier on the U.S. Alpine team in 2001 and his sister Suki made the development team. A few NBS athletes have competed in the Olympics for other countries.
Overall, NBS has provided scholarships and funding for more than 45 athletes. Sixteen members are part of the team currently, including Boise High School sophomore Pius Rogers, a freestyle skier.
He’s been skiing at his home mountain, Bogus Basin, since he was nine years old, shortly after he moved to Boise with his family from Uganda.
“One year, I saw the U.S. Ski Team in the Olympics, and I was like, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’” he said.
Rogers joined Bogus Basin’s travel team, and eventually the national association for freeskiing. This was his first year entering bigger slopestyle competitions.
“I really like to spin and flip and hit rails,” he said.
Joining the NBS team is helping him toward his goal of competing in the next Winter Olympics, he said. The scholarships help with costly travel and competition entrance fees. It’s also been nice to have the organization’s support, he said.
“I haven't really seen much Black skiers or any snowboarders, really, in Idaho. Just some here and there at bigger mountains,” Rogers said. That’s just made him want to ski more and introduce other kids to the sport.
Skiing, in fact, has long been a very white sport. As of a few years ago, Black skiers made up about 1.5% of visits to ski areas. But it took the death of George Floyd and the ensuing national conversation about race and racism for the industry to begin to come to terms with its lack of diversity.
NBS, having been formally recognized by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association but not formally inducted into the Hall of Fame at the time, became the go-to source for industry leaders looking to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.
“That seat at the table has allowed us to form all sorts of alliances,” Finley said.
It includes partnerships with Vail Resorts and Alterra to make skiing free or more accessible at certain resorts for NBS members.
Clay said some outdoors-focused brands and magazines have improved on featuring more people of color.
“We had not been featured in the past,” he said. “I picked up a Sun Valley Magazine today and was just thumbing through it, and there we were.”
But there’s still a lot of room for change, Finley said.
“How have they done?” he said, reflecting on the ski industry’s actions over the past two years. “Well, they’re doing alright. I mean, you know, there’s no major steps that have been taken, but at least they are aware and they have made public announcements that they intend to improve things — and that goes all the way up to the U.S. Ski Team.”
In his speech during the induction ceremony last weekend, Finley said three times that day in Sun Valley, people came up to him and Clay and asked where they were “appearing” that night.
“It shows you that in 50 years, a whole lot of stuff hasn’t changed.”
One of their legacies, he said, is dispelling the myth that Black people don’t ski. Another is the permanent Hall of Fame voting seat NBS gained through their induction. They hope that seat will help NBS continue to further its mission of increasing diversity in skiing.
Clay is looking forward to next year in Vail when NBS will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first summit. Just maybe, he said, he’ll make it out on the slopes one last time with all his friends.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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