Changing the stigma around ski racing 

Ski racing is a sport that isn’t accessible or affordable for most, but there are changes that can be made to make it more accessible. 

Story by MADISON KULEDGE

Imagine showing up to a sports competition and not having anyone look like you. Or being told that your athletic ability is only because of your race. Or competing in a sport that holds the nickname “rich white person’s sport” when you aren’t white. Unfortunately, this is the crippling reality for many Black ski racers. 

Ski racing is an expensive sport whose participants are predominantly white. Additionally most participants are in the upper-middle-class to upper-class income bracket. There needs to be change made to make it more inclusive and welcoming for all. 

In a study of the 2019-2020 season, the Snowsports Industries America found that in winter sports (skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, etc.) participation rates were 67.5% among whites and only 9.2% for Blacks. 

The history of skiing can be traced back to 8000-7000 B.C. in Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Skiing was used as a way of transportation and eventually transitioned into a leisure activity. 

The first ski competitions weren’t held until the 1840s in Norway. Ultimately, a few decades later, the sport made its way to the U.S. In 1936 alpine skiing made its Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

This Indo-European background of winter recreation established it as an activity predominantly enjoyed by white people. 

Another aspect that makes ski racing inaccessible is the sheer cost. After equipment, club, camp and travel fees, athletes can expect to spend upward of $30,000-$100,000 (depending on the level of competition). For the U.S. Ski Team (USST) to pay for travel costs across all disciplines each year it needs approximately $1.6 million, according to Ski Racing Magazine

So, the question is, what can we do as a ski racing community to make the sport more inclusive and welcoming?

“I began ski racing when I was 6 and it wasn’t until I was racing internationally when I competed against someone Black,” said Luke Mathers, University of Utah Alpine Ski Club coach. “I think it’s surprising that there isn’t more diversity within the sport and I wish there was. I mean, who doesn’t love skiing?”

University of Utah Alpine Ski Club at regionals in Red Lodge, Montana, in 2018.

In Mathers’ four years with the club, only one Black ski racer has been a member of the team and he was only involved for just one season. 

To increase diversity in the sport, Mathers stressed the importance of “getting rid of the stigma that skiing is only for rich white people.”

This has been an issue that the USST has been trying to change for four years. In 2017, the USST created the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee to increase racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic diversity at all levels of ski racing. 

All committee members serve voluntarily and are comprised of USST staff, leadership and board members, as well as select members of the community. One of these community members is Lauren Samuels, U.S. Ski Team, Rowmark Ski Academy and University of Utah alumna.

Samuels grew up racing for Team Gilboa in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and at 15 was invited to join the U.S. Ski Development Team in Park City, Utah. 

During her time with the team, she quickly learned it wasn’t quite what she was expecting. 

At her pre-summer testing, known as baseline testing, she broke the record for her vertical jump test. “They said, ‘Well, it’s just because you’re Black, so obviously you can jump,’” Samuels recalled during a Zoom interview. 

She also experienced criticism for not braiding her hair, but her hair didn’t braid. “The coaches didn’t talk to me about my technical skills, but instead they asked about my hair,” Samuels said. “Well we did wind tunnel testing and braids were fastest by hundredths of a second,” her coaches told her. 

Once Samuels finished with the national team she was eventually invited to join the University of Utah Ski Team. After her time racing, she took her talents back to the slopes of Minnesota coaching and focused on making the sport better. 

“I don’t have the end-all solution. But does anyone?” Samuels said. “The main thing is outreach and partnering with organizations. There needs to be a strong partnership between the clubs and the U.S. Ski Team to generate diversity.”

University of Utah NCAA race in 2017 at Beaver Creek, Colorado. Lauren Samuels, left, and teammate Abby Ghent. Photo courtesy of Lauren Samuels

To make change it is important that everyone does their part. If everyone just sits around and points fingers at each other nothing is going to change. We as a community have to go out and create change. 

That is the philosophy of former ski racer Shay Glas, who is looking to make ski racing more accessible and affordable. 

“Skiing is expensive, we all know that. Skis get old and skiers want new ones. But what happens to the old ones? Normally they just sit in your basement or garage and I want to change that,” Glas said in a FaceTime interview. 

Glas is currently working on creating an organization that will provide used ski equipment to people of low income so they can try skiing. The program would provide people of all ages the ability to try out skiing for the day without all the costs and fees that are typically associated with it. For reference, a day of skiing can cost anywhere up to $350 after lift tickets and rentals. 

Along with the U.S. Ski Team, there are many organizations that have been working toward the diversification of skiing. 

Snowsports Industries America has over 20 inclusion teaching videos on its website stating, “SIA has convened an Inclusion Committee to provide feedback on our plan to incorporate inclusivity into our organization and our industry.”

There is also the National Brotherhood of Skiers founded in 1972 on the basis of creating a national Black Summit for skiers, a place for Black skiers to come together. Today it has over 50 clubs in 43 cities with a membership of 3,500 skiers. 

As a community, we need to work together to continue to listen, learn and make change. “If we all work together,” Glas said, “we can create diversity and switch the stigma around skiing.”