Ava Keenan started skiing when she was 2. By age 7, she was skiing moguls, runs considered by many to be among the most technical, demanding and exhausting terrain found on a mountain.
Now 12, Ava’s goal is to become the first Black skier to win not only one, but three successive gold medals at Olympics competitions when she becomes eligible.
“I would be honored to be the first Black person to make it to the Olympic moguls,” she said at Vail ski area, not far from her home, earlier this month. “Hopefully other Black children or other people of color would look at it, and think, ‘I want to try that now.’ And, hopefully, that would bring more exposure to the sport.”
Ava is already the top skier in her age group in the U.S. and is the 33rd best freestyle skier across competitors of all age groups in the country, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the national governing body for the Olympic teams.
She will be eligible to compete in the next 2026 Winter Games in Cortina, Italy, but her father, Jim Keenan, said she is more likely to compete in a moguls Olympic competition in 2030, when she is 19.
For decades, Black athletes have dominated Olympic sports they’ve had the most access to, such as track and field, football, basketball — and even not-so-diverse tennis — but their presence is far more underrepresented at the highest levels of competitive skiing and snowboarding.
Skiing is a legacy sport that most people won’t try if they’re not introduced to it by a loved one already skilled at it. The cost to participate is astronomical for the average person, and even further out of reach for many Black people, who collectively struggle more financially than people of other races.
During segregation, ski slopes were reserved for white participants, leading to “a delayed snowball effect” in Black people’s access to the mountain and participation in the sport, Ava’s father said. Keenan said he spends more than $100,000 per year, total, for his three daughters to ski competitively.
LEFT: Ava Keenan, center, with other podium finishers following the mogul competition. RIGHT: Ava and her dad, Jim Keenan, celebrate after her successful run. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
“What you’re seeing is a longer road to inclusion because it’s already a very exclusionary sport,” he said. To help offset some of the cost, Keenan spends time marketing Ava’s talent to increase the chance that different companies will eventually choose to sponsor her.
The uniqueness of being the only — or one of only a few Black people on the mountain — can deter Black skiers and snowboarders from entering or returning to the slopes. This means there is not much of a pipeline of Black skiers and snowboarders who are ready and able to participate in higher level competitions such as the Winter Olympics.
Competitive skiers and snowboarders spend thousands of dollars per year to hire the best coaches for brutal training schedules and that must occasionally take place abroad during the summer months where there’s snow.
These elite athletes must find sponsors to help fund their equipment and travel expenses and they must live in an area near a mountain resort, which is extremely costly and generally not racially diverse. Young athletes with Olympic dreams typically ski through state, regional, national and international competitions before reaching the top tier of their disciplines.
By then, many young people become burnt out, or their interest in competitions may fade, said Bessie Gay, Olympic Scholarship Fund Administrator for the National Brotherhood of Skiers, the largest Black ski group in the country.
But those factors will not deter Ava, a member of Team NBS, a group of young Black athletes honing their skills with help from the Black ski group. Through their participation, Ava and the other athletes are hoping to help NBS meet one of its major goals of increasing racial diversity at the Winter Olympics, with the goal of helping more people of color stand on the Olympic podium as medalists in the coming decades.
Team NBS, which held its 50th annual summit at Vail Resort earlier this month, has provided scholarships and funding to more than 45 athletes since its inception, mainly to help pay for training, competition fees and some rental equipment.
Team NBS and the NBS Olympic Scholarship Fund were formed soon after the organization held its first summit in 1973. The idea was to help athletes meet their goal of competing in the Olympics by providing scholarships to them.
NBS has supported four Olympians so far: Paralympic skiers Bonnie St. John and Ralph Green, and Olympians Seba Johnson, a slalom skier, who competed for the U.S. Virgin Islands, and freestyler Errol Kerr, who skied for Jamaica.
More than 20 young athletes are participating on Team NBS this year. Some hope to make it to the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team, the X Games, the Olympics or the World Cup. Others want to simply hone their athletic skills because they love the sport. Thirteen of Team NBS’ athletes currently train in residential boarding programs, meaning they can be on snow six days per week, during training seasons.
The makeup of Team NBS’ athletes has changed since it launched. “We used to have all alpine skiers. Now there’s more freestyle competitors,” said Gay, NBS’ Olympic Scholarship Fund administrator.
Team NBS now includes 23 athletes. Thirteen are alpine skiers and 10 are doing freestyle moguls, freestyle halfpipe and snowboarding, she said. “I feel that the athletes are getting more adventurous and more risk-taking, and I think that’s a good thing. They’re also a little older and the group is becoming more racially diverse as time moves on.”
NBS is continuing to increase partnerships with training academies, educational institutions and other snowsports leaders each year. The more money it raises, the more the group can financially support Team NBS athletes who have a long challenging road ahead.
“People are hearing more about NBS and its athletes and they’re coming with interest to join the organization,” Gay said. “There’s excitement and that excitement is spreading. I see parents’ involvement and there seems to be a sense of commitment that maybe I didn’t see years ago.”
“A level of fearlessness”
At 11, Ava became the first Black skier, and one of only three skiers in her age group, to finish first in a Rocky Mountain Freestyle Competition, an event hosted by a nonprofit that has seen many of its young competitors eventually become Olympians.
In 2022, she was the first Black skier to win the Rocky Mountain Freestyle Rookie of the Year Award. She was also named “most promising” athlete in the Sportswomen of Colorado 2022 awards lineup, among many other accolades.
“She’s way, way ahead of the curve,” Ava’s father said as he sat next to her at Vail ski area earlier this month. “I’m super proud. There’s a level of fearlessness that women and men require to be really good at moguls and not everybody has that.”
U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s DEI committee, founded in 2017, is working with people from different backgrounds who can educate the organization while it aims to broaden its diversity strategies. The organization is also focused on creating a better plan to recruit more skiers and snowboarders from underrepresented groups who have promising talent to offer them additional support to create a pipeline for them toward the highest levels of competition, said Sophie Goldschmidt, president and CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard trains athletes who represent Team USA at the Olympics, but also works to get more people engaged in skiing and snowboarding as new participants, volunteers and coaches, she said.
Goldschmidt, who was at NBS’ 50th summit in Vail, said U.S. Ski & Snowboard donates funds to Team NBS to help athletes with development, training camps and travel. Henri Rivers, president of NBS, is on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Trustee and Governance Board helping to implement diversity strategies.
“Having more diversity on our teams at the top level of our sports is only going to help encourage more to be involved and help them believe that they can be there too,” she added. “We still have a long way to go.”
Jim Keenan said ski industry leaders must partner with local schools and introduce students who are the least likely to participate in skiing and snowboarding to the sports at an affordable price. Some mountains in Colorado already partner with schools in this way but Goldschmidt said there must be many more of these kinds of programs and others to increase access.
Increasing access for people of color, women, people who struggle financially, and others from underrepresented groups is important, she said, because they, too, deserve a chance to become one of the best skiers or snowboarders in the world.
Robin Carter, who attended NBS’ 50th annual summit in Vail and has been a member of the group since 1979, said she hopes the organization will expand to support not only Black skiers and snowboarders but other Black athletes competing in other winter sports. “If you look at the Winter Olympics, you see that there are African Americans in other winter sports that aren’t skiing or snowboarding, but need support.”
Suki Miller, an NBS Olympic Scholarship Fund Committee member who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska — and her brother Andre — spent a few years on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team. It allowed her to travel the world at a young age. But the social environment while training on the mountain wasn’t always so welcoming.
Other white skiers would ask Miller about the products she used in her hair and once someone asked if she was an “Eskimo” — a term commonly used in Alaska to refer to Inuit or Yupik people, now considered unacceptable by many Alaska natives, largely because the term is a colonial word imposed by non-Indigenous people.
These seemed like lighthearted questions, Miller said. “But as innocent as it comes off, you might feel like ‘I’m not part of the group, or, I’m the different person that’s always going to get asked all of these different questions and basically be asked to represent an entire race of people at the age of like 13.’”
“They probably don’t realize they were treating someone differently because of what they look like but they were,” she said. “It’s just normal curiosity at that age, but for me, that’s what I walked into being one of the few Black skiers out there. It was extra labor over time.”
Going to her first NBS summit, a decade after she began skiing, felt like “removing a burden,” Miller said. The questions changed and were based more on her skills than her identity. “It was the first time I had gotten to a ski area and felt like I was supposed to be there.”
As innocent as it comes off, you might feel like ‘I’m not part of the group, or, I’m the different person that’s always going to get asked all of these different questions and basically be asked to represent an entire race of people at the age of like 13.
— Suki Miller, who spent a few years on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team
Miller had Olympic aspirations. But after several injuries and a stint where she felt she had plateaued in her ability, she decided to stop competing.
“I got tired of being the only Black person in the room all the time,” said Miller, who was ranked among the top 100 skiers in the world. She wants her young son to learn how to ski but doesn’t necessarily want him to compete. “Because I don’t really want that environment for him.”
Even though she changed her mind about competing in the Olympics, Miller said she feels it’s important to help others on Team NBS who hope to achieve that same dream. The team and the Olympic scholarship fund gives younger Black skiers support, camaraderie and a sense of familiarity that can help shield them from some of the awkwardness Miller once experienced on the mountain, she said.
“When you’re really good at something, no one can take it away from you,” she said. “That’s something I want for other kids like me that would not have had access to this or need to know that somebody else has walked the path before them.”
LEFT: Mogul skier Elle Keenan competes at Copper Mountain, Feb. 11. RIGHT: Keenan, left, and fellow mogul skier Kennedy Hicks review video of one of Elle’s runs. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Bonnie St. John, despite having her right leg amputated at age 5, walked that path before Miller when she became the first African American to ever win medals in a Winter Olympic or Paralympic competition.
St. John took home a silver and two bronze medals after the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
Her path to Olympic medalist was tough, from her first time on the hill, outfitted with inadequate ski equipment, up until she fell during one of her final Paralympic races.
But St. John had natural ability from the outset. She skied at a national championships, “a mecca for skiers with disabilities,” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she said. By tenths of a second, she placed among the top competitors.
“I thought, if I could do this well with only a little bit of training, I could make it to the national team and I could go to the Paralympics,” she said.
St. John, who was living in Southern California at the time, found a prep school for ski racers in Vermont. She wrote a letter to school leaders introducing herself with links to articles written about her and her ability. In the letter, she told school leaders she had aspirations of attending but could not afford to pay for school and asked for a full scholarship. To her surprise, the headmaster agreed to her request. She became the first Black skier there when she started school and the first person to ski at Burke Mountain Academy with one leg.
But attending the school, on the side of a mountain, was no easy feat for St. John. On the first day, during physical tests, she broke her leg after she fell off a ski simulator.
“Here I am,” she said. “The only Black kid. I have no money. I’m here with all these super athletes and I break my leg the first day and my only leg is in a cast.”
“Even my hair, as you can imagine, was getting really frizzy and nobody up there knew what a relaxer was,” she said. “I was just very different. It was challenging but I stuck it out. And I got through the year.”
While she was injured, she raised funds for the school with gratitude for the full scholarship she received. But when her leg was out of the cast, she was met with more challenges. St. John had to find special equipment to ski as an amputee and had to attend school full time while also participating in grueling ski training and races. “I had to do a lot of training to get my leg really strong,” she said.
She trained during the summer on a glacier and said tenacity and determination, and top-notch coaches, helped her qualify for the Paralympics.
“Nobody even expected me to even beat my teammates, nevermind anybody else in the world, so I was just excited to be going. I wasn’t expecting to win anything,” she said earlier this month. “But I ended up being the second-fastest in the world. The only person who beat me was an Austrian.”
“I was stunned. I was thrilled,” she continued. “I think what you learn is that you can do almost anything you set your mind to. I persevered. I asked for help. I had many disappointments. I broke my leg. So many things happened that were difficult. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t give up. And because I didn’t give up, I was able to win.”
Nobody even expected me to even beat my teammates, nevermind anybody else in the world …
— Bonnie St. John, the first African American to win medals in a Winter Olympic competition
While training at the Vermont ski school, St. John connected with the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which started raising money for her before she competed at the Paralympics. In school, some NBS members hosted St. John at their homes while she was training around the country. When she competed at the Paralympics, more than two dozen NBS members showed up to cheer her on.
“There were 30 Black people on the hill cheering me on, which kind of stands out in ski racing. And people would say, ‘Bonnie, you have a really big family.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do,’” she said with a laugh.
“I am so grateful for what the NBS did for me. They made it possible for me to compete and win the medals that I have.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated March 2, 2023, at 12:38 p.m. to specify that Olympic slalom skier Seba Johnson competed for the U.S. Virgin Islands.