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Group exposes African-American kids to skiing

Effort aims to diversify area mountains, dispel stereotypes

By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

8:29 PM EST, February 24, 2013

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James Guyton plays basketball. But skiing?

Not so much; especially since it means being out in the cold.

When the Chesapeake Ski & Sports Club Inc. invites African-American teenagers to try a day on the slopes, members expect such resistance. It took some gentle prodding from counselors at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of Metropolitan Baltimore before Guyton, 16, reluctantly agreed to try snowboarding — which seemed a little cooler.

Wrapped up warmly in a red ski jacket and black pants borrowed from the local ski group, he stumbled his way down the bunny slope at the Whitetail Resort in Pennsylvania during the recent visit. By the fourth run he was starting to master the hill.

"I didn't fall at all that time," he grinned.

It was another victory for the Baltimore-based ski club, whose mostly black members are working to diversify the area's mountains and dispel the belief that people of color don't ski.

"The biggest challenge is finding kids who want to do it," said Tracy Washington, the group's president. "This is not basketball or football and the kinds of sports city kids are used to. It's not a common sport in the environment they live in."

Washington has heard the excuses: The other kids will laugh at me. Black kids don't ski. It's a corny sport. It will mess up my rep.

His hope is that once they feel the rush of a downhill run, many will become hooked.

The ski club has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club to introduce disadvantaged children to skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports. The group, which started the program last year, pays for travel, rentals, lift tickets and lessons.

The effort is part of a growing movement nationwide to get African-American youth out to the slopes.

Some are surprised to discover they actually enjoy skiing once they try it — even if it means wiping out a few times.

Such moments teach life skills as well as sport, said Washington, a former marathoner who traded his sneakers for skis a few years ago.

"They learn that when you fall you get back up and try again," Washington said. "You don't give up."

Washington's wife Tanya — the couple met on a ski trip — said they also hope to challenge kids to try new experiences.

"We hope they learn to think about a different way of living and to take a different perspective on life," she said.

Blacks make up more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but only 1 to 2 percent of skiers, according to the consumer intelligence and consulting firm RRC Associates. The percentage hasn't changed in the last decade.

The Colorado-based firm, which specializes in tourism, hospitality and snow sports, says ski groups across the country are developing programs to get African-American children out on the slopes.

The problem has been getting kids to continue on their own.

"I really like what those programs are doing and I think it is really important to expose children to skiing, snowboarding and being outdoors," said David Belin, RRC's director of consulting services. "The challenge is translating that into lifelong participation."

He described potential obstacles: Many African Americans live in the South and other parts of the country where there is no skiing. The sport can be prohibitively expensive.

The Chesapeake Ski & Sports Club pays about $100 per child to rent gear, take a lesson and ski for a day, Washington said. Members raise money and use grant funds from the National Brotherhood of Skiers, of which the club is an affiliate.

Washington said disadvantaged kids can present challenges. The day of the recent trip to Whitetail, some of the teenagers were late and got to the resort three hours behind schedule. The group was supposed to include 10 kids, but several had bad grades and couldn't attend.

And getting the kids to participate in the first place involved getting parents to insist their children go because there was so little interest.

"They did not want to go at all," said Chris Parker, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club.

But Washington said his group is up to these challenges. He recently started showing videos of skiers doing flips and other tricks to get teenagers more interested.

"If we can at least get them to the mountain, that is something," he said.

The skiers know they won't convert every teenager.

Tahtiana Hyman, 16, made the trip to Whitetail. She was reluctant to go at first. No one she knows skis and she wasn't sure she'd be any good at it. But she decided to approach it as an exciting new experience. Plus, her good friend Kendreya Allen was going.

But it was difficult for her from the start. She struggled to get the ski boots on. By the time she was fully dressed, she was exhausted.

"Uggghh, I feel really uncomfortable," she said as she trudged along in the boots.

The actual skiing didn't come easy, either. During her lesson, she had a hard time grasping some of the basics, such as keeping her hands to her sides —she tended to scrunch them up in front of her body, as if in fear.

When she finally hit the bunny slope, Hyman struggled to ski down. She continuously drifted to the left and fell several times.

She thought she'd never get to the bottom.

"I am not going back to that mountain," she said afterward, with tears of frustration in her eyes. "I just didn't like it."

But Washington and Chesapeake Ski aren't giving up on Hyman. They hope she will find the courage to try again.

Allen told her friend she shouldn't give up on skiing. Allen said she was afraid, too, when she skied for the first time last year. But this year, she sped through the lessons with grace. She flew down the bunny slope with ease, comfort and a big smile on her face.

Hyman later told Boys and Girls Club executive director Parker that she, at least, liked being at the ski resort.

Maybe there is hope.

"I think Chesapeake Ski will see Tahtiana on a mountain in the future," Washington said.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

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