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Why aren't there more black women on the slopes?

in 1988, Seba Johnson became the first black woman and youngest Alpine racer to ski at the Olympics when she competed for the U.S. Virgin Islands at age 14 during the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. AP Photo/Rudi Blaha

The Winter Olympics came to a close in February, and of the United States' 23 medals, 12 were won by women, while the men accounted for nine (plus two others from mixed events). The last time U.S. women outperformed their male teammates in the Winter Olympics was at the 1998 Nagano Games. But, unlike the Summer Olympics, the Winter Games seemed to be lacking in racial diversity. Of the 109 women on Team USA, only six of them were African-American.

Which begs the question, how is it that a group of women who have unquestionably excelled in athleticism have zero presence on the snow-capped mountains?

We have to start with a glimpse at the past to find an answer.

Segregation and skiing

There was a time in America, before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when many public facilities were segregated. African-Americans were prevented from enjoying several spaces, even those that were outdoors. Because many ski lodges and resorts fell within the parameters of public spaces and there were very few African-American owned ski facilities, segregation meant that, for decades, black people were legally prohibited from or meant to feel unwelcome in some settings where they could learn how to ski.

To be clear, and contrary to unfortunately popular stereotypes, African-Americans' lack of participation in winter activities was not for lack of interest in outdoor activities or dislike of the cold weather. In fact, in 1922, a resort, founded by Denverites E.C. Regnier and Roger Ewalt, for middle-class African-Americans thrived in the Rocky Mountains. Until the mid-1960s, the Lincoln Hills resort offered African-Americans the opportunity to live and vacation year-round in the mountains. The resort area extended over 100 acres in total, and over 600 lots were sold for $50 to $100 a pop. Owners from throughout the United States erected cabins on the lots or used them as campsites.

In addition to privately owned lots, Lincoln Hills had a sprawling resort called Winks Lodge (or Winks Panorama) and from the mid-1920s to 1945 an annual summer camp for African-American girls, called Camp Nizhoni. (Camp Nizhoni derived its name from a Cherokee word meaning "beautiful.") Not only did middle-class black Americans flock to the resort to live and relax but some of American history's most formidable performing artists -- including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Billy Eckstine -- regularly made their way to Lincoln Hills. It became the only mountainous resort open to black people during this period. It was a testament that, when given the opportunity, African-Americans would engage with nature, even when there was snow on the ground.

In fact, 93-year-old Nancelia Jackson has very fond memories of spending countless hours at Lincoln Hills. "I've been going up to Lincoln Hills since 1926. My grandfather built a cabin there, and we would go up every weekend. It's a part of my life. I started going to Camp Nizhoni when I was 13 years old," Jackson says.

Although legal segregation ended in 1964 with the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the lasting effects of a lack of access to ski facilities stretched far and wide. African-Americans have yet to overcome the disparity in access and exposure to winter sports when compared with white Americans.

In 1984, Bonnie St. John, a right-leg amputee, became the first African-American to win medals in Winter Olympic or Paralympic competition, taking home silver and two bronze medals at the 1984 Winter Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Then in 1988, Seba Johnson became the first black woman and youngest Alpine racer to ski at the Olympics when she competed for the U.S. Virgin Islands at age 14 during the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Unfortunately, since Johnson's appearance, there has yet to be another African-American woman to participate in one of the snow sports -- Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing, the ski jump and snowboarding -- in the Olympic Games.

Bringing diversity to the slopes

According to the Snow Sports Industry Insights Study, an annual report published by Snowsports Industries America: From 2014 to 2017, African-American men and women (on average) accounted for 8.3 percent of snowboarders and 6.7 percent of cross-country skiers. From 2009 to 2013, black Americans averaged about 4 percent of Alpine skiers.

So we have proof that African-American women do ski (even if in small numbers), but where are these women?

Apparently, they are on the slopes all across the world.

"We're out here! Black women do ski and snowboard. I just came back from skiing in Japan at an annual ski trip that my friend started," says Sonya Brown, a 46-year-old avid snowboarder from Michigan.

"I first started skiing at the age of 7. My grandmother was a member of the Jim Dandy Ski Club. Founded in Detroit in 1958, it was the first and oldest black ski club in the United States. She took me on their trips, and I picked it up fairly easily. I continued skiing in high school and college. I got into snowboarding around 2002 and have been hooked ever since."

Nancelia Jackson's daughter, Kimberle Jackson-Butler, can also attest to the fact that black women do ski and have been doing so for some time. "My father made sure I learned once resorts and lodges integrated. When I was 3 years old, my father would build mounds of snow in our front yard. He bought me these tiny skis, and I learned to ski on those mounds in the front yard. When I got older, my parents signed me up for the Eskimo Ski Club in [Denver]. I took lessons, loved it. Skiing has been a part of my life and my children's lives ever since."

Brown and Jackson-Butler are right. Evidenced by the 55-club membership in the National Brotherhood of Skiers, the first national organization of predominantly black ski clubs, African-American women are taking to the slopes on an annual basis. But because the numbers are still so small, the world isn't quite familiar with the occurrence.

"We tend to take ski and snowboarding trips in groups, and the groups are by and large all black," Brown says. "That elicits stares and commentary from non-African-Americans. People will say things like, 'I'm surprised that you can ski' or 'I didn't expect you to be this good.'

"And there have been times when facilities aren't welcoming to a large number of African-Americans staying at their resorts. So traveling in groups is not only fun and social but it lessens the burden of having to deal with people who aren't used to or comfortable with seeing black people on the slopes."

So why haven't more African-American women gotten into snow sports? Longtime skier and snowboarder Dior Winston is pretty sure she knows why.

"The three biggest issues that have kept black girls from snow sports is access, financing and exposure. If you look at major cities where a great deal of African-Americans are located, very few are within driving distance of ski slopes and resorts. So, for a lot of us, there aren't many local places where we can learn to ski.

"That brings into play the second issue, money. Traveling to a ski resort can be expensive when you factor in transportation and lodging," Winston says. "On top of that, skiing is a pricey sport. One day of skiing can easily cost an individual $300 when you factor in lessons, lift tickets and equipment. For many African-Americans, that can be an unaffordable cost to bear.

"The straw that breaks the camel's back is that most black girls don't know or have never seen black women who ski."

Winston is spot-on. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, about 1 in 4 black households lives in poverty, more than double the portion of white households (9 percent). And African-American households have a median income of about $39,000 compared with $47,000 for Latino, more than $65,000 for white and over $81,000 for Asian American households. That leaves little to no extra money for expensive extracurricular sports.

And, as previously stated, only two African-American women have appeared at the Olympics and Paralympics representing the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands in skiing, so very few black girls have seen a woman who looks like them on the slopes.

Although Team USA didn't offer great diversity, it did field the most African-Americans ever. Black women competed in bobsledding and speedskating. Those events don't qualify as snow sports, but the athletes' appearance in the Games certainly showed black girls that it is possible for them to compete in and excel at winter sports.

The presence of Erin Jackson, Maame Biney, Aja Evans, Lauren Gibbs and Elana Meyers Taylor on television and computer screens will certainly inspire African-American girls to test their limits in winter sports.

As African-American women continue to progress in finances and exposure, there is no question that their presence will be felt on a larger scale. It's only a matter of time.

"There is absolutely a misconception that black people don't like the cold and don't participate in cold-weather sports. We do," Jackson adds. "There aren't many of us comparatively speaking, but we're out there."