Since the day he found an old pair of skis in his family’s hotel attic, Henri Rivers has found a special joy in skiing. It didn’t matter to him that he was the only person of color on his high school ski team. He just loved to ski. Today, as president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), Rivers is making a difference helping the ski industry better understand how to embrace black skiers with programs like Ski Utah’s Discover Winter.
Henri Rivers skiing with his family
The first thing that strikes you when you meet Rivers is the importance of his family and his passion for skiing which comes through quickly in a conversation. Before they married, he told his fiancé Karen that he would be skiing six months a year. Without hesitation, she learned to ski and is always at his side. And it became the same for their triplets, who have long been a part of their family ski trips to the mountains!
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Since he found that old pair of wooden skis with cable bindings when he was 10, skiing has been a part of his life. He long ago discovered NBS and passionately engaged in the organization’s mission to put a black skier onto the U.S. Ski Team. It was pretty natural for the outgoing Rivers to take on the presidency of NBS in early March 2020. What was not natural was the pandemic that swept the world a few weeks later, or the Black Lives Matter uprising that came that May.
Within NBS, he held the organization together through the pandemic. Outside of NBS, he became one of the most sought-out leaders in the sport as ski industry executives from every corner reached out to him for help navigating the diversity waters.
Henri Rivers and two of his daughters
This month he will preside over the 50th anniversary of the National Brotherhood of Skiers when it comes together for Black Summit.
But what he’s most proud of is the undying support NBS has provided towards its mission of advancing Black athletes in the sport. He speaks proudly of athletes of the past and with eagerness when he talks about today’s Team NBS. And he’s set lofty fundraising goals for the organization to support the cause.
“We're always hoping that people can see the value of what we do and donate to our cause,” said Rivers. “So once we decided or once they decided to come up with that mission. That's when we got a different drive. You know, we went from just partying and having fun on the hill to gathering funds to support young athletes of color so that we could promote them and get them to training, develop them into elite racers.”
This is a conversation that blends the passion for skiing we all share, along with a special message of diversity. Take a listen to this episode of Last Chair featuring Henri Rivers: Bringing Diversity to the Mountain.
How did you discover skiing yourself?
I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Around ten years old, my parents moved us up to upstate New York – a little town called Big Indian in the Catskills, about six miles from Belleayre Mountain and 10 miles from Phoenicia Ski Center. By Thanksgiving, you had three feet of snow outside. Either you stayed inside from Thanksgiving to March or you found a way to make all that snow out there your friend. I found a pair of skis in the attic of my parents' hotel – skis, boots and poles. I tried them on and they all fit.
But how did you learn?
I had no clue what I was doing. I figured out how to lace up the boots and strap in. They were cable bindings. I would put them on and I would just push off and go straight down the hill until there was an obstacle. And whenever a tree popped up, I would just tip over and fall.
As a skier in the Catskills back then, you probably were the only person of color on the mountain. How was that?
That was part of life. That's part of American society. In most areas, if you're outside of an urban community, you're usually one of the only persons of color. Now you ratchet that up a little bit more when you're in a mountain community. You're definitely one of the only people of color. I was fortunate there was a guy a couple of years ahead of me in high school. He was such a phenomenal skier. And I'm telling you as a kid, my eyes would be wide open. You ask how it felt. It really didn't have any different feeling because that was society at that time. That was the community you were in. So just because we're skiing now, it's still the same community. If you were the only person of color, you will look at it a little differently, of course. You develop a thick skin because just living life was hard enough. Now you're into the ski world, into their environment. And it was the same thing. So you dealt with it the same way.
Henri Rivers and his family on a powder day
This year we’re celebrating 50 years of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. It’s quite an amazing history.
You know that is something that I think about often going back to 1973, 1972. These two gentlemen (Art Clay and Ben Finley) decided to get together, form a bond and bring as many Black ski clubs as they could across the United States and gather and get them to ski together. They wanted to ski together for several reasons. Camaraderie and definitely security. Getting together with a group of people that enjoy the same thing you do, and that look the same as you do, tends to give you a little bit higher safety factor. And then you wouldn't have to worry about some of the rhetoric or some of the things that were said in your direction because they wouldn't be said when you were there in numbers. So as a result of coming together and enjoying the sport and finding that many Black skiers were proficient skiers, it wasn't like a bunch of people skiing down, bumbling and falling. And, you know, they were quite proficient. And after the ski community saw that, I think they accepted it more and more.
Henri, what role did NBS play in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020?
Everything stopped. May 25th, George Floyd gets murdered in the street and we all see this. My phone rang off the hook every single day from the ski industry. We had large resorts, large manufacturers write letters in support of Black Lives Matter. So they were looking to the National Brotherhood of Skiers for guidance on how should they move forward in supporting human equality and trying to stop the racist system that exists.
“There is a huge disparity of inclusion within the sport. So the National Brotherhood of Skiers has been working with many organizations trying to figure the right path to help make this industry much more inclusive.” - NBS President Henri Rivers
Henri, one of the things I’ve learned from you is that sometimes racism isn’t very overt. Can you give an example?
The first thing that comes to me is this. You have a black skier or a group of black skiers that will come to a ski area. White skiers will come to them and, you know, be a little bit too overly helpful. ‘Oh, let me show you how to put on your boots. Oh, your boot goes here into these little black things called bindings.’ And, don't get me wrong, if you've never been on skis, you do need some guidance. But just because they're just coming up onto the hill doesn't mean they've never skied before. So you get people that want to help them or direct them. And sometimes it's a little bit too much. And that can be thought of as microaggressions that are unnecessary.
You’ve been a big supporter of Ski Utah’s Discover Winter program. What makes it unique?
They've done their homework and the program is going well. I was fortunate that Raelene Davis reached out and invited out to watch the program and to be involved with one of the weekends. What they're doing is hitting a different demographic. The other winter outreach programs, they're looking at small children, eight to 18, which is ideal. We need them. But, none of the programs have ever really focused on that 20-year-old plus population. We don't want to lose them. So this is great what they're doing.
A famous person you’ve skied with?
Listen to Henri Rivers’ fascinating story on Last Chair from the boyhood passion for skiing he developed to his leadership role in helping the ski industry make a difference in bringing diversity to the mountain.
Now in its second season, Ski Utah’s Discover Winter program has taken a different approach to help bring people of color to the mountains. While most diversity programs focus on youth, Discover Winter has set its sights on adults, offering turnkey programs to introduce newcomers to skiing and snowboarding at seven different Utah resorts.
Discover Winter snowboard participant and their instructor at Snowbird (Photo by Sean Ryan)
Debuting in 2021–22, the program introduced 140 to snow sports. A year later, 89% of them are still skiing or riding. This year, 150 new participants took part in four different introductory sessions. It truly is a turnkey program with complimentary jackets, pants, gloves, goggles, socks and neck gaiters provided. Rental gear and instruction are also included, as is bus transportation to the resorts. And when you complete the program you get a Ski Utah Yeti Pass, with a lift ticket to each of Utah’s 15 resorts.
In just two seasons, Discover Winter has truly touched its target market with a broad range of participants including both native Utahns and immigrants from literally around the world.
Discover Winter snowboard participant on the magic carpet at Snowbird (Photo by Sean Ryan)
“What I like about Ski Utah’s Discover Winter program is that they are targeting the 20-plus year age,” said National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers. “I think that age demographic is pivotal. And their retention rate is pretty good.”
Click here learn more about Discover Winter, check out the Ski Utah website.
National Brotherhood of Skiers
In the early 1970s, skiers of color on the slopes were a real rarity. An exception were the Black ski clubs that dotted the country. When Ben Finley from Los Angeles and Art Clay from Chicago met, the two club presidents decided that they needed to bring all the clubs together into what became the annual Black Summit. This season, the National Brotherhood of Skiers will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
From the very start, NBS had a sense of purpose. One was to socialize – and the annual Black Summit quickly became skiing’s biggest party! But more deeply, the organization wanted to focus on challenges unique to the Black skiing population. Out of that grew its still omnipresent mission to put a Black skier onto the U.S. Ski Team and on to the Olympics.
“There is a huge disparity of inclusion within the sport. So the National Brotherhood of Skiers has been working with many organizations trying to figure the right path to help make this industry much more inclusive.” - NBS President Henri Rivers
Tom Kelly: |00:00:00| Today, Last Chair is honored to be joined by Henri Rivers, president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. And Henri, I know you are frantically packing because as we're recording this podcast. You're getting ready for the 50th anniversary of the Brotherhood with Black Summit coming up in Colorado. So I imagine you are going crazy right now.
Henri Rivers: |00:00:23| Yes, I am. And Tom, thank you so much for inviting us to your program.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:27| Well, happy to have you on. Hey, just know you’re getting ready for Black Summit, You're probably like I was a few weeks ago on my trip to Europe. How many pairs of skis are you taking with you?
Henri Rivers: |00:00:38| Well, I started out. I said you know what? I'm going to go light. I'm only carrying one pair of skis right now. I just zipped my ski bag. I've got four pairs of skis in there.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:48| Beautiful. I love it.
Henri Rivers: |00:00:49| And one pair of skis didn't work out too well.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:51| I tried to take one pair to Europe, and even one pair is clumsy to haul around trains. But at the end of the day, I'm wishing I would have brought two. So I think you're going to be in good shape. Of course, there has been phenomenal snow out here this winter. Maybe you'll get a groomer day here and there. But man, I tell you, there's a lot of snow in the Rockies.
Henri Rivers: |00:01:09| Excellent to hear.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:10| So give us a little bit on your background in skiing. We're going to cover a lot of territory in this interview and really appreciate all you've done for this sport and for a lot of us to get us to better understand how we can be more welcoming as a sport to black skiers. You grew up in New York City, and why don't you kind of walk us through how you got involved in the sport a few years back?
Henri Rivers: |00:01:35| Sure. A few years back, Yes. I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, in New York, and around ten years old. My parents, they moved us up to upstate New York. So we moved to a little town called Big Indian in the Catskills. And about six miles away was Belleayre Mountain. Ten miles to the east was Phoenicia Ski Center. So, you know, back then in the late sixties and early seventies, we got tons of snow. So by Thanksgiving, you had three feet of snow outside. Either you stay inside from Thanksgiving to March or you find a way to make all that snow out there. Your friend. I found a pair of skis in the attic of my parents' hotel and boots and poles. I mean, they would have big bamboo poles with big baskets on them, everything. So I tried them on and they all fit. That was part one. So now I have to learn how to ski. I had no clue what I was doing. I figured out how to lace them up and strap in. They were cable bindings. I would put them on and I would just push off and go straight down the hill until there was an obstacle. And whenever a tree popped up, I would just tip over and fall. So after a couple of probably a good year doing that, just hiking the slopes around the house, I would just go down and keep trying to turn. And eventually, I found that if I leaned over enough the ski would actually turn. So then I realized, okay, I can turn these logs.
Henri Rivers: |00:03:22| They were over six feet long, whatever skis I was on. But that's how I started turning. And then I said, okay, Then I got to I go to the hills. I went to finish the ski center and I'd follow behind the other kids. Mind you, there weren't too many people of color on the hill at all. One or two, if that. But following behind the other kids watching them ski, I tried to emulate what they were doing. And that's how I learned how to start to turn and use the terrain to help me. So by the time I was 14, I tried out for my high school ski team. I was number 15, and got in. I was the last kid to be selected to the team, but I made the team. And I tell you right now, if I hadn't made the team, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you. I can almost guarantee you that because I probably would have had no desire to continue skiing. So I make the team and now I'm on a team with 14 kids who ski really well. And skiing with them and training and getting coaching. That propelled my skiing immensely, but it also created this desire within me to want to get better at something that you could never master. I don't care who you are, you will never be better than the mountain, you know. But it just lit a fire and desire to want to ski and to continue to ski and to be in the outdoors. That's pretty much my background. How I got started with ski.
Tom Kelly: |00:04:56| I love that you can never be better than the mountain. That is. That is a words for skiers to live by. Henri let's go back, though. When you first get started, you're ten, 11, 12 years old. You've found this pair of skis, boots and poles up in the attic of the hotel. And what did your family think of this? I mean, this was really a pretty, pretty new thing.
Henri Rivers: |00:05:19| They really didn't think about it. Okay. That was just him going off doing his thing. You know, he's off on another adventure. You know, the sun came up. He was out the door, the sun set, and that was coming back in. And it's funny, I was telling my wife the other day, I was looking at a bread wrapper, the plastic bag, the bread comes in. That's what I used to put on over my socks before I put them into the ski boots because so much water came in and you froze. It was so much colder than it is now. So you did whatever you could to try to brave the elements. But my family, you know, my sister, my youngest sister, she came out once or twice, but she really didn't like skiing. And she would just sit and be a cheerleader and say, I don't want to do this. I'm going home. But none of them really took the ski. I would say they respected my desire to want to learn to ski so much that I my older sister, when she was away at college, saw these gloves that were I guess they were marketed as the best ski gloves ever.
Henri Rivers: |00:06:28| She buys them and sends them home. I would dry those gloves every day and put them up on the mantle. And every one of my family knew to never touch Henri's ski gloves. Just leave him alone. That's his cherished possession. And he lives by those, you know. And that's how maintaining my ski equipment was from that point to this point. You know, my ski gear is like, hands off, don't touch it. You know, leave it alone and just let it be. So that's, you know, I wish that more of my younger, my immediate family had gotten wilder skiing. My oldest sister skied a little bit, but never really took to it. I guess back then it was very cold. Nobody we didn't have the technology in the outerwear that we have now, you know, and you know that back then, you know, you had to layer up and we had wool, you got wet, you froze, you know. But now the technology is so advanced, you can stay out for hours with no problem. There's no, no issue with the weather now.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:38| Yeah, it's really evolved a lot. I grew up in the Midwest, so I definitely know cold. I live out in Park City, Utah, now, where I must say it was below zero today, but that really is pretty rare. When you were on the high school team, Henri, and you were up against all of these other athletes, I'm going to assume you were probably the only athlete of color on the team, right?
Henri Rivers: |00:07:59| That's a very fair assessment. And I was the only one on my during my time. I was the only black kid in the U. Cal conference.
Tom Kelly: |00:08:08| Did you think about tell us a little bit about what that was like. I mean, did you think about that? Was that something that you really noticed or was that just kind of a part of your life?
Henri Rivers: |00:08:17| That was part of life. That's part of American society. In most areas, if you're outside of an urban community, you're usually one of the only persons of color. Now you ratchet that up a little bit more and you're in a community, a mountainous community. You're definitely one of the only people of color. I was fortunate there was a guy a couple of years ahead of me in high school. His name was Lionel Heron. He was such a phenomenal skier. And I'm telling you as a kid, my eyes would be wide open. I'd watch this guy and he was a big guy. He was over six feet tall. He was at least 300 pounds. And this guy could actually do a flip back in the late sixties or early seventies. He'd come off something and do a flip and landed. And I was just like, Wow, if I could only be as good a skier as Lionel one day. But again, he was about five years ahead of me. But other than Lionel, there were maybe one or two other people of color that skied, but we never really skied at the same time on the same mountains. So you didn't cross paths too much. That, you know, you ask how it felt or whatever. It really didn't have any different feeling because that was. Your society at that time. That was the community you were in. So just because we're skiing now, it's still the same community. You were the only person of color. You will look at it a little differently, of course. And people had these little microaggressions, they would say, But you know what? It really … you develop a thick skin because just living life was hard enough. You know, now you're into the ski world, into their environment. And it's the same thing. It was the same thing. So you dealt with it the same way.
Tom Kelly: |00:10:20| You continue that passion off the high school team. And as you started to form your own family. And one of the things that's interesting is you've really conveyed the sport onto your family now.
Henri Rivers: |00:10:35| When my wife and I got married, I told her she knew that I was an avid skier. And I explained to her, you know, what are we going to do? I said I would love you and I want you to be with me 12 months out of the year. I said, But if you don't ski, I said, We're only going to see each other six months out of the year. I said, Because for six months I'm going to be chasing snow all over the United States. So my wife agreed. She said, You know what? I want to try it. And she learned how to ski. And since learning how to ski, she became a PSIA certified instructor, USSA coach. And she was part of the reason why we said, okay, let's raise our kids and as a ski family and develop a ski pedigree and hopefully they'll buy in. I did not want to push this on them because, you know, with any sport, if you push the kids too hard, they're going to rebel or they're going to push back and they're going to walk away from it. So I knew it was a thin line not to push them too hard, but to expose them enough. And fortunately, our oldest daughter really doesn't like skiing that much, but our triplets love it. They're all second-year U16 racers now, two red Holderness ones at gold, and they're doing great.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:58| How did you get the triplets on snow? Did that happen in unison?
Henri Rivers: |00:12:03| Oh, yeah. Everything with them happened in unison. You should have seen us going through airports back then when they were firstborn. It was a site triple stroller run into the gates. Don't let them have to be changed, you know? It was like, Oh, my God, what do we do now? But, you know, they started out on the magic carpet. We started well, actually, just on a carpet, walking up the carpet and skiing down. They were all pretty athletic. My wife was a track runner, so she's been very athletic her whole life. So they all took to it. They wanted to make sure we acclimated them slowly so they would get accustomed to the cold. Because of what I've seen as an instructor and a coach, the young kids that don't take to it are the ones that are always cold. So the parents will send them out in inadequate layering or whatever. So they're like, I don't want to do this. So you just make sure that they acclimate. They get used to it and they have fun. If you have enough things for them to do on the snow, not just skiing, they'll gravitate to it. And now it's second nature to them. They I don't think they would know what to do in the winter if there was no skiing.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:24| So the triplets are racers, huh?
Henri Rivers: |00:13:26| Yeah.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:27| Great. I bet you love that, because you. You still are racer.
Henri Rivers: |00:13:32| You know, I'm a retired wannabe racer, put it that way. I raced in high school, a little bit of masters after college, because college, I didn't ski much, but after college, I dabbled a little bit. I'm okay. You know, I'm. I'm nothing great, nothing to write home about. But, you know, I can hold my own.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:55| But you love getting into NASTAR course, I imagine.
Henri Rivers: |00:13:59| Of course. Who doesn't?
Tom Kelly: |00:14:00| And you'll do that out at the summit, right?
Henri Rivers: |00:14:04| Well, I have to. On the president, you know, what's it like not to have your president come down the course? You know.
Tom Kelly: |00:14:10| Absolutely. Let's talk about the National Brotherhood. This is really quite an amazing organization. 50th anniversary this year. Give us a little concept of the background that Art Clay and Ben Finley brought when they got this whole thing going 50 years ago.
Henri Rivers: |00:14:28| You know, that is something that I think about often 1973, 1972. These two gentlemen decided to get together and form a bond and bring and find as many black ski clubs as they could across the United States and gather them and get them together to ski together. They wanted to ski together for several reasons. Camaraderie, definitely security. You know, because as we were talking, I'd be the only black kid on the mountain here, upstate New York. You can imagine that was the same thing that was happening out in Chicago. That was the same thing that was happening out in California, in Tahoe, in Colorado, you know. So getting together with a group of people that enjoy the same thing you do that look the same as you do tends to give you a little bit higher safety factor. And then you wouldn't have to worry about some of the rhetoric or some of the things that were said in your direction because they wouldn't be said when you were there in numbers. So as a result of coming together and enjoying the sport and finding that many black skiers were proficient skiers, it wasn't like a bunch of people skiing down, bumbling and falling. And, you know, they were quite proficient. And after the ski community saw, I think they accepted it more and more.
Henri Rivers: |00:16:10| Not to say that it's widely accepted today. It's still something that we're continuously working on. But back in 1973, they got the 13 clubs together and they figured the best place to have that was in Aspen. So they all met at Aspen, Colorado, in 73, and they called it the Gathering, and they had about 355 members show up. And, you know, they decided maybe five years later that not just having a great party and everybody coming to ski, why don't we have a mission? We have all these folks coming here. Why don't we put together a mission that would continue the legacy of blacks and skiing. So that mission developed and that became to identify, develop and support athletes of color that are going to win international Olympic competitions representing the United States and to increase winter participation in snow sports. That became the mission. That became the goal. The driving force for our summits. Our summits are the annual gathering of all of our clubs across the country and the UK. We get together, we have a lot of races, parties, gospel Fest, social gatherings, barbecue on the hill, all sorts of things, just to just to bond and have a great week. And while we're doing that, we donate money to our Olympic Scholarship fund called the OSF.
Henri Rivers: |00:17:51| And mind you, now that the National Brotherhood of Skiers is a 100% volunteer, 501(c)3 organization or a nonprofit organization. Everything that's done in this organization is done by volunteers. So we always need donations. We're always hoping that people can see the value of what we do and donate to our cause. So once we decided or once they decided to come up with that mission. That's when we got a different drive. You know, we went from just partying and having fun on the hill to gathering funds to support young athletes of color so that we could promote them and get them to training, develop them into elite racers. Today we have 23 athletes on our Olympic on our Team NBS, and that's the most we've ever had. We sponsor them from anywhere from $1,000 to $12,000. Hopefully this year our goal will be during that week-long celebration, which starts on Saturday. We're trying … our goal is to raise $500,000 in that week. So if you're listening, audience wants to help us reach that goal, we would definitely appreciate it. But that is the goal. If we can raise $500,000 in a week and then get our sponsors to match that, we'll be looking great for 2324 supporting team members. Hopefully we can get up to 30 athletes.
Tom Kelly: |00:19:32| Yeah, I just want to expand on this a little bit because one of the things that has always struck me from having spent my career working with the U.S. Ski Team is the perseverance that NBS has had over the years in staying true to this mission and truly supporting these developing athletes. I mean, look at what you're looking to raise this year in your 50th anniversary. I mean, this is a mission that you guys have really dug your teeth into.
Henri Rivers: |00:20:01| Yes, we have. And I want everybody to understand that. You know. Excuse me. Not many know that we've really reached our mission several times, but we haven't had an athlete of color on an Olympic podium. But that, you know, that's the Mikaela Shiffrin end of the mission. You know, but all along, all through this journey, we've attained this mission in 1984 or 1984. Yes. Bonnie, St. Jean Went to the Olympics. She got a bronze medal in the Paralympics and that was in Austria 2001, Andre Horton became the first African-American on the U.S. Ski Team. In. 2006, Ralph Green made the Paralympic team and he went on to three different Olympics. Oh six in Turin, Italy. 2010 in Vancouver, 2014 in Sochi. And he almost medaled in Sochi. He was leading by over a second and he fell ten games shy of the finish line. But then in 2010 as well, we had Errol Kerr, who was representing the country of Jamaica, but he was one of our athletes that we supported all along his training career. And he came in ninth and ski across. So we've really reached our goal, but we're still striving to place that African American or that black athlete on an Olympic podium. And actually, I would like to see one of our NBS athletes walk in the Olympic opening ceremony with Team USA. So we've gotten there. We're driven to keep going and finding and developing that elite athlete. Now, what are we doing? We've partnered up with the U.S. Ski Team and they're working diligently with us to help us try to help them as well. Because as you know, the pool that the U.S. Ski Team pulls their athletes from predominantly rich white kids. And if we can open that up and bring in more athletes of color to give the United States and America the opportunity to train more athletes, we can definitely show more results in the form of medals. I think it would It's only the right step. It's the right way to go. We need to do that across the board in winter sports.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:55| I want to touch on one other thing with NBS before we take a quick show break. The other element that has really struck me that is the camaraderie. It's the brotherhood. It's everyone coming together. And you guys have a great time.
Henri Rivers: |00:23:12| You know, camaraderie is if you write that and you look that up in addiction or you will see NBS. I came to the NBS in 1996. Now, prior to that, I'd ski primarily by myself or with friends of mine. So, you know, I might have two or three black friends that would say, okay, let's do this and let's go skiing. But I'd never skied with the group. In 1996, I went to Innsbruck, Austria, on an NBS summit trip, and I was exposed to about 3 to 500 people of color skiing and many of them skiing very well. I was floored. I was shocked. I was happy. I was crying. I was like, wow, this is unbelievable. I have never missed a summit since that day. And my story is the same story that you'll hear from 3,000 other NBS members. They will tell you there is so much more to coming to the summit than just hanging out. You're going to see people that you've met. I'm going to see people I met in 1996 there, you know, and they come every year just like I do. It is more than that. It's a fellowship. It's camaraderie. It's a family. And it just grows. And once you get in our retention rate on our membership is like 70%. You know, people that become NBS members stay NBS members, they die in the NBS. That's really what happens. They are committed lifelong members of the.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:59| We're with Henri Rivers, president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We'll be right back on last year. And when we do, we're going to talk about diversity in skiing and in particular the Discover Winter program of Ski, Utah. We'll be right back.
Tom Kelly: |00:25:16| And we're back on Last Chair with Henri Rivers, the president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. And Henri, I want to talk a little bit about diversity and skiing. And just as a preface, I think those of us who have worked in the industry for many years have always been cognizant of the fact that we are not a very diverse activity. Three years ago during the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2020, I think a lot of us started to pay more attention. And I would imagine that you, as the president of NBS, you probably got a lot of calls during that period.
Henri Rivers: |00:25:50| I. You know, Tom, it's something I was. Since 96, I've worked through the organization of NBS, from a club president to a regional competition director, National competition director, executive, Vice president and President. Always keeping my eye on saying that I wanted to run the organization because I thought I could help. I got elected March 6th, 2020. March 11th. The world stopped. Everything shut down this pandemic. They called it COVID 19. It shut the world down. So I looked at my wife and I said, Wow, I really picked a great time to become president. Everything stopped. March 25th, George Floyd gets murdered in the street, and we all see this. My phone rang off the hook every single day from the ski industry. We had several large resorts. Write letters. Several large manufacturers write letters in support of Black Lives Matter. So they were looking to the National Brotherhood of Skiers for guidance on how should they move forward in support or supporting human equality and to try to stop. The racist. System that exists. So many letters were written. Many letters were written well. And we got calls. I received tons of calls. How do I support Black Lives Matter? How do I support human equality? So we were answering as many as we could. There were tons of podcasts, there were many interviews and gave our interpretation of what could possibly help the ski industry look at their lack of diversity and inclusivity throughout. As everyone is aware, you look at the ski industry and it's you know they say 87% of the people at ski are white and that's I would say that's accurate.
Henri Rivers: |00:28:23| The other 13% are a mix of all different types of colors black, Asian, Latin-x, you name it. But there is a huge disparity of inclusion within the sport. So we've been working the National Brotherhood of Skiers has been working with many organizations trying to figure the right path to help make this industry much more inclusive. So I am so fortunate and glad that we got to meet with Raelene Davis from Ski, Utah. They have a great program going on over there. And the difference, there's a lot of programs going on. You've got Share Winter, you've got Chill, you've got Shred, you've got all these different programs. But almost all of those programs are targeting one demographic. They're looking at young, young kids, young kids of color to bring them in. What I liked about Ski Utah, they are targeting like the 20 plus year age. And that is ideal because some of those kids are not calling them kids because they're much younger than me. But the 20 year old, they're at that point now where they might start getting a little disposable income. And if they don't, the Ski Utah program gives them outerwear, gives them lessons, you know, and transportation to the mountain. And I think that age demographic is is pivotal. It's you know, they can decide if they want to keep skiing and or not or not ski and from what I understand with Ski Utah their their retention rate is pretty good.
Tom Kelly: |00:30:16| Yeah it has been pretty amazing. As an example, this year, second year of the program called Discover, Winter had over 500 applicants. They could only take 157 participating ski areas. And it really is a pretty turnkey package, as you said. But the decision, though, to focus on the adult population, I think that's a pretty unique approach, though, across the nation, isn't it?
Henri Rivers: |00:30:40| Definitely. I'm glad you said it was Discover Winter there. I like the segment of the population are going after that age group is not only going to continue skiing if they like it, but they're also going to invite their friends that can afford to ski. Or maybe or maybe if they can't afford to ski, at least get them smitten by the sport to the point where they'll find a way, just like I did as a kid, I didn't have any money. I would do whatever I do, shovel driving or whatever to get five bucks for a lift ticket. So maybe they'll figure out how how to continue skiing. But that's the right age. I think it's different there are many different avenues to pursue and I like the angle that they're going on.
Tom Kelly: |00:31:28| Henri, earlier you had mentioned the retention rate, the rate for this program, 89% of last year's participants were back on the skis this year.
Henri Rivers: |00:31:38| Yeah, that's amazing. You know, you look at the retention rate of skiers in the ski industry and it's nowhere near that. It's probably a quarter of that. Their retention rates, what, 17 to 20, 20% something in there. You know, so I like that it's even better than the National Brotherhood of Skiers retention rate. So they did an amazing job.
Tom Kelly: |00:32:04| Let's dissect it a little bit. There's so many different barriers, whether this is for people of color or anyone who's getting into the sport. There are so many barriers to entry. It's the transportation, it's the equipment, the education. Discover Winter. Has all of this checked off. I mean, all of these components are included. It really is a turnkey program. And then when you're finished with the program, if you've graduated out of the sessions, you get a Ski Utah Yeti pass, which gives you usage at all of the participating resorts. So it really they seem to have checked all the boxes on this.
Henri Rivers: |00:32:37| They've done their homework and the program is going well. You know, I was fortunate that Raelene Davis had reached out and invited this out to watch the program and to look and be involved with one of the weekends. A couple of our members volunteered to assist as well as chaperones. Going on the bus, helping them get ready, guiding them into the rental shops, getting them outfitted and then watching them on the hill. So what they're doing, it's hitting a different demographic. Again, I'm going to have to I keep saying that because that's not what we've been doing in the past. All the other winter outreach programs, they're looking at small children, 8 to 18, which is ideal. We need them. But, you know, we never really focused. None of the programs have ever really focused on that, that 20 year old plus population. And that's a good you know, we don't want to lose them. So this is great what they're doing.
Tom Kelly: |00:33:37| And it's a great program. Discover Winter from Ski Utah. I want to go back to some of the educational programs you were involved with during the early days of Black Lives Matter in 2020. I was involved in a number of those through US ski and snowboard. And I think one of the things that I learned anyways was maybe a deeper understanding of some of the let me call it tacit or passive discriminatory practices that skiers of color may have encountered. And I think some of us, when we think of racism, we think of things that are very overt. But some of the examples that I heard in these educational sessions were just treating black skiers differently. And I wonder if you can elaborate a little bit on that and some of the things that you've seen at resorts that hopefully are improving now.
Henri Rivers: |00:34:33| You know, the first things that comes to me is. You have a black skier or a group of black skiers that will come to a ski area. White skiers will come to him, says, oh, you know, there'll be a little bit too overly helpful. Oh, let me show you how to put on boots. Oh, your boot goes here into these little black things called bindings. And don't get me wrong, you know, if you've never been on skis, you do need some guidance. But just because they're just coming up onto the hill doesn't mean they've never skied before. So you get, you know, people that want to help them or direct them. And sometimes it's a little bit too much. And that can be thought of as microaggressions that are unnecessary. What? The other aspects that are quite. Prevalent or quite obvious the way the ski resorts are set up, they're not really receptive or or inviting to anyone other than the white population. Now you know that it can go from. Dining options, food, menu options, music that you hear, artwork that you see, you know all. Many different things and that's another thing that Discover Winter and Ski Utah have partnered up with Lamont Joseph White which was which was great so he is putting up his artwork which is showing African Americans and black skiers and riders on the snow, you know, so that's more inviting. So I come to the ski resort and I see a Lamont White poster. I'm like, okay, you know, this is not bad. So, you know, and that softens and opens you up more to an environment that you feel it's already strange because it's cold. It's already strange, but now it feels a little warmer and it says, okay, you're you know, we want you to come here.
Tom Kelly: |00:36:45| Yeah, he's been a real difference-maker for us. We had him on the last chair podcast two years ago and he did a wonderful display at the Ski Utah office and also at Snowbird And it has been fascinating to look at his art and see how he portrays a different approach to skiing and he's a snowboarder.
Henri Rivers: |00:37:05| Right? Right. Good snowboarder too.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:08| A really good snowboarder. You know, it's kind of funny. I was over in Austria in mid-January and just going through social media and I looked at his Facebook feed one day and there he was. He was at the same resort I was at. Unfortunately, he was leaving that day, so we didn't get a chance to connect. But yeah, he's certainly been a real difference maker. Before we close out, Henri, just looking ahead for NBS, actually, how much longer in your term as president?
Henri Rivers: |00:37:35| I have one more year. My presidency runs until 2024, so I will be doing one more summit. And, you know, hopefully I've made an impact. Hopefully we've helped people understand the devotion, the desire to dedication of our membership of our board, what we're trying to achieve in the industry, the relationships we're setting up with many different industry partners. And that's my goal to get the recognition and the respect that the NBS has earned and to be a resource for the industry so that they can battle and try to knock down some of the racist systemic racism that's in there, as well as bringing more inclusion into all ranks of the industry from management down to ski instruction. You know, but and understand if the if a person of color comes to a mountain and they see or they interact with a VP of marketing that is black or the hospitality manager is Asian, you know, you see this and you're like, okay, you know, they are making they are trying to make a change and they're trying to open up the industry for everyone, you know? And there is so much to gain by being inclusive. You know, if you're inclusive, it's just going to. Go downstream to all of your potential customers, you know, and those customers will become employees and those employees will become CEOs, you know, So that's what we really are trying to help the industry accomplish.
Tom Kelly: |00:39:27| Well, Henri, there is no question that you have made an impact to yourself and with your organization over the last few years and frankly, over the last 50. We're going to close out the podcast with our Fresh Tracks section. I got a few closing questions for you. In the first one. Did you have a sport hero or even a ski hero when you were growing up as a young boy in New York State?
Henri Rivers: |00:39:49| My sport hero. I never really had any idols or anything like that, but the guy that I admired was Jim Brown. I admired him for his football and lacrosse skills. He was amazing, you know, skiing wise, just like everybody else. I love John Kelly. You know, everybody did back in 68, we were all in awe. And then later on, I guess Hank Kashua was somebody I liked because he was a New Yorker, but he was a great skier and there were many of them.
Tom Kelly: |00:40:26| Henri, do you have a favorite Utah ski run or resort?
Henri Rivers: |00:40:31| You know, I'm going to have to tell you I've skied. Probably about five or six or seven resorts in Utah. The one that sticks out the most is. And I can't tell you the run, but it's in the Canyons. And it's a back bowl. It was the first one of the very first times I took my wife powder ski and we were in these back bowls. And I'm telling you, we were in there for hours. I should have never taken it there. But she learned. She learned and she loves it now. But it was the back bowls of the canyon we had. We had a great experience back there. I loved it.
Tom Kelly: |00:41:14| That's great, you know. Lamont Joseph White also called out the same area when I asked him this question two years ago. Really? He asked. So he'll have to compare notes. Henri, what's the perfect apres afternoon for you? After a great day on the mountain?
Henri Rivers: |00:41:30| Oh, God. You know, it would have to be. In Spain, actually, where I could get a nice lemon infused beer and some tapas and just look at the mountain and listen to music. Yeah, I love it here in the US. Here in the US, A great cold beer and some great music.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:00| Love it, Love it. I'm sure at the summit, you're going to have a lot of that conversation. A famous skier or famous person that you've skied with.
Henri Rivers: |00:42:14| Bode Miller.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:16| Beautiful.
Henri Rivers: |00:42:17| Yeah. Ralph Green.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:22| That's another good one.
Henri Rivers: |00:42:24| Yeah. Oh, God. Quite a few. You know, Jonathan Ballou, you know? You know, there's been. I've been fortunate that, you know, I've had a lot of great skiers. Let me ski with them. And so they could they could teach me a few things, but it's been great.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:46| Love it. I hosted a party.
Henri Rivers: |00:42:49| I got to put Deb Armstrong out there.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:50| Deborah Armstrong is another good one. I was just going to go back to Ralph Green. I hosted a virtual reality. Event during the Beijing Olympics. Ralph Green was one of our athlete guests and it was one of these amazing things. You put the Oculus headsets on and we had a couple of great athletes. We had Ralph Green, I think we had Shannon Bahrke, the freestyle skier in that one, and Dan Jansen, the speed skater. And we had all these people in. I don't know where they all were, but it was like we were all together. But Ralph was a real hit.
Henri Rivers: |00:43:23| Oh, yeah, Ralph was a great guy.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:26| And last question. Groomers, bumps or powder?
Henri Rivers: |00:43:32| Oh it'll be groomers powder bumps only because my knees are much older now. I love powder, but I'm on the east coast so you know I'm, I'm groomer trained.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:46| Well, I love your attitude on that. I'm becoming more and more of a groomer guy too because I but we don't get those days out here in the West anymore. So. Henri Rivers, president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, thank you so much for joining us. And we wish you all the best at the NBS summit coming up in the next couple of weeks.
Henri Rivers: |00:44:04| Well, thank you so much for having us, Tom. And please let your listeners know the NBS is a nonprofit 501c3 organization. Anyone that would like to help support our mission, please go to our website and donate NBS dot org.
Tom Kelly: |00:44:22| Love it, Henri. And by the way, listeners, we're going to put links on the website, so just go to skiutahdotcom. Henri Rivers, thanks for joining us.
Henri Rivers: |00:44:30| Thank you, Tom. It's a pleasure.
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