Samuels’ Experience as a Black Woman in Ski Racing
I grew up ski racing in southeastern Wisconsin (Lake Geneva), and then went on to ski USCSA at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. From there, I moved to the Twin Cities and started a job at a marketing agency, but deeply missed the sport I grew up immersed in, so ended up getting a coaching gig for Team Gilboa at the mighty Hyland Hills, which boasts a vertical drop of 175 feet, and is home to two-time Olympian and U.S. Ski Team alumna Kaylin Richardson, as well as U.S. Ski Team and University of Utah alumna Lauren Samuels, and Dartmouth College alumnus Justin Samuels.
The Samuels family (Heidi, Dave, Justin and Lauren) and I became fast friends. Their warmth, passion for the sport, and general good vibes immediately drew me to them. I used to joke that I was a bad influence on Lauren and Justin. Their combo of smarts and athleticism were immediately impressive to me. When I called Lauren’s father Dave after the tragic and unjust death of George Floyd in their hometown of Minneapolis—their hometown (my former home)—Dave told me Lauren was scared to go for a bike ride, fearing who may be around the corner. I get the chills just typing that.
I am thankful Lauren took the time to share her experiences as a Black and multiracial person in the predominantly white snowsports industry, and I hope you’re able to walk away with a broader perspective, just as I was.
Alpine Communications Manager
Member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee
Imagine this scenario for a moment. You’re in [insert any small ski town here] for a ski vacation. “[Insert small ski town name], ahhhh, this is the life, right?!’ you think to yourself. It’s 8 a.m. and you’re heading to grab a double-espresso before you go carve some Arc City Mayor turns on some 'roy at one of your favorite ski resorts. You order your coffee, reach for your wallet, and realize you forgot it at your hotel. Darn. Ok, so perhaps a kind stranger will offer to spot you, right? Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”
U.S. Ski Team, University of Utah, and Rowmark alumna Lauren Samuels, who recently participated as the youngest panelist on U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s July 15th virtual discussion on how to remedy the glaring lack of racial diversity in snowsports offers another perspective. And, if you’re like me (white), you haven’t REALLY thought (or can begin to understand) about what it might be like to be a Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or an Asian person in a mostly white ski town where there are very few (if any) people that look like you.
During the panel, which was led by the Samuels' family friend and President of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) Henri Rivers, Lauren spoke candidly about how systemic racism and discrimination affected her career, and offered solutions for how the ski and snowboard industry can do a better job of fostering a love for snowsports in people from all backgrounds, colors and walks of life. In a follow up interview, Lauren opened up further.
During the virtual discussion, panelist Constance Beverley, CEO of Share Winter Foundation, asked viewers to consider the following exercise, “Open up your phone, and scroll through Instagram hashtag skiing, and keep going until you don’t see either a skinny, white, usually blonde lady, laughing, or a 17-year-old white dude hucking himself off a cliff. Just time it. Ask yourself how long until you hit a person of color. And then start asking yourself about ‘how have our perceptions fed the marketing and branding of our sport, and ultimately excluded others?’” As Constance was speaking, Lauren was adamantly nodding her head in agreement.
Of her reaction to Constance’s words, Lauren said, “Oh my gosh, I could not relate more. That’s such a small, easy way that our industry as a whole could make a difference. Like why is it so hard to hire me to do this shoot, versus some other girl that looks like every other girl on all of the other ski ads. And it’s just that simple, that then me, when I was walking into a ski shop—’Hey, dad, that girl has curly hair like me. Is she Black? Whoa, cool!’ It’s so easy to do those things.”
I reflected back to my conversation with Lauren’s father, Dave, after George Floyd’s death. I said to Lauren, “While we, as marketers in the ski industry are worried about putting a message out there that’s not authentic, you’re worried about going for a bike ride because you’re afraid of who may be around the corner, the KKK is in town, and you’re Black. I can’t even imagine.” I honestly couldn’t imagine. And, I will never be able to imagine.
Revisiting the aforementioned coffee scenario in the small ski town. Lauren said, “Ok, so you forgot your wallet. You’d ask someone ‘Hey, can you spot me real quick?’ You think my dad [who is Black] can do that? No.” While we, as a predominantly white industry, may be worried about coming across as performative as we take improved measures towards making our sports more welcoming to all people, Lauren says her worries are different. “We’re afraid people assume we’re homeless, poor, trying to steal their money—whatever it is," she admits.
Grab a coffee and ponder that for a few moments.
“Well, it’s just because you’re Black, so obviously you can jump.”
Lauren is an incredibly gifted human. No doubt her passion, curiosity, wits, athleticism, and beyond, come from her parents, Heidi and Dave, who often spend a good amount of time at Snowbird, their “second home” in Utah. After skiing for Team Gilboa, Lauren was invited to the U.S. Ski Development Team as a young teenager. She was a wide-eyed, excited, hopeful 15-year-old who had made the leap from the 175 foot vertical of Hyland Hills in Minnesota to the U.S. Ski Team in Park City, Utah—a dream many young ski racers have, and very few achieve.
However, when Lauren made it, she realized it wasn’t what she thought it would be. Having followed a strict strength and conditioning program back in Minneapolis, Lauren came into physical testing at the Center of Excellence and immediately showed she belonged there. As the athletes did pre-summer testing, or “baseline testing” as Lauren called it, she did the vertical jump test. She broke the record. “At first they were like, ‘Oh, the system must have been calibrated wrong.’” she remembered. So they recalibrated it, jumped again, and then she got the same results. After she tells that part of the story, she laughs and says, “whatever” in her humble manner. What she shared, next, though, encapsulates the problem in our industry.
“‘Well, it’s just because you’re Black, so obviously you can jump,’ they said,” Lauren recounts the situation. “And I won’t name names, but some of my teammates just jumped on that same train and were like, ‘Yeah, that’s why you can jump high, because you’re Black.’” From there, they moved on to the force plate test (the one where you push into the bar), and Lauren attempted to keep her focus and composure as she tackled the task at hand. “...and I was pretty darn high on that, especially for my size,” she said.
How did her teammates react? “They’re like ‘Yeah...power because you’re Black...and isn’t that because, we’ve heard those rumors about Black people having calves that are higher...and that’s why you can be a better sprinter...so why are you even in skiing?’ And it just went down this path,” she remembered. She was just 15 then. It was the first time she was on the U.S. Ski Team, and her first time in the Center of Excellence. It was an intimidating environment as it was. “We’re the D (development) Team, we’re the 15-year-olds...and meanwhile Ted [Ligety] and whoever else is over there working out over there. So I was just like, ‘Ok, yeah, I guess it doesn’t mean that I’m that strong or fit because I’m built this way, therefore it doesn't count?’”
But wait, there’s more.
Lauren was criticized by coaches for not braiding her hair. “The coaches didn’t talk to me about my technical skiing, but they asked me why I don’t braid my hair like everyone else. I was like ‘1) my hair doesn’t braid, 2), it turns into dreadlocks if I braid it, so I just put it in a small bun.’ They were more or less like ‘Well, we did wind tunnel testing and the braids were the fastest, so if you don’t want to be hundredths faster, so be it. That’s your choice.’” Lauren feels that if she had a Black coach, or even a female coach, that might not have a memory she now lives with.
Lauren shared more of her experiences with her coaches, highlighting a lack of communication, leadership and other elements she faced outside of the realm of systemic racism. Since Lauren’s time on the team, U.S. Ski & Snowboard has implemented a number of changes to improve the athlete experience, including a project in 2019 known as the Athlete Project. The Athlete Project represents an opportunity for U.S. Ski & Snowboard to improve the athlete experience. It was born out of an initiative to take an introspective look at how the organization engages with athletes. Despite the fact that the organization has made leaps and bounds in terms of improvements in the athlete experience, it became glaringly obvious in late May of 2020 that the broader snowsports industry had a long, long way to go in the way of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Onward, to NCAA at the University at Utah
Following her tenure with the U.S. Ski Team Development team, Lauren went on to finish high school at Rowmark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah. After she made World Juniors, she was an invitee to the U.S. Ski Team for the next two years. As she said, as an invitee you “...don’t get the jacket, you don’t get the title, and you have to pay your own way, but you’re invited to every camp, but you have to bring your own coach.” Long story short, it was incredibly expensive for Lauren. Since, U.S. Ski & Snowboard has made significant strides in athlete funding, decreasing the cost for development team athletes and fully travel funding athletes on the A through C teams. Eventually, after a challenging road, Lauren made the decision to take her talent to the University of Utah, where she felt welcomed, and maybe more at home than ever before. That doesn’t mean Lauren didn’t encounter implicit bias.
“Everyone assumed I ran track,” she reflected. “I was like, ‘no I don’t run track’. And then they’re like, ‘Oh so you either play softball or soccer. And I was like, ‘no’. That was across the board—other coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, other athletes, and even just students in school. Utah is a pretty white place. I faced a ton of that in college, and then in regards to the training staff—like our strength and conditioning coach—they were way more welcoming and understanding that I needed to be on a different program pretty much from everyone else on the team, because they have experience with other athletes from other races and colors. So for them, they’re like, ‘whatever, we’ve had an athlete just like you.They may have been in another sport, but whatever.’ Of course they had to do sport-specific exercises, but Lauren said the fact that they’d seen people with her make-up come in was assuring, as “they knew how to handle it.”
While at the University of Utah, Lauren captained the team her senior year when the Utes won the 2017 NCAA National Championship. Then, she went on to coach for two years at the FIS level, first back at her roots in Minnesota with Team Gilboa, and then back to Rowmark in Utah. Though she was the FIS assistant coach at both programs, the differences were notable. Not only are there very few Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or Asian people in the sport, but there are also very few women, especially in the midwest. She noted that out west there were “tons” of women coaches, “especially at the U16 level, it’s almost like the majority of coaches are women in western region.” In Minnesota? Not so much.
In the west, Lauren felt a lot more welcomed and respected from day one...which she acknowledges may have been because her colleagues and athletes knew more about her background in the sport out west, but in Minnesota she felt like the ski community didn’t want to acknowledge her past experience in the sport. Perhaps that’s just a regional cultural thing. When I asked Lauren if she felt like there was a difference in the way people treated her because of the color of her skin, from her experience at the club level to academy, then the U.S. Ski Team and the University of Utah, from the midwest to the west, and from athlete to coach, she told me that, honestly, “everyone plays blind to it”.
It’s called “color blindness.” In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, author Adia Harvey Wingfield writes, “Many sociologists, though, are extremely critical of colorblindness as an ideology. They argue that as the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality have become more covert and obscure than they were during the era of open, legal segregation, the language of explicit racism has given way to a discourse of colorblindness. But they fear that the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination.”
Lauren told me, “There are so many different forms of racism, color blindness, being not anti-racist, and it’s one thing to be color blind—that’s not accepting who we are fully—it’s another thing to be oblivious and not believing when we tell these stories...or try to express how it feels. And then there’s people who have an issue with us being there in the first place, because of our color. It’s not like a line of you’re racist or you’re not. And I think that’s one good thing that’s coming out of this in the last two months. People are starting to understand, ‘OK, this isn’t just a yes or no—yes it’s an active thing to be anti-racist and we need to do more of that, and making our space welcoming to others.’”
So I wondered, how can we do better? Ever the whip-smart, strong and thoughtful woman she is, Lauren offered a few very good suggestions. First, let’s engage with partnerships on the grassroots level. Meaning, at the club level, let’s take a serious look at what we’re doing and how we’re welcoming people into the sport. But how?
Lauren, like many of us, acknowledges she doesn’t have the be-all and end-all solution. But, does anyone? “My main thing is the outreach, partnering with these organizations, and I know we have club levels, but to me that’s not enough of a partnership,” stressed Lauren. “If the U.S. Ski Team wants to utilize these clubs to generate more diversity and talent within this sport, there needs to be a stronger partnership. Maybe the athletes are sent here for an event once a year. Having been an athlete myself, I wanted to do that stuff, but it wasn’t there. Maybe it’s tagged on to the end of a camp, or Nationals. Instead of flying straight back to the east coast, stop in Minneapolis for a day, go to the Loppet Foundation, and connect with the kids—actually connect—not just go and sign autographs. These kids—their faces light up—there are so many people out there don’t know ski racing, or skiing, is a sport. Having the World Cup here would have been so big. Those are the things that I think can create kids and families of all backgrounds who love our sport.” Not only will it be good for the kids, but Lauren also believes it will make our athletes better human beings.
Additionally, Lauren feels it is important to create more diversity in our governing body, but says it’s not realistic to think we can just generate athletes out of nowhere. We also need coaches of more diverse backgrounds. At the same time, she admits that coaches often have an athletic background, and we need to foster a welcome environment for athletes to want to be coaches. She says athletes don’t want to get involved if they don’t feel welcomed, empowered and respected. “The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee is a place to start, but we need hiring practices that are different, better, and more equal,” she stressed. And this isn’t just a snowsports industry issue. It’s bigger. It’s a broader outdoor industry issue.
Lauren feels like everyone in the outdoor industry is sitting back and pointing fingers at each other, saying “we don’t have the talent” but she stresses we need to take ownership of this. “Go out and make it happen,” she urged. “Point the finger at yourself and say, ‘Let’s make the talent. And go actively recruit.’ That’s my biggest thing.”
Lastly, she strongly feels the media needs to be more diverse and welcoming, “thinking of other backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, whatever it is. This is an equity thing.” She talked about a specific shoot she recently did, pre-COVID, with Salomon and Joe Johnson, Alpine and Nordic Marketing Manager for Salomon. Joe hired Lauren for a shoot, and admitted she wasn’t sure if he knew what he was getting, as they hadn’t met before. Lauren won’t say it, and she might not even be thinking it, but I will say it...she meant he may not have known that she was a total badass AND Black skier.
“No one else is doing it,” she said. There’s an opportunity there. The shoot was for a ski that’s launching this winter, so the images have yet to be released. She said that she reminded Joe, “My dad worked for Salomon back in the 80s and 90s and he may well have been the first Black person to work there—just an interesting piece of history in the industry that no one knows about.” There are some brands, and organizations, out there who want to make a change. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is one of them.
Following her incredible involvement and transparent, raw, and honest feedback she shared during the discussion on the initial panel, Lauren has been invited to be involved with U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. It is the committee’s goal to continue to create a two-way dialogue and keep this conversation going. Stay tuned for more information about upcoming panels on the topic of diversity, including one that will feature athletes.
Let’s continue to listen. And learn. And then effect change.
Recently on social media, Lauren has shared that she’s riding 84.6 miles over ten days for three reasons:
Lauren’s #Iride4them, In Her Words:
To honor and mourn the unjust deaths of Black folks in police custody. 84.6 is to signify the 8:46 that George Floyd fought for his life while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, killing him by asphyxiation. Mr. Floyd is the most recent man we lost but there are countless others whose lives were stolen by police officers, today, tomorrow and forever #Iride4them.
To spread the word to help a friend fundraise for his initiative to give bike lights and helmets to people in need.
I ride to take ownership in creating an anti-racist world especially in the outdoor community. By amplifying Black voices as well as my own I hope to foster inclusion, comfort and leadership in our communities. Empowering the BIPOC who are active in the outdoors is one way to pave a path for more diversity and inclusion. This is not for publicity, this is to help the next generation of Black and Brown folks see that we can do these activities too. I have struggled in the past to share my outdoor adventures on social media because I succumb to the stereotypes that “Black girls don’t (fill in the blank)” feeling that therefore my story is illegitimate. I am committed to do my part in eliminating these barriers and demolishing the stereotypes for the next generation of BIPOC outdoor adventurers by openly representing that Black girls CAN DO it. Social media representation of BIPOC on trails is pivotal in fostering inclusivity in the outdoors, so I’m trying to do my part.