Black History Month: National Brotherhood of Snowsports Fosters Inclusion on the Slopes

Philip Lucus

Henri Rivers was elected president of the National Brotherhood of Snowsports in March 2020 and soon after, found himself navigating parallel crises of the Coronavirus pandemic and racial unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd.   


“The windows opened all the way up for inclusion and diversity. I was speaking to several people back then and I said, ‘You know, we’ve got to act quickly because this window is going to shut quickly. This window has opened before and it never lasts forever,” Rivers said. “We are resilient people. We can’t give up, and that drives me.” 

The National Brotherhood of Snowsports (formerly known as the National Brotherhood of Skiers) was founded in 1973 to provide a sense of camaraderie and safety for Black skiers and snowboarders. The group’s mission is to identify and develop athletes of color who will pursue international and Olympic competition, and NBS currently supports 29 student-athletes across a range of disciplines. 


In the world of winter sports, the call for diversity has never been more relevant and Smartwool is proud to support organizations such as the National Brotherhood of Snowsports who are working to build a sense of community on the slopes. According to a 2023 National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) study, Black people represented just 1.5% of visitors at U.S. ski resorts in 2023, and that percentage hasn’t  changed significantly in the past decade. 


The National Brotherhood of Snowsports is at the forefront of community-driven groups that are working to change that. The organization’s annual summit—equal parts homecoming and family reunion—is a party with a purpose as proceeds fund scholarships for NBS student-athletes. 


After celebrating the groups 50th anniversary last year in Vail, Smartwool is proud to support this one-of-a-kind event again in Big Sky, Montana, Feb. 24-March 2. 


Keep reading to learn more about NBS and the role Henri plays in shaping U.S. snow sports for a more inclusive future. 


What was your experience like learning how to ski as a kid in the 60s? 


“It wasn’t like there was anybody grabbing my hand and saying, ‘Why don't you try this? Why don't you take a lesson? Why don't you do that?’ No, there was nothing. There was no familiarity, there was no friendship. I just followed behind other kids skiing and tried to pick up what they were doing,” Rivers said. 


After learning to ski near his family’s home in upstate New York, Rivers tried out for his high school ski team and was the last one to make the cut. It was an accomplishment that shaped the rest of his life.  


“If I hadn't made that team, I'd probably have walked away from skiing,” Rivers said. “And here I am 54 years later, still skiing still enjoying it. My whole family skis.”


How would you describe the rush of skiing to someone who has never done it before? 


“It’s for everyone because it doesn't matter how good you are or how bad you are. You get the same rush. You get the same satisfaction of being able to come down out of a slope and survive it and be standing up at the end of it,” Rivers said. “You know whether you're an expert skier, intermediate skier or novice skier, it is just a great feeling.”


What’s been the most rewarding aspect of leading NBS and sharing your love of skiing with your family? 


“Being on the board of U.S. Ski and Snowboard, that’s an incredible opportunity for the NBS. Now we have a seat at the table within the organization that identifies the athletes that go to the Olympics or make it to the U.S. ski team. That was a crowning moment for me,” Rivers said. 


Rivers’ 16-year-old triplets, Henri IV, Helaina and Henniyah are all accomplished skiers and have their sights set on competing at the Olympics. In January, Helaina and Henniyah represented their mother’s home country of Jamaica at the Youth Winter Olympics in South Korea in the slalom and giant slalom disciplines. 


“I can’t ski with any of them anymore. They’re all U-18, first year FIS racers they’ll probably blow me away—but don’t let them hear that,” Rivers said, laughing. “They are all accomplished skiers and very good students. I couldn’t be happier.”


How do you think perceptions of black people on the mountain have evolved over the years? 


“When I started skiing, I didn't get a lot of negative comments or a lot of N-words hurled at me, but you know it was there. It was definitely there being the only Black on a mountain that I skied. But I was there every day,” Rivers said. 


“There have always been these obstacles that have been put in place to prevent Black people from enjoying the outdoors. But now I think as the industry and people in it are evolving, they're more accepting and understand that they need to make space for everyone.”


What can resorts do to foster meaningful inclusion in snow sports?


“A $300 lift ticket is insanity. If they want to stay relevant, they have to figure out how to reduce the price of experiencing snow sports. That’s critical for the existence of the industry,” Rivers said, adding that representation and visibility of people of color at resorts, competitive skiing and throughout the industry signals that people of color are welcome rather than merely tolerated.  


Skiing and snowboarding, sports often associated with luxurious villages and exclusive surrounding communities, is making strides to welcome a broader range of participants. Smartwool is proud to work alongside community organizations such as the NBS to make inclusion on the slopes a reality, and to help as many people experience the thrill and sense of freedom that comes with gliding down a mountain.  


As the skiing community continues to evolve, it's essential to celebrate progress while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done. By embracing diversity and actively working towards inclusivity, the skiing world can ensure that everyone feels welcome on the slopes, creating a richer and more vibrant experience for everyone.