From sliding down the driveway on hand me down wooden skis to running the largest organization for black skiers in the world, Henri Rivers has shown again and again how his passion for skiing and bringing people together have helped shape the ski community for thousands of individuals that otherwise may not have ever got the chance to click into a pair of bindings.
Like many of us, Henri got his first experience on skis sliding down the driveway of his parents Catskills hotel with over-sized, hand-me-down skis and boots. Not having anyone to teach him how to turn or stop, Henri would spend hours hiking up the hill, pointing himself straight down the hill and flopping onto his side when he reached the end and needed to stop.
“I started there not knowing how to turn, just pushing off, going straight down and picking up a lot of speed to the point where you had to stop so you'd tip over, and that was it.”
After progressing beyond the speed offered by his driveway and the park down the hill it was time for his first laps at Simpson Memorial Ski Area in Phoenicia, NY (known to Henri as Phoenicia ski area). It was here that Henri quickly learned that as he began to tip over to stop the skis started to turn a little bit. Watching the other skiers come down the mountain helped him figure out how to turn, slow down and stop. Quite the feat for a young boy with no instruction on borrowed gear that most certainly didn’t fit.
“Oh, no. No lessons. No lessons. You're just following, looking at other people, but there's so much excitement and so much fun. Being ten years old, you're headstrong, you figure you're going to get it.
Eventually, I found out how the skis turned after that, then I started following little rich white kids around the mountain because they could take lessons and they were in programs and they were learning. And I just watched how they ski and learned how to try to mimic what they were doing and emulate what they were doing.”
To no surprise, Henri picked up skiing quickly. Over the next four years he kept practicing and improving his skills. Still primarily skiing on his own and learning just by watching others and trial and error. As he entered high school, the school ski team caught his eye. The team would only accept 15 members. Henri managed to be selected as number 15 on the team. He still attributes his long career and love for skiing to making this team and being brought into the great world that is skiing.
“I tried out for the high school ski team I made the team. They only accepted 15 kids. I didn’t think I was number 15. It was my lucky number and I had to say, looking back at it, as a white coach, he didn't owe me anything, you know, he could have taken the next kid down the list. I was fortunate to make 15. I'm glad he did because if he hadn't chosen me…I probably wouldn't be a skier. I got to see kids that ski really well, and it helped me improve tremendously.“
Now on the team and surrounded by other equally passionate and motivated young skiers, Henri would soon learn that there is always another hurdle. Seeing his passion and ability for skiing, Henri’s mother saved up for months to try and buy him his own equipment that would fit him and help him continue to improve.
“My mother bought me a pair of skis from Big Scot. They were wooden skis. They had cracked edges, with little phillips screws in them that secure the edge to the side of the ski. The other 14 kids on the team, they all had real skis, real race skis, you know. I had $50 skis. It might have been $30 skis, I don't know. But they were skiing on Olins and Rossignols. So one of the kids said to me…, Henry, I got a pair of skis I'm going to give you. He gave me a pair of skis, a pair of Rossi Straddle 105s, and that was going to become my race ski.”
To no one’s surprise, Henri’s skills improved overnight. Unfortunately, that season was cut short when his family moved from the Catskills to Long Island. The increased distance to any place to ski instantly made it too expensive and difficult to continue with his passion.
By the time he went off to college he was able to go up skiing on a few weekends but it wasn’t until his first year out of school when Henri fulfilled a promise to himself.
“It wasn't until probably a year after I graduated from college, I always promised myself that if I had some money, I would take a trip. Because you got to think about it in the wintertime, for Christmas break, all the kids I skied with, they were we're going to the Alps. And I'm like, well, I'm going to Phoenecia Ski Center, right down the block. So I'll be there when you come back, look me up. But they would all talk about these elaborate trips out West and to Europe and I always tell myself when I get a couple of dollars together, I'm going to go out there and I'm going to do a trip out west. My first trip out west was like 1983 or 1984, and I got airfare, lift tickets and, and lodging for a week for $500 bucks.”
Like many others before him, traveling from the east coast on their first trip west to ski, another turning point in his life had arisen.
“I went out there and life changed overnight. I went to Breckenridge, that was the first mountain I went to out west. I got there, it was pitch black, I couldn't see the mountains, I didn't know what they looked like. In the morning when I got up and I looked outside, I saw these mountains. It just just kept going up and up and up. And I was like, wow! That was amazing just to ski there. And to experience the Rockies, I think that was it. I probably did a Colorado or a Western trip every year after that.”
Henri learned that these trips weren’t going to come cheap but knew he couldn’t stop.
“I started working a lot, so I didn't ski as much. But then you know that if you're a skier or rider, whatever, a snow enthusiast, you're always going to have that feeling and that burning desire inside you to get on the snow. I put it aside for a little while just working, trying to make a career, develop a career and eventually I was able to do both ski on the weekends and work. I met some folks that introduced me to the National Brotherhood of Skiers in 1995. I went on my first trip with them in 1996 and I have never missed a trip after that. Everything up to this point is myself skiing alone. I never skied with anybody else black in college”
Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon where Henri talks about getting more involved with NBS and working to grow the organization and the black skiing community over the last 3 decades.
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