ON THE SCENE: How do we increase diversity in winter sports?

Ice skaters from Harlem performed in the figure skating gala exhibition on Monday, Jan. 16 in the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena. From left are Nadia Neal, Emily Delbrun, Victoire Lakossou, Ariyana Peal and Adrianna Walker. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

There is not a lot of cultural diversity in winter sports other than by teams representing such countries as Brazil, China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Certainty not in the U.S. or most Western teams. Slowly, that is changing, at least in some areas, such as bobsledding.

USA Bobsled and Skeleton realized early on that skills are transferable. Thus, they have benefited from more of their teams medaling by going after track, football and other athletes. Erin Jackson, a speedskater who won gold in the 500 meters at the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games, started her career as a champion rollerblader. With good coaching, she, too, was able to transfer her skills from one sport to another.

Shani Davis became the first Black American to win gold in speedskating and in an individual event in an Olympic Winter Games, which took place in 2006 in Turin, Italy. Davis constantly desired to be a speedskater; for him, being invited to Lake Placid at age 16 to participate in a development program made all the difference.

At the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Winter World University Games, some hopeful signs appeared. One was the 21-year-old Haitian cross-country skier, Theo Mallett, who was the only Haitian athlete at the Games. Skiing with Club Chelsea Nordiq in Gatineau, Quebec, he has been living in Canada since age 2, has dual citizenship and has skied in Lake Placid several times. Mallett credits his Canadian parents for introducing and supporting his participation in Nordic sports.

“My dad was a member of the Canadian Biathlon team,” said Mallett. “When I was younger, my parents took me on cross-country ski excursions and introduced me to racing, which I liked. Cross-country racing inspires me to want to get better. I also like the team aspect, being a member of a team, and just being outside in nature.”

Dan Mallett poses with his son Theo, who represented his native country of Haiti in cross-country skiing during the 2023 FISU World University Games. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Mallett appreciates the opportunity to represent Haiti and sees it as a way of honoring his heritage and giving back to the country where he was born, which allowed him to live in Canada and now represent them. He knows of only one other Black cross-country racer, a World Cup French athlete he’s met and hopes their growing visibility will encourage other youth of color to take up the sport.

“The support and encouragement by the Haitian Olympic Committee is awesome, and also by my dad, who contacted the Haitian federation on my behalf,” said Mallett.

“Theo’s developed a lot of friends through cross-country skiing, it’s part of his social network, so we’re very pleased,” said his dad, Dan Mallett.

Another was figure skater Nathan Chapple, who hails from Solon, Ohio. Chapple was inspired to get into skating by U.S. Olympic short-track speedskater Apolo Ohno, who trained in Lake Placid. As Chapple couldn’t find short-track programs where he lived, he dove into figure skating doing well enough to make the FISU Games.

“I like the freeness of figure skating, that you can do whatever you want,” said Chapple. “I think the best way to get more diversity in winter sports is to encourage people of color to watch the Winter Olympics, and, if they see a sport they like, try it. I think it’s also pretty cool to be in a position where I can be someone young people can look up to and hopefully try skating.”

Angie Chapple poses with her son, U.S. men’s figure skater Nathan Chapple, who attends Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Chapple’s mom spoke about the opportunity for increasing diversity in winter sports.

“It’s a big deal that he’d the first Black skater representing the U.S. at these games,” said Angie Chapple. “People say, ‘Why do you have to say he’s the first Black skater at the Games? Why not just that he’s skating in the Games?’ But it’s important; we need more people of color skating. Some say Black people aren’t drawn to skating. Well, they are not drawn because they don’t see themselves there. You have to see yourself represented if you want to go to it. It’s been true of sports like tennis and gymnastics. They were all very white sports and are now starting to attract more diverse participants as youth see people like themselves doing well and enjoying the sport.”

Lake Placid 2023 Games lead sponsor Hydro Quebec took on not only sponsoring the Save Winter conference but also has decided to use the Games as a means of introducing more Native American, First Nation and urban inner-city youth to winter sports activities and competitions.

“They include teenagers from Brooklyn and the Bronx who don’t have the opportunity to experience winter sports,” said Serge Abergel, chief operating officer of Hydro Quebec. “They will spend time with Lake Placid kids, attend several sports (which included giving out medals at a ski jumping competition), return to their community, and hopefully share their experiences with others. We are working with the Kahnawake Mohawk community of Quebec, who will have 30 youth here.”

Some New York City youth took skiing lessons at Whiteface Mountain, were introduced to cross-country skiing and sledding a Scott’s Cobble, visited the John Brown Farm State Historic Site and attended several sports competitions.

Here are Ed Smoke, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe business services specialist, and Latoya Rourke, Akwesasne tourism training manager. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“Learning to ski and slide is very, very fun,” said Hailie Vega, a New York City youth. “I hadn’t done these sports before and liked learning how to ski the best.”

“Lake Placid is wonderful but very cold,” said teacher-chaperone Stephanie Quezada. “The kids are having a great time, and they had me skiing and sledding a few times. Every activity has been wonderful and provided the kids with a different experience, and they all want to come back.”

Hydro Quebec and the Games provided Kahnawake Mohawk Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer and her delegation their first visit to Lake Placid and the chance to experience a wide array of winter sports. As part of that, their chief was invited to share in their language their Thanksgiving Address at the opening of FISU’s “Save Winter” conference.

“What I did, in my language, was to explain our interconnectedness to all living things,” said Sky-Deer. “We call this the words important to us, the words that come before all else. They should always be at the forefront of our minds that all the elements, the tree, the sun, the moon, and even the most minute thing, bugs, have a role in the cycle of life.”

Sky-Deer said that we need to act differently, whether it’s in opening our doors to everyone participating in sport or saving winter, saving our earth mother.

Teacher-chaperone Stephanie Quezada poses with New York City student Hailie Vega in Lake Placid. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

“It has to be a collaborative and collective effort where everybody has a role to play,” she said.

Her message, and that of others, is that Lake Placid is well positioned to model that approach, in sport, in protecting the Adirondacks, saving winter and addressing climate change.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)

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