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Why a Black Racer Quit Skiing and How the Backcountry Lured Him Back

Skiing as a sport didn't work, but skiing as a life is something else altogether

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I knew I wanted to be an athlete. Like many kids, I wanted to be the best at whatever I was doing—in my mind, playing soccer, I was the next Freddie Adu; shooting hoops, I was the next Allen Iverson; swimming, Michael Phelps. When I started ski racing, I imagined myself atop the Olympic podium, clutching gold in one hand and a long pair of downhill skis in the other, hat emblazoned with sponsor logos. Just like other kids, I believed I could excel in any sport I tried.

The stereotype of “Black people don’t swim” didn’t apply to me, but that doesn’t mean I was unaware of the different ethnic landscapes of the sports I played. At basketball and tee-ball camps, black, brown, and white faces surrounded me. Soccer? Less so and, with swimming, I was one of a few Black kids in the whole division. But skiing was the only sport where I wasn’t just the only Black kid on my team—I never even competed against another Black skier.

Mallory Duncan
There’s some racer style in there somewhere.

At the time, I didn’t understand the side effects of participating in these less diverse sports. When I saw the scarcity of black and brown skin on the slopes, it didn’t turn me off; I simply set my sights even higher: “I want to be the first Black American skier to compete in the Olympics for alpine racing.” I didn’t realize what this would mean for me personally, and I pushed harder to bring my vision to life. Between ages 10 and 13, I won regularly and even ranked in the Tahoe Region. 

At 13, I decided to go to school in Tahoe, in order to more seriously pursue racing. It was a head-first dive into the deep end—boundless snow-capped mountains, eight ski areas within 50 miles, skiing right out my back door, and white folks…everywhere. 

I skied, lived, and learned almost exclusively from white people. Immersed in ski racing culture, I never felt truly comfortable or confident, always a bit on edge. I never stopped asking myself, “Should I be here? Why am I the only one? Are Black people supposed to do this? Do I want to do this?” 

Mallory Duncan skier
In track, Duncan found a balance between achievement and community.

After five years of focused, athletic frustration that left me just shy of my competitive goals, the answer was a clear, “No.” I didn’t want to do it because I wasn’t good enough; I wasn’t having fun anymore; I felt like I lost parts of my identity in pursuit of an impossible goal. 

It dawned on me that my access to skiing came at the expense of my access to a multicultural experience. Pursuing my dreams meant being an ethnic singularity, which meant I had almost no one with whom I could identify. This was isolating and confusing because I didn’t match the image of Blackness held by my peers. 

“Are you in a gang?” 

“Why are you always wearing red?” 

“You don’t sound Black.”

I questioned who I was and what made me Black. I felt like a fraud and an imposter, like a Black person who lost his “Black card.” An older white kid from the Bay Area who I raced against told me, “Man, I’m Blacker than you!”

“Skiing was the only sport where I wasn’t just the only Black kid on my team—I never even competed against another Black skier.” 

That always stuck with me. Was he? What makes me Black? I looked at my skis, my style, listened to the way I talked and considered the things I enjoyed. I never saw other Black people skiing, hiking, or slacklining. 

It bears repeating that, as I assessed my desire to ski race toward the end of high school, I had to face up to the fact that I wasn’t good enough. All the time, energy, and money that went in to becoming the best skier I could be simply wasn’t enough. I fell out of love with skiing. 

Culturally drained and without inspiration, I began college at the University of Vermont. It wasn’t lost on me that UVM has a dominant D1 ski team and the one-percent Black student body to go with it. Thus began the second episode of the Race-Related Trilogy I didn’t realize I was writing for myself. 

Mallory Duncan skier
Duncan, on a whole different track than the one he set out upon.

Before starting school, my granddad took me to the Olympic Trials for track and field, where I watched athletes like Allyson Felix, Tyson Gay, and Ashton Eaton compete to earn their spots on the US Olympic Team. That experience helped solidify my desire to compete in a new, more culturally well-rounded space. I had quickness and endurance and became inspired to pursue track. 

After training all summer, I walked on to UVM’s track team in the final open spot. I wasn’t good yet, but I felt the confidence I never had with skiing. Just having Black and brown bodies around me relieved five years of tension building between my shoulder blades. 

When I put on my grey tracksuit, stark white running shoes, calf-length socks, and Beats headphones to saunter onto the field and start my warmup routine, I was assured of my Blackness. Competitors saw my Black skin, height, and stride and thought “We better watch out for that dude,” instead of “What’s up with the Black kid?” I was proud of my complexion and my heritage—feelings I never had skiing. I “looked the part,” and knew what I had to prove was limited to the field of play and not the entire world surrounding it.

In four years at UVM, I helped set three school records and won the conference championship in my discipline three times consecutively. I competed with people from many different backgrounds and built bonds with my teammates through conversations on race and ethnicity that I never had while skiing.

Mallory Duncan
In the Oregon backcountry, Duncan has a hard time bashing gates.

College sculpted me into a more well-rounded person with a diverse group of friends and an array of interests, but it was track that helped me understand the importance of a cultural spectrum. Track fed my competitive nature while clearly revealing what was missing from my experience with skiing. With the pressure I felt as a lone Black competitor gone, I was carefree in a way that helped me excel as an athlete.

I left school more solidly connected to my Black identity. And that’s where Episode Three begins. 

After school, I moved back to the Bay Area and planted myself in the heart of Berkeley. I took a job in the service industry and assembled a diverse community around myself. Black, brown, and white; we carved out a living while dancing our nights away in the ethnocultural spectrum of the East Bay. Like my track team, these friends continued the development of my cultural proficiency that went neglected years earlier. 

Still, something was missing. I craved the mountains and the enrichment I got from skiing. Looking for harmony between these two opposing parts of my life, I returned to Tahoe when winter rolled around. 

Something about adding human-powered travel to skiing that harkened back to track: Hiking the ridge connected me to running, and running connected me to my Blackness.

With the Bay Area as my anchor, I was better able to balance the conflicting ideas of self and community, of belonging while still progressing, of apathy while still obsessing. I moved easily between a vibrant urban home and a peaceful winter world. The difference now was “skiing” no longer meant “racing.” Racing drove me mad with an impulse to achieve measured, technical excellence, but that no longer interested me. 

Riding the lift one winter morning at Alpine Meadows I recalled a faint childhood memory of carrying my skis while trudging along the area’s ridge line boundary. I made my way to the same boot pack and shouldered my skis, pushing further than I had all those years before. I found myself above a fresh panel of snow appropriately called “The Field of Dreams” and clicked in. 

That day spent skiing untracked snow through old growth forest finally liberated me from an obsession with perfection and the need for competitive fulfillment. Something about adding human-powered travel to skiing that harkened back to track: Hiking the ridge connected me to running, and running connected me to my Blackness. This connection to my afro identity was exactly what I’d been missing previously in my skiing life. 

Mallory Duncan
Duncan finds tracks in the backcountry, and they still get him psyched.

A year later, I moved to Bend, Oregon, to be closer to the outdoors. I knew the balance I achieved while living in Berkeley would be thrown off, but that inspired me to build a diverse community in my new home. I’ve done so locally and through social media; I write poetry and surround myself with Black culture through jazz, soul, and hip hop. 

It can be isolating—never more so than this past year—but I continue to make strides that connect the opposing sides of my identity. When I left Lake Tahoe for Vermont, it was because I couldn’t find what I was looking for in the mountains at that time. This time around, it was because the city can’t provide what I need now: an afro-futuristic vision of the outdoors.