Omoye Cooper was once a reluctant skier.
She didn’t understand the point of going out into the cold, strapping two long sticks to your feet, and sliding down a mountain.
But in the late 1990s, after much cajoling from a friend, she agreed to attend a Never Ever ski class — a class for people who have never set foot on the slopes. She spent the day at Jiminy Peak, struggling to stay upright.
“I stayed on my behind the whole time,” Cooper, 63, recalled. “It was a challenge. You don’t enjoy falling down. I was in a class with several other people who seemed to pick it up, and I was like, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ ”
She became determined to succeed.
“I said, ‘I am going to learn how to control these skis,’ ” she said. When she finally made it down a hill without falling, she moved on to another, slightly bigger hill. The following year, she began skiing regularly at Jiminy Peak.
Cooper is one of the founding members of the Nubian Empire Ski Club, a Capital Region group with a mission of increasing the number of black skiers and snowboarders. One of the club’s main goals is dispelling the myth that black people don’t ski and snowboard … something Cooper herself once believed. But in 2002 she went to Colorado on a ski trip sponsored by the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a group founded in 1973 with the goal of developing and supporting minority athletes, which changed her perspective.
“There were 1,500 black folks on the mountain,” she said. “It was an eye opener.”
Today, Cooper is the president of the Nubian club, which has grown to 50 members since it began in 2001. She also runs the club’s youth program, which was launched three years ago and now has 10 participants. The youth program holds fundraisers, often setting up outside of Walmart to ask for donations.
“We’ve had African-Americans come up and say, ‘What are you all doing? Black people don’t ski,’ ” Cooper said. This response prompted Cooper to create a photo collage showing the kids on skis.
“You don’t have a lot of African-Americans who ski,” Cooper said. “We’re not represented. If you go to a mountain, we’re going to be in the minority. But there’s room for us to be represented, for those numbers to increase.”
Asked why it was important to increase the number of black skiers, Cooper said, “Skiing is a joy,” she said. “It opens up the world to you. You get to meet people from all over the world. I’ve had the opportunity to ski the French Alps. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d go to Boise, Idaho, and ski in Sun Valley. Before skiing, I never thought I’d go to Colorado.”
Cooper credited a local resident, Phil Littlejohn, with encouraging her and other black people to go skiing. “He kept trying to get people to go skiing,” she said. “And we said, ‘We’re not doing that, we’re not going skiing.’ But he was persistent.”
Like Cooper, Peggie Allen came to skiing late.
She learned in her 40s, after a friend from New York City signed her up to go on a ski outing. “I’m from this area, and when I finally did go, I was like, ‘Why was I not doing this all along?’ ” she said.
She said she learned a lot from Littlejohn, as did many of the Nubian Empire Ski Club’s early members. “We’d call him Papa Smurf,” she said. “We’d follow him down the hill.”
Allen, 54, said she’s developed a whole new set of friends as a result of skiing. “Some of my older friends still shake their heads at me,” she said. “They send me emails when it snows saying they know how happy I am.”
Cooper spent much of her childhood in Michigan and said that even if she had wanted to ski, it would have been difficult for her family to afford it. But she also said it wasn’t something she thought about. “Coming up, it just wasn’t there,” she said. “It wasn’t something we did as a sport in school. The schools I went to didn’t have ski clubs. I didn’t know anyone who skied.”
The Nubian Empire Ski Club is a member of the National Brotherhood of Skiers. Allen serves as the group’s Eastern Region vice president. One of the organization’s goals, she said, “is to get a youth of color to stand on an Olympic podium.” She said many people are still surprised to see large groups of black people skiing.
“We still get looks on the mountain,” Allen said.
Of the ski resorts, she said, “they love to see us come. We ski well. We ski hard.”
The club organizes non-skiing activities. The group is planning a trip to the Dominican Republic this summer and has sponsored trips closer to homes, such as wine tasting tours in the Seneca Falls area.
“We’re not just a ski organization,” said Allen, who works for the New York State Department of Health.
Cooper and Allen said cost is a barrier to skiing for many people, but joining a club is a good way to cut costs because clubs find deals for groups.
“You can ski cheap,” Cooper said. “You can ski smart. You need to have someone with inside information to tell you how to do it.”