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Black participants carving a place in skiing

The world has witnessed Tiger Woods cut paths for black athletes in golf. The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, soared in tennis with their powerful forehands. And 60 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

These days in Alaska, Andre and Suki Horton carve terrain for young black athletes in alpine skiing.

Three years ago the brother-sister combo raced here at the U.S. Alpine Championships and retired together at the base of Mount Alyeska. At one time, they were the top-ranked black American alpine skiers, skiing for the U.S. Developmental Ski Team. They were pioneers, opening the sport to a new generation of young black athletes.

This week at the U.S. Alpine Championships, six blacks are participating. Two are competitors (Danielle Govan of Katonah, N.Y., and Errol Kerr of Truckee, Calif.) while four are forerunners (the Hortons as well as Alaskans Adrienne and Aaron Wiggins).

Andre Horton said he's never seen more black athletes at the national championships.

"It's good for our sport and I'm glad it started on the American side," he said. "It thwarts a lot of criticism -- 'Aw, it's just a wealthy white sport.' No, not any more. Anyone can do it."

The Hortons have already made a big impact on the Wiggins. The 16-year-old twins, freshmen at East High, are Junior II skiers. They hope to follow in the Hortons' footsteps and represent America one day.

"They give us goals," Adrienne Wiggins said. "They made it onto the ski team. We want to be on the ski team. We know that it's possible."

Andre Horton is the national youth director of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a nonprofit organization that offers scholarships and skiing programs to black skiers. He said there are 14,000 members and 63 clubs in the United States.

Though there isn't a club here, the Wiggins are its newest Alaska members.

"Out of anyone, they (the Hortons) are good ... to follow," Aaron Wiggins said. "They're awesome skiers, and they've done a lot with the NBS."

National Brotherhood of Skiers offers scholarships up to $10,000, Andre Horton said, and any assistance helps in this sport. The Wiggins, for instance, sometimes must travel to Alyeska Resort five times a week for training and races.

Consider gas money, program fees and equipment -- it adds up.

"It's an expensive sport," Horton said. "(But) National Brotherhood helped me get to where I am today."

According to the brotherhood, three factors contribute to the lack of black athletes in alpine skiing -- geography, history and money. Historically, black Americans have not participated, which means the sport is not passed from one generation to the next. And geographically, there aren't many black Americans living next to resort towns.

"My job is to coordinate fundraising, develop grass roots and find the athletes," Horton said.

On Saturday, the Hortons and the Wiggins were here to enjoy another bluebird day at the U.S. Alpine Championships. The Hortons were forerunners for the men's super-G while the Wiggins were forerunners for the women's super-G.

Forerunners are like pace cars on skis. They scour the course, making sure the trail is safe for competitors. Typically, the run is smooth and slow as forerunners watch for ruts, divots and misplaced gates.

Not for Horton.

Racing super-G for the first time since he finished fourth in the 2004 U.S. Alpine Championships, he took a major spill near Waterfall. Both his skis hit a perpendicular divot beside the fifth gate from the top, ejecting him from both bindings.

"Double E," he said. "It was the equivalent of driving into a curb at 60 mph. I came out like superman on my chest."

Horton was launched 40 feet down the hill. He landed in the neon orange fence that lines the course, all bones still attached and unbroken.

"It was a yard sale," he said about picking up a trail of skis and gloves. His spandex was torn and his leg was dripping with blood. "I wanted to put on an adult diaper. I have stuff to lose now. I have a mortgage to pay."

Though alpine skiing can be dangerous, it can be rewarding too. The Wiggins' mother, Jane, works at Providence Medical Center and supports her teenagers' sport.

"They've been skiing since they've been walking, and they keep getting better," she said, noting that Adrienne's and Aaron's confidence has grown since dedicating themselves to the sport.

"It's really weird when you're the only black person," Horton said. "Some will say, 'Oh, is that a black guy? But we were all buddies and you don't notice a difference at all."