It’s close to 6:30 on an October evening in Hintertux, Austria, where the world’s serious ski racers have descended to train ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing; in this travel-restricted pandemic present, it’s one of the only snow-covered options available at this time of year. Benjamin Alexander monitors the clock from his hotel bed. We’ve been talking for hours and he has plenty more to tell me. But right now, Jamaica’s potential Olympic ski team of one needs to catch a bus to keep a promise: he’s been invited to dinner with a passel of teenaged ski racers to tell them about what’s possible.
An Englishman of 37 years old is quite out-of-the box as an Olympic skier. However, he still has an unstoppable desire to reach any goal that he sets. Benji, as he introduces himself with a contagious energy, didn’t grow up geographically gifted with a nearby ski resort or financially gifted with the means to travel to one. And he’s not white, as ski racers almost exclusively are.
Almost. Way before Alexander, there was the indomitable Seba Johnson, the first Black female ski racer in the Olympics in 1988, representing the Virgin Islands—at age 14, she was also the youngest female athlete to ever compete in the Winter Games. Andre Horton, the U.S. Alpine Team’s first Black skier, was also on this short list. The 2018 Olympics saw Sabrina Simader as an alpine racer for Kenya, and Mialitiana Clerc racing for Madagascar. And there’s Errol Kerr, the American ski-cross athlete of Jamaican descent who was the only member of the Jamaican ski team at the 2010 Olympics, finishing ninth overall.
Alexander is on the brink of becoming an Olympic athlete. Although he’s ranked 4,236th in the world—that’s not a typo—in his event, the giant slalom, under Olympic rules that encourage participation from a diverse range of countries, he just needs to get his International Ski Federation (FIS) points down to 160. That’s the minimum required to qualify for the Olympics (in a system where the race winner is given a score of zero, lower points are desired). His current score is 320, but given he cut it down to that from 505 in just the month of March before last winter’s race season ended, he considers reaching 160 a doable feat—potentially earning his spot in the Winter Games by Dec. 17 at a pair of qualifying races in Bosnia.
The difference between previous Black ski racers (and most racers he’s competing against now) and Alexander, though, is that they’d been skiing since long before they became legal adults. Alexander didn’t click into skis until a mere For five years ago. This is why Alexander takes so long to talk about his skiing life.
He likes to start his story with his unlikely international DJ career, born when he was barely older than the teenagers he’s meeting tonight. Alexander spun garage music at clubs that saw violence, in an age when pirate stations were trolling London radio frequencies.
But we’ll start the story before that, with his Jamaican father, Keith, whose parents toted him to the U.K. as a toddler, where years later, Keith fell in love with a British white woman, Ann. We’ll fast forward to after the couple, both laboring in factories, moved to the working-class neighborhood of Wellingborough in search of affordable living, after they had two boys and named the oldest Benjamin, who proved to have such a head for engineering that he was building computers in his bedroom by the age of 12. We’ll speed past Alexander’s first year at university studying physics, past his pivot to engineering and a lackluster, if lucrative, job in finance.
“He’s got so much brains inside his head, he’s thinking ahead all the time, my Ben,” says Ann. Keith is on the brink of retirement, but she and Keith still reside in Wellingborough. “He was always motivated, there was no stopping him once he says he’s going to do something.”
We’ll zoom past a return to his first love of DJing with a side of modeling—Alexander’s as tall as Michael Jordan and possessed of high cheekbones and a thousand-watt smile—and that’s where we pause. At the age 32, between music gigs in Dubai and Rio de Janeiro, Alexander’s story improbably lands on powder.
Always The Black Person
In 2016, Alexander was invited to DJ a heliski trip in a remote mountain range of British Columbia, an invitation he almost declined in his pursuit of perpetual summer (“Why would I go to a ski lodge if I couldn’t ski?” he says in his posh British accent). He was taken out of the lodge by his host for lunch on top of a mountaintop. Alexander was awestruck by the view of the snow-skirted mountains as he sat down through the entire flight. Alexander jumped from the helicopter and did a swan dive; lying on his back, doing snow angels, he decided to start skiing.
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On his second ski run, that same winter, he was thrown 27 times. He refused to give up and succumb to discouragement. Instead, he concentrated on the problem of speed and turns. At the end of his day, he had only seven falls and completed the same run. He logged 49 runs at Revelstoke Mountain Resort in British Columbia during his third season of skiing. “That’s three Mount Everests,” he notes proudly.
The same joke was repeated over the first several years.
“As a mixed-race person, you Always represent the minority of the group you’re in,” Alexander explains. “With my Black friends, I’m the white person. With my white friends, I’mThe Black person. In skiing, I’m always the Black person. And I got the same joke on the slopes that any Jamaican probably gets when they’re near a winter sport: ‘are you part of the Jamaican bobsled team?’”
The parallel was a great experience for him. Cool Running was one of his favorite movies growing up, a connection to his heritage in a home where he was largely raised without it, his father’s Jamaican accent only emerging on the phone to Alexander’s grandparents.
The joke was only a joke. It was a joke. But, it gave birth to an outrageous idea. At age 35, Alexander wanted to retire from DJing anyway—he no longer felt challenged, and the party lifestyle might kill him if he stayed in it. Alexander had never thought of becoming a British skier, having watched elite athletes train since childhood. But in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Alexander had noted only three athletes, competing in bobsled and skeleton, from his father’s nation. Alexander concluded that the Jamaican ski team was achievable by weighing the risks and benefits of failing. It is possible to actually become it.
You can avoid complete detonation
Alexander was just beginning to settle into the Olympic concept when he met Gordon Gray at Revelstoke. Gray offered to teach him some tricks and let him ski a couple of runs.
“I remember on several occasions that morning, I considered overtaking him,” says Alexander—who, it’s hard not to notice, is supremely confident. “But I couldn’t do it in a way that I knew was going to be totally safe. If I hurt myself, that’s fine, but the last thing that I wanted to do was hurt somebody else.”
Gray said Gray’s technique was terrible. Gray was nevertheless fearless. You can teach technique, Gray said, but you can’t teach fearlessness. That’s half the battle won right there.
“At the bottom of the first pitch we skied together, I looked back up, and there he is: straight lining it, full gas, looking like the DeLorean [from Back to the Future] trying to reach escape velocity,” says Gray. “He was leaning way back, no control. There was a possibility that he might have exploded at any time. His own well-being seemed a complete afterthought.”
To understand why fear might be an issue in ski racing, Gray uses this analogy: you’re basically going the same speed as driving down a highway. But instead of relying on the steering, wheels and engine, you’re relying on your own ability to balance on two planks (which, if you’re new to the sport, are completely foreign tools) and muscle memory (which, in this case, was nonexistent). A crash at that kind of speed in nothing but a Lycra suit means either walking away like a hero, or… well, not walking away at all.
That afternoon at apres, the rumor of Alexander’s Olympic bid spread like a merry brushfire in a woke white crowd, representative of a ski culture hungry for new icons of diversity (often without having to do the work of addressing why people of color aren’t present in the first place)—ideally uncomplicated ones, pure-intentioned messiahs we can pin responsibility on to save us from ourselves. Except Alexander’s not that. This is a fact that should not be overlooked, and it ought to be mentioned.
Gray witnessed the flames start. Alexander was pulled aside by Gray.
“I didn’t want to stroke his ego on this,” Gray says. “I told him, ‘You’ve gotta do this for the right reasons.’ The Olympics are the pinnacle and they’re about merit, not media stunts. I gave him a snapshot of what it would actually take between this wild idea and actual events.” Gray laid out the significant training time, coaching, travel to races, the sheer financial implications. “I wanted him to really think about this.”
Alexander did. Leveraging his logical mind (“Robotic, my ex-girlfriends would say,” he notes ruefully), he mapped out the races he needed to compete in to achieve the necessary International Ski Federation points to qualify for the Olympics. His Jamaican citizenship was achieved by a quick logistical process that formalized his descent. Dudley Stokes (pilot for the famed 1988 Jamaican bobsled teams) was his contact point. They established a weekly phone call to chat about sport psychology and navigation on terra incognita. He attended pre-race coach meetings himself—as he was mostly without one—and skewed the average age at any given competition by ten years. Largely without sponsors, he’s spent over $60,000 of his own money—much of it savings from his DJing days as well as a loan from his parents, who’d inherited a significant sum from Alexander’s father’s parents—pursuing this dream.
He tracked down Jamaican Ski Federation. This obscure entity had no website and had a questionable Hotmail account. However, it miraculously responded to his email. Alexander wrote that Richard Salm (the director) spent summers in England. Alexander would be available to meet him next time he came to New York, where he was still living with his family. Salm would actually pick him at the airport.
Alexander walked out of Arrivals London to see a man with a sign bearing his name. A man of old age. White man.
“I have to admit.” Alexander says, “my first thought was, It makes me wonder if his relatives were slave owners in Jamaica..”
They weren’t. Salm, an ex-british expat who was a ski racer in the World Cup and married a Jamaican lady. In the latter 90s, he established the Jamaican Ski Federation to allow Andrew to race internationally. Andrew raced only once. He placed 54th.Th in the World Championships, and after Kerr’s Olympic run, the Federation went dormant. In the gloom of the London pub where he took Alexander to talk logistics, he looked into the younger man’s eyes. Like Morpheus to Neo, he said, “I’ve been looking for someone like you.”
There was one last thing on Alexander’s checklist. He’d never actually been to Jamaica. He was never taken by his parents. His father didn’t even return until a few years ago, when Alexander paid his way.
“I knew I had to do this, as part of my life,” Alexander says. Last August, after sitting through the requisite quarantine in St. Ann’s in Jamaica, he drove around as much of the country as he could—and thanks to a couple TV interviews he’d done there, he was recognized everywhere he went.
“Jamaicans are incredibly proud of the Olympics,” he says. “Everyone said, ‘We’re so proud of you.’ I would reply, ‘I haven’t done it yet,’ and they’d insist, ‘We’re so proud of you!’”
So is his father, even if he’s not emotive with his son—or anyone really, according to Ann. “I’m glad to know that my son is representing Jamaica in the 2022 Olympics,” Keith told me succinctly. “His grandparents would also be so proud.”
Alexander doesn’t aim to medal, or even finish in The top tier. “I’ll likely finish 67th,” he says precisely. “My gold medal is walking in the Opening Ceremonies.” He doesn’t aim to compete in another Games, either. Instead, he wants to assume control of the Jamaican Ski Federation after Salm’s unexpected death in September. This will allow him to direct the next generation Jamaican skiers.
It’s not the typical Olympic inspirational story of redemptive gold medal dreams (but then, Alexander’s not your typical Everything). He’s simply trying to see what’s possible. And if, in the process, he shows the rest of us what’s possible, perhaps that’s inspiration enough.
“I’m hoping that what he does will open up more people’s hearts to be more inclusive in snow sports,” says Henri Rivers, President of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), whose mission is to identify, develop and support athletes of color representing the U.S. in international competitions, as well as increase participation in winter sports. Rivers, who has been an instructor in alpine racing for 20 years, worked closely with Kerr during his Olympic bid. But given Alexander is neither American nor representing the U.S., NBS can offer moral support only—no small offering, coming from the most well-known organization of Black skiers in the country. “I admire what he’s doing. He is driven and wants to do what he does. He’s doing what he wants to do. And that’s the story that needs to be told.”