By Mike Cowen, Co-Founder of R.A.T.S.
Growing up as young boy in London, it never occurred to me that one day my life would be in the Swiss Alps teaching some people to ski and others how to become ski instructors themselves. How did this happen? Well, it hasn’t been straightforward and it owes a lot to a series of happy and amazing coincidences.
The inspiration for R.A.T.S. came as a result of working in a community project on one of London’s more notorious housing estates one summer. While there, I met lots of amazing kids who wanted to know my story.
As a white guy with a mop of shaggy blond hair and a suntan, I suppose I stood out and the kids all assumed I was an Australian surfer. I explained I was a ski instructor and showed them some of my photos from my winter job. They were all absolutely blown away by the snow, the skiing, the snowboarding and most of all the mountains.
For a while I was feeling really proud, but then I began to feel quite ashamed as I realised that none of these kids would ever get to experience what I took for granted. This got me thinking and I contrasted it to the hundreds of wealthy kids every year who get to spend their “gap year” training as instructors, then quite often never actually teach a real ski lesson.
What if we could create an opportunity for them to have this experience? And, if we did, wouldn’t that inspire others to chase their dreams? Could we redefine the “DNA” of a ski instructor? And what if this new model of a ski instructor could stimulate an interest in their peers to take up the sport.
A couple of years after I first had the idea, I met my partner Mary Anne. I told her about the idea after introducing her to the mountains and watching her fall in love with them. Then during an enforced month’s rest due to injury, we finally set up R.A.T.S.. Mary Anne’s background was in counselling and youth mentoring, so this struck a chord with her and she was able to add her knowledge and skills to my ideas which will be vital in its long-term success.
Our first season 2019/20 as a pilot scheme we took one trainee, Dylan, who was a pleasure to work with. Dylan embraced everything we were trying to do and within a couple of months had already completed his BASI level 1 instructor course. Sadly, COVID took hold on our lives and Dylan’s Level 2 course was cancelled just days before he was due to start.
This year was supposed to be our big launch, but of course we are still living under the COVID cloud. Luckily, we have been relatively fortunate to still have a ski season in Switzerland and equally lucky to have found Jed, our second trainee. Jed, like Dylan, has thrown his heart and soul into his training and has just passed his BASI Level 1 course and is looking to go on to his Level 2 in April. Dylan had hoped to join him in order to complete his training but of course is not currently able to travel.
Finding suitable trainees is not, however, our biggest challenge. Despite a lot of interest and excitement around R.A.T.S., obtaining the funds we need to deliver the project has been very difficult. We would like to ask for your help in one of the following ways. Could you or someone you know sponsor all or part of a trainee’s costs? You can make direct donations via our website by just clicking the donate button. If you use social media, please follow us to help build our profile and to make us more attractive to potential sponsors. Or maybe you have a new and creative idea for us raise funds. To make it easier to get in touch, we’ve included links to our website and social media platforms.
Our programme for next year is to take 10 new 18-24 year-olds from diverse backgrounds and to train them as ski and snowboard instructors, from complete beginner to instructor in a single season. No experience is necessary, as of course young people in our target group have little access to winter sports. In addition to this, they will gain qualifications in First Aid and safeguarding and gain valuable life experiences of living abroad and all the inspiration that can bring. They will also have opportunities to shadow experienced instructors to learn their trade and to learn how to fit skis and boots for clients and about ski preparation and servicing. We aim to produce a rounded snow sport professional who would be a huge asset to any ski school or centre. Once trained, we will help them in to roles within the snow sport industry and if they would like, signpost them into other summer outdoor sports in order to provide a year-round career.
Why is this important?
There is a perception from non-skiers of all backgrounds and skin tones that skiers are posh, elitist, middle class and yes, white. Look in any holiday brochure, ski wear catalogue or ski magazine and you will see white faces cover to cover. Does this imply racism or are the advertisers pitching to their market? Ultimately these are questions for the advertisers themselves to answer, but what is certain is that until we ask questions and have those difficult conversations, nothing will change. We also need to be brutally honest and ask ourselves are we guilty of assuming that those things which are out of our view don’t exist?
Having spent many winters working in the winter sports world, I am confident that overt racism in our industry is extremely rare. That however does not tell the whole story. The BAME population of the U.K. is approximately 13-14%. It’s hard to say what the BAME population of skiing and snowboarding is, but it would be reasonable to suggest it’s nowhere near that.
Firstly, let’s examine why we all became skiers and snowboarders. It all comes down to someone introducing us to the sport. In my case, it was my school, for others it is their parents or their friends, without whose input we may all have remained ignorant as to the joys of the mountains.
If your circles do not include skiers, who is going to provide that introduction? Indeed, this issue goes far beyond just race, the same could equally be said for females, people with disabilities as well as white working class.
While income and wealth do still have some relevance, there are huge numbers of people from the aforementioned categories who are high earners in the U.K., particularly in the younger generations. Having spoken to many of them and having several within our wider family and friendship groups, I can confirm that for the majority, winter sports are not on their radar. Why not? Because it simply wasn’t a part of their thought process. Nobody had introduced them to it. I’m happy to say that a few of our BAME friends and family have taken the leap and visited us in the Alps and have universally loved the experience. Most, if not all, intend to return as soon as the current global situation allows. More still are planning to make their first visit as soon as international travel is safe.
It isn’t only skiing and snowboarding. Visit a rowing club or maybe a paddle sports centre in the UK, which are often easily accessible for diverse communities and the story is similar. For any sport to be healthy and robust, it should represent the country as a whole, which includes socio-economic and racial diversity. To ensure future generations are able to enjoy it, we must reach new participants by lowering the barrier to entry and making the sport more affordable and accessible. We must also promote the sport in the right way to people who do not currently identify with it. This includes not just BAME, but white working class, people with disabilities, and females who are currently outnumbered 2:1.
Even if we were to ignore all of the above points, and we must not, opening the doors to the BAME community and inviting them into “our world” would welcome another 9,000,000 clients. What industry wouldn’t want that?
Thanks for reading,