I’ve spent this week sorting through thoughts about Gary Black, the man who gave me my first writing job, and in so doing set the course of my adult life. For those who didn’t know him, Gary was a quiet legend. Those who did know him, understand that I do not mean quiet in an acoustic sense. His booming laughter filled the room that he lit up with his smile. But he was quiet in his actions, in the way he propped up the causes and the people he cared for, most notably ski racing and all who lived for it.
As friends shared Gary stories on the slopes, on the phone, in emails and in cozy living rooms, I realized that the scripts were all very similar. They involved his generosity and his humor, his encouragement and optimism, even and especially in times that felt grim and dire. In hearing the stories, like Megan Harrod’s wonderful tribute in her World Cup notes, and Steve Porino’s warm reflection on NBC Sports, I realized that my own experience with Gary, while life-changing and profound, was not unique.
Mine started, as many did, with Gary buying dinner. The first one I remember well was fondue for the US women’s DH team in Zinal, Switzerland, shortly before the 1988 Olympics. It was a dark time in US skiing, but somehow Gary made us glow. He believed in us when few people did, and treated us like champions despite all suggestions to the contrary. He made every one of us feel worthy when we didn’t feel it ourselves, and took personal responsibility for reminding us how to laugh.
I got to know Gary a bit as an athlete, when I had the honor of being regularly covered in the pages of Ski Racing. Our niche sport owed every bit of coverage between Olympic Games to Ski Racing, and to Gary Black’s insistence on chronicling the competitions and competitors with journalistic integrity, curiosity and detail. Unlike what happened with so many others in my life when I quit ski racing, Gary’s support and our friendship actually expanded.
He asked if I might want to write a piece for Ski Racing and I said, “Yes!”, then wrote a slightly bitter piece called Racer-ex. He asked if I wanted to write more and I did, with his constructive encouragement gently tempering my cathartic ramblings. When I had the choice of going to college for a proper journalism degree, or going to college while ski racing a bit more and writing and traveling for Ski Racing, I chose the latter. The work was grueling, the deadlines relentless and I soon realized that I would make next to no money writing for Ski Racing. But I also learned that the work would make me rich.
In Spain we stayed in the same hotel as the King, and in St Anton we drank coffee at the stammtisch with Hannes Schneider’s daughter, Herta. We garnered the best position in every press room, rarely missed a good night in Casa Italia and often ended up with first tracks when Downhill training got canceled. When we needed a place to stay we had the run of his house, whether he was there or not.
Gary could have gotten his official uniform, VIP credential and five-star treatment and been done with it, but he chose to dig into the sport and make it better. He did the hard work of wrangling with the FIS, questioning the USST and always sticking up for the athletes. He liked winners well enough, but he championed the underdogs and the back-up players. Mostly, he believed the best was yet to come—in the sport and in each of us who joined his team.
Gary’s optimism became our magic. He gave us a chance when we needed it the most and expected it least. He helped us believe we had voices worth sharing, and made sure we knew the responsibility that went along with that privilege. He showed us how to stay involved in the sport in a way that felt significant, valuable and inspiring. He gave us fledglings the platform and encouragement to leap boldly into the real world, with the safety net of the ski world.
I think Gary would have gotten a chuckle out of the headline that popped into my head while writing this—“Black’s Life Mattered”—but he would have also appreciated that I didn’t use it. Some stories need no clever headline, just as Gary solicited no recognition for his astounding contributions to our sport.
At times like these, when your heart is heavy, you just want to do something. First, I’d want to give a big hug to Gary’s Angels: Amanda, Serena, Lexi and Heather, and to everyone at Ski Racing in this very difficult year. We miss you too, Hank!
For Gary, I think he’d want us to pay it forward: to keep up his relentless pursuit of continuous improvement—in skiing, in telling stories and in creating opportunities for people in the sport and in their journey beyond it; to keep encouraging people to jump in over their heads; to disagree with people without disrespecting them; to enjoy every precious moment with family and friends; to lift people up with a smile, a funny story and every so often a really good dinner.
With two young ski racers of my own I am surrounded by people committed to ski racing, the sport. Every so often I run into someone who is considering a commitment to Ski Racing, the magazine. Gary Black comes to mind when I encourage them in either pursuit with an unequivocal “Yes!” Pay no mind to your bank account— the experience will undoubtedly make you rich.