Words by Gordy Megroz, Photos by Stephen Shelesky
When Benjamin Alexander, at age 32, first went skiing in 2016, he spent more time lying in the snow than sliding down it. “I was in Whistler, on a green trail, and I fell about 27 times,” he says. His second run wasn’t much better. “I couldn’t figure out how to stop. So I fell about 26 times.”
Despite those inauspicious beginnings, just four years later, in January 2020, Alexander was standing in a start gate ready to compete in his first ski race, a high-level event that featured up-and-coming teenagers, many of whom had been on skis since when they were first learning to walk. If that seems unexpected, consider the now 37-year-old’s ultimate goal: To compete in alpine ski racing at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Nothing about Alexander’s life would make anybody believe he was destined for the Olympics. He was born in Northamptonshire, England (about an hour north of London) to a British mother and a Jamaican father who had moved to the United Kingdom in 1961 around age five. After excelling at private school, Alexander continued his studies at the Imperial College in London, and later at University College London, where he concentrated on electrical engineering.
He started listening to pirate radio stations while on drives from London to visit his family in Northamptonshire during his first year of college in 1999. “These kids were playing underground, cutting edge, electronic music on illegal transmitters and broadcasting it on the radio,” he says. “It had this sound and this energy that I’d never experienced before. I decided the only way listen to it more was to re-create it. So I went out and bought turntables and records and very quickly became pretty good at DJing."
Soon Alexander was DJing at large London clubs. But the work was dangerous. “I was caught between gunfire and knife fights and tear gas cannisters being thrown into clubs,” he says. “So I gave up music.”
Alexander concentrated on his studies; then, in 2005, took a trip to Thailand and fell in love with the city of Bangkok—“I decided I’d move there.” The next year, right after finishing his last exam, he made the move while working in finance, a job that eventually forced him to move to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, he fell in with an affluent group that loved to party. “They had DJ equipment but had no idea how to use it,” he says. “I started using it and performing to crowds again.” This time, DJing stuck. In 2010, Alexander quit his job in finance and began traveling, spinning records at clubs and parties all over the world. Which brings us to his trip to Whistler in February 2016.
Alexander had been invited to DJ at, of all events, a swingers’ party. “I only skied two days on that trip,” he says. “It wasn’t until the following year, when I happened to be in Mammoth, California during a time when they got 14 feet of snow in three days. A friend tricked me into going down a black run—and I yard saled. But I liked it enough to keep trying it. I kept trying to understand the steepness and the speed.”
Two years later while in Revelstoke skiing with friends, he says he caught the skiing bug. “I obviously stand out,” says Alexander. “I’m 6-foot-6, the same height as Michael Jordan, and I’m not white. That’s when the Cool Runnings jokes started.” “Cool Runnings,” of course, being the movie featuring the Jamaican bobsled team that made an improbable run to the 1988 Olympics.
Alexander extended his trip in Revelstoke by six weeks. He skied almost every day, racking up 1,200 miles of vertical and setting the record for vertical feet skied in one day at Revelstoke: 103,351 vertical feet.
“In the latter half of 2018, I started chasing snow in South America. And the idea of skiing in the Olympics became less of a joke to me.”
Because his father was born in Jamaica, Alexander knew there was a chance he could represent the country at the Games. But there was a major hurdle to overcome: He still wasn’t a very good skier. On one outing, Alexander told Gordon Gray, a former American ski racer, about his Olympic dreams.
“I’m going to be blunt,” said Gray. “Your technique is absolutely atrocious. But you are absolutely fearless. From my point of view, you have more than half the battle won.”
Buoyed by that assessment, Alexander went about securing Jamaican citizenship and training, first with 14-year-olds at Mount Hood, Oregon in August 2019—“I showed up on Line twin-tip skis”—then in Jackson, Wyoming that October. What Alexander needed more than anything was time on snow. In his 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, whether that be playing the violin or skiing. Alexander was on about his hundredth hour.
“The first season in Jackson, I ended up skiing 183 days,” he says. “I skied 100 consecutive days with 85 of them being in the backcountry.” Alexander climbed 300,000 vertical feet to earn his turns and got into the best shape of his life, transforming himself from dance club DJ to athlete. But he still had a long way to go become an Olympic ski racer.
He trained with Jackson Hole Ski Club, running gates with the “master” ski racers (older skiers who typically hold down day jobs and compete for the love of the sport). “It was my first proper coaching,” he says. “I thought I’d be massively better but that first race was a huge slap in the face.” In Big Sky, his time was 30 seconds behind the winner and far behind the Olympic qualifying standard.
In ski racing, athletes try to lower their points starting from 990. Olympic champions like Mikaela Shiffrin have lowered their points all the way down to zero. College ski racers typically hover somewhere around 30 or 40 points. One-hundred-sixty points is the Olympic standard. Alexander has managed to drop his points to 320 so far and is planning to hit 160 over his next few races.
But what Alexander lacks in ability he makes up for in confidence. This summer, he began training in Austria with the Schild family, a famous clan of World Cup champions. “In 22 days of training I feel like I’ve slashed my deficit in skill and speed by at least 50 percent,” he says. When Alexander sat down with Stefan Schild, the patriarch of the family, he said he couldn’t make him a consistent 160-point skier. “But I can make you a 160-point skier at some races,” said Schild. To qualify for the Olympics, Alexander needs to score 160 points or lower at five races before the January 16 cutoff.
Alexander has his work cut out for him, but he is determined to do everything possible to meet the qualifying standard. Regardless of Olympic dreams, this chapter of Alexander’s life has opened the doors to a lifestyle he never knew existed. Living in places like Jackson, Wyoming, skiing big mountains and immersing himself in the outdoors will stick with him long past the Olympics.
“There is something incredibly awe inspiring about being dwarfed by huge mountains and humbling about being completely at the mercy of the elements,” he says. “Skiing, winter sports, the great outdoors will be a part of my life forever and will play a solid role in the upbringing of my children (when that chapter arrives). Seeing, firsthand, the discipline that is demanded of young ski racers, it is easy to see that this is a lifelong skill that will serve them well, no matter how far they take their racing. At the very least the technique they learn will have them stand out on the mountain for the rest of their lives.”