Seventh-graders often have outsized dreams, but Ava Keenan put hers out there for the world to see this fall when she was featured in the annual Warren Miller ski film. The 12-year-old competitive mogul skier from Vail revealed her goal is to become the first Black skier to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
Keenan, a Denver native nicknamed “Happy Knees” because she wears knee pads decorated with smiley faces when she competes, is the top-ranked U.S. mogul skier for her age. She says she’s “dead set” on achieving her Olympic goal.
“If I do, there will be other Black kids watching that are like, ‘Whoa, I want to try that. If she can do it, I can do it,’” Keenan said recently on a snowy morning in Vail. “I want to get to the point where saying, ‘There’s a Black mogul skier,’ it isn’t even a surprise anymore.”
Since Keenan will be 16 for the 2026 games, her earliest opportunity to compete in the Olympics will probably be in 2030, when she will be two months shy of her 20th birthday.
Currently, the only Black skier in any discipline at the World Cup level, which is tops in international competitions, is French mogul skier Martin Suire. The only two Black athletes who have won gold medals in individual events at the Winter Olympics are speed skaters Shani Davis (2006 and 2010) and Erin Jackson (2022), both of whom are Americans.
Having begun competing as a weekend warrior commuting to Vail from Denver, Keenan moved to Vail this year to train daily with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, one of America’s most renowned ski clubs. When Lindsey Vonn was Keenan’s age, she moved from Minnesota to train with SSCV because she wanted to be a downhiller and Minnesota didn’t have the mountains for it. She went on to spend 18 seasons on the World Cup circuit, becoming the winningest female ski racer in the tour’s history and Olympic downhill champion in 2010.
It’s long odds to get to that level, but Keenan’s coach doesn’t discourage her from dreaming.
“There’s no reason she can’t succeed to U.S. Team level and international success,” said John Dowling, SSCV’s mogul program director. “That potential is there. She’s a really strong skier and an avid competitor. She got a really good willingness to risk, which can make a big difference, especially at young ages, especially in the women’s field.
“And technically, she’s really good,” he added. “She’s super coachable, really positive when she’s in the training environment. She’s very outspoken in her desire to succeed.”
In mogul skiing, competitors descend a slope covered with moguls (bumps), forcing them to make rapid-fire turns. The mogul field also has two ramps that launch skiers into the air, where they execute tricks that include combinations of flips and spins. Skiers are judged for their technique and degree of difficulty. Speed while navigating the moguls is a factor in scoring, too.
Mogul skiers wear knee pads that contrast in color with the rest of their suits so judges can see how well their knees are moving in unison. Keenan, who began competing at age 8, picked up the habit of putting smiley faces on her knee pads from her dad. It has become her trademark.
“I started mogul skiing competitively, and everybody was knowing my name,” Keenan said. “I was like, ‘How do all these people know my name? It’s like my first competition.’ They’re like, ‘Dude, you’re the only one with smiley faces on your knees, how would they not know who you are?’”
Keenan’s willingness to take risks springs in part from the adrenaline rushes they give her. She also understands taking risks helps her improve.
“If I try a new trick, OK, there’s a big chance I could fall, but that’s a big reason I do this sport,” Keenan said. “I just tell myself, ‘If you fall, that means you’re getting better.’ My past coach, Brad Kruze, gave me some really good advice. After doing a run, I was like, ‘Brad, I feel like I’ve been (stuck) in the same spot.’ He goes, ‘If you’re staying in your comfort zone, that’s going to stay your comfort zone. If you push past your limits and you scare yourself, eventually that will become your comfort zone.’”
Keenan’s father, Jim, grew up in Massachusetts, skiing in New England. After graduating from high school he began thinking about becoming a ski bum. The Killington Resort in Vermont seemed like a good place for it, but when he told a friend, the friend scoffed.
“He’s looking at me like I’m a loser,” Keenan said. “He said, ‘The best skiing in the world is Colorado and Utah. Why would you go to a little hill here in Vermont?’ But I’m like, ‘It’s Killington, the Beast of the East.’ He said, ‘The East.’ I dismissed him, but a week later, front cover of Ski magazine: ‘Vail No.1 ski resort in North America.’ I called my buddy and said, ‘We’re going to Vail.’ I got in my car, drove here and never went home.”
A University of Colorado grad who owns a sales consulting and training company, Keenan said the reasons there aren’t more Black skiers are cost and “legacy,” meaning family involvement across generations.
“The reason cost is a barrier is because we’ve been denied the American dream until 1964,” Keenan said. “That prevented us from getting into skiing in its heyday of the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s. People get into skiing because their parents put them in skiing. You have lots of Black families now who have plenty of money, they just never skied. Without legacy, you don’t introduce it to your kids. Legacy is huge.”
The National Brotherhood of Skiers, a coalition of Black ski clubs across the U.S., was formed in 1974. One of its founding purposes was to “identify, develop and support athletes of color who will win international and Olympic winter sports competitions representing the United States and to increase participation in winter sports.” The NBS was featured in this year’s Warren Miller film, called “Daymaker,” and Keenan was highlighted in the segment.
“Obviously I’m going to be biased because it’s me, but I liked it a lot,” said Keenan, who receives support from NBS. “I think it made the movie a little bit different because it wasn’t just big mountain skiing. It contoured the movie a little bit.”
Keenan remembers being shocked to see Suire, the Black skier from France, competing last year in a World Cup at Deer Valley, Utah.
“I was like, ‘Holy crap, there’s a Black guy on the World Cup tour?’” Ava said. “I want to get to the point where, when you see a Black man or a Black woman on the World Cup tour, you don’t have to say, ‘Holy crap,’ it’s just the norm.”