Currently alpine director at CVA, I was recently executive director at SSCV for five years. Prior to working in Vail, I was headmaster at BMA for 16 years after working as head women’s coach, head coach and head men’s coach at GMVS. GMVS, BMA and SSCV were all the top U.S. club or academy at one time based on the number of athletes on the U.S. Ski Team and on objective criteria. I have coached approximately 35 U.S. Ski Team athletes and seen seven of them achieve top-five World Cup results, six achieve top three and two win first place. Three athletes won medals at the Olympics or World Championships. Of these 35 team members, 17 were men and 18 were women.
We based success in each program on strategic planning founded on identifying key critical success factors. Quite simply, in all three programs, we tended to ski more with quality.
The United States has obvious challenges. Fielding our national team is more expensive than for central European countries. While Austria, Switzerland and Italy have teams with over 100 athletes, our team usually numbers in the forties. Given this funding challenge, there is a perennial conflict between supporting our top athletes and supporting developmental athletes. This is evidenced by the elimination of the men’s World Cup slalom team several years ago. Nolan Kasper is our most recent World Cup podium finisher in slalom and was cut despite being physically healthy and fully recovered from injuries. Funding limitations lead to tough decisions about whether to support established or younger athletes.
I advocate for supporting our more competitive athletes. I believe we should use the existing world ranking qualification and somewhat expand domestic qualification through the Nor-Am circuit. We should clarify the pathway for our maturing athletes and incentivize collegiate athletes to acquire the training they need to be competitive. It’s time to move beyond lip service to college as a legitimate pathway. Paula Moltzan is an obvious example, as are virtually the entire Canadian women’s tech team, Tanguay Nef and others. Some exceptional younger athletes will still qualify objectively, although most will tend to qualify later, as they should.
To support our top athletes, we can provide race opportunities in Europe based on objective Nor-Am results. Early qualification has exaggerated the benefit for those who have funding to leverage gains by pursuing advantages in extra on-snow camps and races. Our athletes would be better served by a system more focused on opportunities and qualification when they have matured and become more competitive. Many athletes have progressed directly to international success without an interim period of skiing with the D-team.
However, there is the cost conundrum. Ski racing is an expensive sport as widely discussed in last year’s development articles. Let’s simplify the pathway, leverage the resources we have in this country and reduce the overall cost. Club and academy expenses are high, but most of the top clubs and academies provide significant need-based financial aid, which is often overlooked in the discussion regarding the cost of ski racing.
Still, race and camp costs can be huge. The top skiers have all tended to ski more. In Colorado, we promoted the ability to ski up to 150 days yearly. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to ski that frequently to be competitive. Nolan, Mikaela and Nina O’Brien all skied for 120-130 days annually when I coached them at BMA. I’m sure Ryan Cochran-Siegle skied on fewer days. It’s not the total number of days that matters, but the aggregate amount of skiing with quality. The top skiers tend to be first to the lift and get in the extra runs because they have the fitness to get more out of each day.
If athletes simply get an additional two runs daily over 100 days on snow, that’s the equivalent of at least 20 more days of skiing. At Northern Vermont races, it was customary to see Ryan and his cousins skiing right up until the awards were given, getting the most out of their time on-snow. At the top programs nationally, the athletes have tended to ski more whether they’re training slalom at Buck Hill, skiing a ton at Palisades or somewhere in between.
Everyone does it differently; at BMA, Mikaela tended to train and do laps before and after her competitive run on the Training Hill, where she could get feedback and repetition while working on her skiing. Nolan pretty much trained as much volume, but spent more time outside the gates free-skiing, skiing woods and doing nonstop runs on the mountain. If the cumulative quality time on-snow is a critical success factor, it makes no sense for the east (with fewer potential days on-snow) to race as many races as programs in Colorado. Mikaela raced 11 races when she was age 14, and I think Nina raced 16 when she was age 15. I’m not going to get into the number of runs they trained in a training session versus two runs in a race, but it was high. The difference between 130 and 150 days on-snow is 15%, and it’s easy to average 20% more training daily.
In Colorado I found we never could train at as high a volume as in the east due to the elevation and the related higher fatigue. Over-racing restricts the amount of skiing athletes can accumulate. Beyond that, traveling to races outside of a region reduces the total amount of skiing and dramatically increases cost. Two goals should be to leverage the amount of training relative to competition and to begin racing when prepared.
I listened to the eastern region development call in the fall. The discussion focused primarily on race series construction and qualifications. One of our problems is too much emphasis on creating a structure and the associated infrastructure of qualification. We should look at other countries and external strategic factors, but devise a system unique to the United States. It’s currently in vogue to look at Norway, and we should. However, we shouldn’t totally emulate another country’s system. Geographically our country is much larger, so the opportunity cost related to higher travel expenses and loss of training is greater.
I recommend eliminating all national championships except for collegiate and Nor-Am. We have Nor-Am finals, which concentrates the top North American alpine competitors, as does the season-long series. We can emphasize regional age class championships, which offer higher levels of participation at a more reasonable cost. Make regional championships the top level for juniors until they can be competitive in Nor-Ams. Simplifying the system will lead to greater consolidation of our top athletes competing at the same races. The savings will be significant and will reduce costs due to conducting fewer qualification procedures. On the other hand, I have not supported mandating race start limitations. Instead, we should emphasize actions that will support a more open structure, provide access to a broader number of athletes, reduce expenses by simplifying our federation’s imposed racing structure and identify initiatives that support more quality time on-snow during the winter.
When there is a national championship or international youth competition, there is an associated qualification. This process drives early-season competitions to provide fair access for qualification and increases the perceived need for more training outside of what is possible domestically. The U16, U18 and U.S. Nationals all have high costs of entry, lodging and food, and travel. The qualification-related impact for qualification race series and on-snow camps is even more significant. Participation in international children’s competitions should be eliminated for any series requiring qualification other than through regional championships. The ripple effect of qualifying a small number of athletes has impacted significant numbers, and early-season race series are intended to provide fair access.
If we eliminate early winter qualifications, it will reduce pressure on mid-fall ski camps, except for those who should be prepared for Nor-Ams. Instead, people can focus more on the total amount of skiing desired annually and place more importance on skiing at home. We want to encourage and promote skiing more, but accomplish more at home and when the quality is good.
We have vast resources in the United States when you consider club, academy, college, university and ski-area infrastructures. The U.S. Ski Team will never be able to fund athletes in numbers comparable to the top central European alpine nations. To be competitive, we need to develop a broader pool of athletes by incentivizing and guiding domestic programs based on the critical factors in long-term success. An open system will still allow the early emerging athlete to qualify while incentivizing a larger pool of our motivated and talented athletes.