Edie Thys Morgan
The LaMarche Era of Development Paid Long-Term Dividends
When you get into discussions about development in U.S. skiing, it doesn’t take long for one name to come up, LaMarche. As in Deb LaMarche, who was the National Development Director from 1988-1991. Also, her husband Tim LaMarche, better known as “Swampy,” who, among many official titles, spent 30 years as the patron saint of speed development in the Western Region.
During her time as national director, Deb worked primarily with athletes born between 1969-73. The list of athletes she worked with includes a who’s who in a past era of U.S. skiing. Tommy Moe, Kyle Rasmussen, Picabo Street, Erik Schlopy, Daron Rahlves, Heidi Voelker, Megan Gerety, Jeremy and Shannon Nobis, Chris and Casey Puckett, Kim and Krista Schmidinger, and Kristina Koznick, to name only a few who went on to be World Cup veterans. Between them, their efforts at the regional and national levels coincided with a sort of golden age of U.S. development; a period that yielded nine World Jr medals in 1989 but, more importantly, created a vibrant ecosystem that bred generations of success.
Swampy’s direct involvement spanned a more prolonged era. His steadfast efforts to develop competent speed skiers, his collaborative spirit and his practices in the West nurtured a steady stream of successful athletes. His efforts created a well-charted path to stoke the American Downhiller engine.
Today, both are semi-retired, Deb from her 25-year post-skiing career in healthcare management, and Swampy, in 2009, after 30 years with U.S. Skiing, as speed coach, 2002 Olympic race director and U.S. Skiing’s first technical advisor. In the winter, Swampy still drives a snowcat for Snowbasin. For this article, they look back at what worked during their era. While acknowledging that “times have changed,” many of the same challenges and opportunities remain.
THE LAMARCHE BACKGROUND
From 1982-88 Deb Bergstrom worked as an assistant and then director of USSA’s Eastern Regional Development. From 1980-88 Swampy was USSA’s western regional director. Deb maintained that the East, with its dense competition environment and rock-hard hills, produced superior technical skiers. Meanwhile, Swampy looked out for Western, big mountain kids, many of whom naturally excelled at speed yet did not have the political weight of the Eastern ski academies supporting them. As such, they argued plenty, each trying to secure quota spots and assure the kids from their regions received fair representation on the national level.
In 1988, USSA and the USST merged into a single entity based in Park City, Utah. What had formerly been a system based on divisions merged into three regions — West, Rocky/Central and East. The Eastern Division operated much as it always had. In the West, Swampy worked closely with divisional coaches to develop regional schedules and selection methods that were fair and sensible. Swampy’s Western network already had a history of collaboration. With funding secured from the USOPC (then the USOC), he started speed projects that brought kids together regionally and nationally. A good example was the annual December downhill camp in Big Mountain, MT, followed by races.
EUROPEAN EXPOSURE FOR DEVELOPMENT
From there, in conjunction with USST Development Coordinator Curt Hammond, he focused nationally on getting kids and coaches to Europe to experience a higher level of competition and witness how the athletes handled the lifestyle. “It was a way of finding out if a kid was going to be able to last over there,” says Swampy. Their first big breakthrough came when AJ Kitt won the Italian Junior Championships, and from there, they built success at the Europa Cup.
At that time, the then U.S. Ski Team Alpine Director John McMurtry, after the 1988 Olympic medal apocalypse, secured funding for a national development program to “win at every level.” To Deb, the broad mission invited a comprehensive, long-term approach. She signed on as national development director and Swampy signed on as a C Team speed coach.
WE’RE BETTER TOGETHER
As Eastern development director, Deb had attended the 1986 World Junior Championships in Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria. She vividly recalls watching Alaskan Hilary Lindh win the downhill and watching the Eastern kids” completely over-ski the course and just get creamed.” The experience was an eye-opener. She realized the need for a more well-rounded program: a program that brought young athletes and coaches together from across the country; a program that would create an environment allowing them to learn together from one another. As national director (and Mrs. LaMarche as of 1989), it became her first objective.
A WIDE NET AND AN OPEN DOOR
“There’s sort of two theories about development,” explains Deb. “One is you pick a small group of kids that you think are going to ‘make it’ and pour everything into them. Our philosophy was pretty much the opposite.” Our goal was to bring in as many kids as possible (150 kids from across the country) into national coed camps, which included a June camp in Oregon and a late summer/early fall camp in South America.
Those were bolstered by regional camps and race projects throughout the year (reaching 600 athletes). The camps had an objective to give kids below the C Team more high-quality and affordable days on snow. In addition, her team organized development camps for college athletes that included a mix of NCAA and USST regional coaches. “They had to pay their way because it went beyond our budget, but it made them feel like the door was still open, even if it was just a crack.”
At the core of Deb’s program was her conviction that the bigger the pool of kids who feel like they have a chance and are striving hard to get there, the better. She involved as many athletes and coaches as possible in the projects to build a shared understanding of objectives. “The whole idea was to make everyone feel like they could be part of it and contribute. We were trying to make it feel possible.”
LAMARCHE RELIED ON COOPERATION AND COMMUNICATION
The success in the West—particularly in speed, which is by necessity a communal pursuit—was largely due to a transparent environment built on mutual trust, where everybody looked out for each other, regardless of their home program. Swampy explains: “The coaches could all trust that if they weren’t going to a camp or a race series, their kids were still going to get good coaching and care from the coaches that were there.” The trust was especially helpful to kids from small programs who were able to train with the best kids and coaches in the region.
Deb deliberately collected information from home coaches about every participant’s strengths, weaknesses and specific needs to prepare her staff for the projects. The system also encouraged and welcomed the home coaches to communicate actively. This inclusive approach fostered trust in the national program. Consequently, the established communication channels facilitated the coordination of the season’s planning for each athlete. The result was a comprehensive and deep understanding of the talent from across the country. “We wanted to ensure the coaches felt like we were not working against them,” says Deb.
The cooperation model Swampy had started for the Western region speed project became standard practice, including at the World Cup level. For example, World Cup coaches Ueli Luthi (then the LaMarches’ roommate) and Theo Nadig spent two days meeting with Deb and Swampy in the fall, going through everything they knew about athletes in the pipeline, their coaches, and who should be involved. “It was just this incredible, coordinated effort to figure out how to move people along,” says Deb
KEEPING THE ECOSYSTEM HEALTHY
At the C Team level, Swampy tried to keep athletes in the system as long as possible, knowing that kept the ecosystem healthy. “There’s always a challenge to try and balance bringing the new kids in and when to let some of the older guys go because if you let them go and they stop racing, there’ll be a huge gap.” Swampy also leveraged national team athletes to maintain a strong point profile for the U.S. by enticing them to the spring series races across the country.
BROADENING THE SKILL SET
In his travels, Swampy spent time at many World Cup downhill tracks that were often additionally used for Europa Cup and FIS races. He measured the terrain features and used the data to recreate them at a springtime downhill elements camp. The camp became an annual event attended by speed and tech skiers and it became a key foundation for development. (A list of invitees to a 1993 DH speed elements camp included Daron Rahlves, Chip Knight and Forest Carey — 2001 World SG Champion, 1993 World Jr SL Champion and 2022 Alpine Coach of the Year, respectively.)
They also brought the concept into tech training, building terrain into SL and GS training courses and drills. Combined, the kids experienced exposure to diverse conditions and skills. The training brought together the momentum and looseness of speed with the precision and discipline of tech. Says Deb: “I liked mixing the Eastern and Western kids because they did tend to have different strengths and weaknesses and things that they could learn from each other.”
KEEPING IT CLEAR AND KEEPING IT REAL
Deb strove to keep criteria clear and consistent year to year, which meant kids weren’t working towards a moving target. “There was this real debate then over how much time kids should spend training and developing vs. chasing points,” recalls Deb; criteria was more likely about results at races like Junior Nationals and NorAms than FIS points.
Kids in the development program were named for specific camps or projects but not to a development team or group. “There was a C Team and they had uniforms and were part of the ski team,” says Deb, “but for development, we didn’t do that. None of them got a uniform. I thought that was important because I wanted these young kids to feel like the door was open, but I didn’t want them to feel like they had already arrived.”
Keeping it affordable, as it is now, was a huge issue then. From Deb’s perspective, it didn’t matter how many kids were taking up skiing at the grassroots if they weren’t going to be able to afford ski racing when they got older. Athletes had to get themselves to camps and projects, but costs were partially or completely covered once there. “We weren’t making it a hardship for people to participate,” says Deb.
THE END OF AN ERA, BUT NOT THE LEGACY
In 1991, the program ended due to funding and a perceived lack of results. The organization moved to a “regional model” where each region named a small team coached by their regional coaches. In essence, it did a philosophical 180. Ironically, LaMarche’s national model, where she organized and coordinated regional coaches who enlisted the entire national coaching and athlete network, more closely resembles what we now consider a “regional model” that casts a wide net and brings kids together opportunistically. “That’s one of the funny things in our sport,” says Swampy. “It’s a big wheel that goes around and you get back to where you were when you started now and then.”
Athletes directly involved in the LaMarche era development achieved medals and podiums, literally “at every level,” from World Jr to Olympics. More importantly, the U.S. Ski Team reaped the benefits of the rich ecosystem built on a spirit of collaboration for many successive generations, particularly in the speed category.
DEVELOPMENT ADVICE: BE CONSISTENT YET FLEXIBLE, AND ALWAYS PATIENT
As for what development should be, Swampy sees that it still needs to be built around each region’s unique needs and to be very open-ended. Above all, “patience is a big part of the job,” says Swampy. “We tracked a bunch of kids back in the day. Once a kid starts showing promise at the Nor-Am level, it will take ten years for that kid to go through the process.” One of the biggest problems he’s seen with development over the years has been that with every regime change, the plan in place gets thrown away in favor of a new idea. “I’d like to see the development program keep progressing without any major changes to the people because it takes a few years to really get a firm grip on what you need to do. We could have a pretty strong team, but you have to stay consistent at the bottom.”