At the start of last season, U.S. Ski & Snowboard unveiled a new development model based on a study dubbed “Project 26” and announced its implementation with near-immediate effect. The ultimate goal of the development initiative is to produce more American alpine medal contenders by the 2026 Olympic Winter Games and beyond. Speculation this winter  swirled around what exactly would be changing, especially at the D Team level, and how changes based on Project 26 would be put into practice in the years to come.

On Tuesday morning, the 2018 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress in Park City, Utah, opened with Alpine Development Director Chip Knight, Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner and consultant Charlotte Moats presenting U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s findings from the two-year study to a packed crowd of club coaches and management.

“I think we recognized a couple of years ago that we were kind of exhausting the top-end strategy we had been running,” said Bodensteiner. “In many ways, that was a justifiable and fruitful approach where we focused on a lot of incredible athletes that we’ve had come through the system like Bode (Miller), Lindsey (Vonn) Julia (Mancuso), and Ted (Ligety), et cetera, et cetera, but we knew from our projections about the composition of our team and what results would look like in Beijing 2022 and probably even further out, that we were going to have some work in front of us if we were going to regenerate that team.”

Bodensteiner explained that the executive staff at the Center of Excellence really had to take a hard look in the mirror and come to terms with the realization that what had previously been in place at the development level wasn’t producing the outcomes they had hoped for. In other words, with the majority of the U.S. Ski Team’s past medal performers nearing retirement or already having stepped away from the sport, there simply aren’t enough upcoming racers performing at a high enough level to fill those shoes.

The presentation laid out the NGB’s case for completely overhauling the development pipeline by  highlighting the fact that under 10% of development team athletes in the study ever make it to the “A” team, much less make it to a World Cup, World Championship, or Olympic podium.

“One stat that really jumped out to us is that low conversion rate of athletes from the development program up into the World Cup team,” Bodensteiner added. “It’s objective data that’s bad that helps you take away assumptions or observations that you might have about things that may or may not be correct. This really got down to pinpointing where the systematic failures lie so we can put our energy and focus into those.”

To address this, restructuring the current national team system to one that encourages development at the club level as long as possible will be implemented this coming winter. There will still be a named “development team” like in years past, but those U.S. Ski Team athletes will be anchored at their home clubs and receive project-based programming with national team staff during the offseason, prep-period, and at the NorAm and World Junior level in-season, similar to how the National University Team was structured in seasons past.

In addition to the named development team athletes, a pool of “National Development Group” athletes will also be identified and picked to participate in various national team projects throughout the year. It is U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s hope that this approach will allow top junior athletes to mature more at the club level as opposed to the more isolated year-round programming of the past.

“What we’re doing with Project 26 is much more long term and pointed farther down in the system,” said Bodensteiner. “It’s really intended to best leverage the community of clubs that we have, which is an incredible resource for us with a lot of really professionally run organizations and a lot of highly capable and professional coaches. We clearly have not done the best job of aligning our programs with the clubs … we need to deliver enhanced support and programming down to the clubs.”

A Lake Tahoe native and University of Vermont graduate, Higgins was a member of the Catamounts' 2012 NCAA title winning squad and earned first team All-American honors in 2013. Prior to coming to Ski Racing Media, he coached U14s for the Squaw Valley Ski Team.