At Ski Racing Media, like any publication, it is important to distinguish between news and commentary, and we rigorously identify all of our content as one or the other. What follows is not news. It is my personal opinion, and it is a subject that is near and dear to me.
I believe it is important to explain why I am taking such a strong position on the issue of college ski racing and why our publication intends to address this issue in upcoming content initiatives. My motive in this editorial is the same motive I had in acquiring Ski Racing Media. I invested in an ultra-niche digital media publication with little prospect of ever getting a financial return. My return will come as we make the sport better.
I love ski racing and want it to be a thriving, prosperous sport. I love the athletes of this sport. I have many lifelong relationships with athletes whom I’ve met through this sport. But it makes my skin crawl when the CEO of our national governing body says he’s hyper-focused on placing athletes in the top 10 and on the pathways he has most control over and most influence on. World Cup-podium athletes are very rare — a small, tip-of-the-arrow group. To focus solely on developing this group excludes more than 99% of our community. In all fairness, Tiger Shaw would say he cares about all American athletes. It’s just that his actions and the actions of his staff do not support that sentiment.
At the Alpine Collegiate Working Group, U.S. Ski & Snowboard (USSS) staff made it clear that collegiate skiing is not going to be prioritized as a pathway for our nation’s best athletes to reach the World Cup. I am here to contend that college ski racing can and should be developed as a viable option for American success on the World Cup — and in life.
To give credit where it is due, USSS has made minor or fleeting efforts with college athletes. This year, the team named three athletes with NCAA experience, although none will continue to ski for their university teams this season. The federation also supported the short-lived National University Team (UNI), introduced in 2015-16 and subsequently dismantled after the 2016-17 season. And, over the last few years, there have been a handful of athletes who made criteria from college and were named.
Nevertheless, USSS and its alpine program have never embraced college skiing as a pathway to the World Cup in any systematic way. With such a brief commitment to the UNI team and no subsequent effort to implement another college program or project, cooperation between the NGB and college is at its darkest hour.
My question to the leadership of USSS is, how can you say college skiing is not a potential pathway to World Cup success? There is very little evidence to justify your position of not supporting a systemic college system. Your claim that there has never been a statistically significant number of collegiate athletes who have made it onto the World Cup contains a major flaw in its reasoning. First, if you have never genuinely tried — in a sustained, systematic way, to develop a college program — how can you say it won’t work? Second, the college system is unique to the United States, so, of course, using European models as the basis for your statistics will lead to that conclusion.
It can be done because it has been done
The National Hockey League (NHL) made the same argument years ago. They did not support college as a viable pathway to the pros and insisted on players staying in their development systems. However, today, after encouraging cooperation between colleges and the NHL, one-third of the league’s roster is now made up of former NCAA athletes.
“Ultimately our job at USA Hockey is to produce more players,” Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey, told Front Office Sports. “And that means, frankly, more Americans playing college hockey. We continue to grow the sport from the grassroots level so the college level, we believe, is the last point in our American development model before professional hockey. The collegiate level provides great experience and can prepare players to be successful professional hockey players so the whole sport benefits.”
The team with the most college athletes? The Pittsburgh Penguins, who just so happened to have taken home the Stanley Cup in two of the past five seasons. Most recently, in the 2019 NHL Draft, college athletes made up nearly 40% of those selected. The average age of NHL rookies? 24.
Yet in ski racing, our leaders are looking the other way
In Ski Racing’s recent article, USST, NCAA butt heads over NorAm schedule, we reported on a dispute that transpired at the Collegiate Working Group in May. As part of that story, we spoke extensively to the group’s chair, head men’s coach at Dartmouth College, Peter Dodge. Sadly, this is not a new discussion. An editorial penned by Dodge for Ski Racing in 1999 states many of these same concerns. It’s pretty clear nothing has changed!
Project 26: Right intention, wrong implementation
In the spring of 2016, a working group named Project 26 was formed to explore the state and development of U.S. skiing, utilizing a statistical view with an eye on results at the 2026 Olympics. The working group asked the question: How can we change the system to have a better chance of success in the 2026 Olympics? They determined, if it is World Cup and Olympic podiums that matter to them — and it is — then statistically the likelihood of achieving those goals is highest when the athlete is ranked in the top 10 on the WC start list.
Also during the project, it became clear that it was difficult, or nearly impossible, to predetermine podium success at the World Cup or Olympic levels in young athletes. Therefore, directing resources solely to a select few athletes with promising results at a young age is statistically unwise. It was also recognized at that time that USSS did not have the available resources to cast a wide enough net to financially support broad full-time programs of its own.
As difficult as athlete identification at any elite level is, predetermining athletes who will achieve World Cup top-10 rank is — short of occasional phenoms like Mikaela Shiffrin — impossible, especially from our starting point in the U.S. Narrowing the focus to this extent, I believe, presents a couple problems. It builds the system around outliers, while prematurely eliminating athletes that would otherwise make up a robust pipeline of contenders. An even worse outcome, criteria that is too difficult forces the use of discretion, which is a very slippery slope, best to be avoided to whatever extent possible.
I agree, from an aspirational standpoint, building a system to place multiple athletes in the top 10 world rank is worthwhile; however, you can’t create the whole team around that ideal, as there simply are not enough athletes in that pool. The issue is bridging the current reality with the future aspirational state. You simply can’t get there, from where we are now, in a single leap and thus we are at risk of shrinking, rather than growing our sport, by taking this approach.
As a result of the inherent constraints in supporting a large group of athletes, it was determined by USSS management at the conclusion of Project 26 that the U.S. should evolve from a full-time development system to a project-based system, where athletes would remain connected to their club, academy or college and attend projects throughout the year. This had the ability to spread resources around to many more athletes than a dedicated team.
Collaboration as the American way
But, alas, after giving the project approach a try for two years, we reverted back to small fixed full-time teams. This stop-start approach is not optimal. It takes time to give new initiatives the gestation period necessary before a supportable conclusion can be made.
Trying to beat the Europeans at their game, playing it their way, is like the Oakland A’s taking on the New York Yankees, taking what has worked in the Bronx and trying to implement it in a small-market environment. Instead, as described in the book “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis, the A’s created a unique, statistically based approach and built a winning system based on their own unique characteristics and strengths. It wasn’t about copying what the Yankees were doing. If we start acting like the A’s and take on the Yankees (the Europeans) utilizing our own unique advantages, we have a much better chance.
College is one of our key unique characteristics. Europe doesn’t have a college ski racing system like we do. We need to consider how Americans are unique and build a system around that. We have far more FIS racers than most countries, and we have an individual funding model where individuals can pursue their careers.
That’s exactly what Sam DuPratt did. After being on the U.S. Ski Team for four years, he competed for the University of Utah. After his college career ended he skied independently, ultimately winning a World Cup spot on his own through NorAms. He then competed on the World Cup as an independently funded athlete for two seasons before being renamed this year at 27. That would be extremely rare in Europe, where most athletes drop out if they are not on their national team.
To struggle in Europe or thrive in the US?
Tiger Shaw has strongly stated his belief that the path to the World Cup goes through Europe. He even suggested that European races are more difficult from a venue standpoint. That may be true, on average, but it is a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don’t emphasize NorAms and make them as competitive as they can be. USSS should be “hyper focused” on facilitating high-level NorAms that prepare North American racers to be successful on the World Cup. The idea that U.S. athletes need extensive experience in ECs is highly debatable.
In 2016, I traveled to Europe and met with 30 thought leaders in an effort to understand the nuances of their development system compared to ours. One of my questions was if they believed the EC was an important experience for North American racers. The universal answer was no. Many experts believe the idiosyncrasies of the EC — such as a very long season and the necessity to enter all events to stay in the seed, the extremely deep field, a full season on the road — would likely contribute to the demoralization of a typical North American athlete. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with U.S. athletes competing in ECs. I agree with Tiger it is good to experience the depth of field and the aggressiveness needed to win in that environment. It just shouldn’t be the be-all/end-all, as now configured.
Furthermore, there are many examples of athletes who jumped directly from the NorAms to the World Cup: Leif Haugen-Nestvold, Jonathan Nordbotten, Erik Read, Roni Remme, Laurence St. Germain, just to name a few. Many of those athletes followed the approach Tommy Ford and Ryan Cochran-Siegle took: entering a few select ECs and then going directly to the WC. Discounting college athletes because their schedule precludes EC experience does not hold up to the data.
Athletes first — on and off the hill
Respect for the athlete should be the hallmark of everything U.S. Ski & Snowboard does. Is it fair to ask our top athletes to make Hobson’s choice: chase your dream and give up your education or gain your education and give up your dream? This just seems antithetical in our nation.
We have had a system mostly dependent on phenoms. You don’t need to “identify” a Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Kildow or Bode Miller, nor do you need much of a system to develop them. For the rest, however, embracing the full person for the long term is the most American way of doing things. College plays a critical role in that. USSS needs to get over their control fixation and embrace college once and for all.
If I thought it was possible to identify younger athletes and develop them to reach a top-10 world rank and compete for WC podiums, I might feel differently. However, history has proven that this is not possible. Not by us, not by anyone else. That is why European national teams support a much broader cohort than we do. Especially when we are in a constant funding shortfall, and we have no idea if any of our younger named athletes will ever become successful Olympians, why not use college skiing as an opportunity for them to mature, get stronger, and develop as young men and women, to emerge at 21 or 22 years old with a degree under their belt and some high-level NorAm finishes? Then, they can enter the national system and see what they are made of — when the accuracy of athlete identification is much better than it is at 18 years old.
College makes ski racing a true team sport
College skiing is the absolute pinnacle of positive culture. All you have to do is attend one National Championship of USCSA or NCAA to see the deep bond among teammates and competitors. Ask any current or former collegiate athlete about their experience and they’ll happily explain the team culture and the amazing things they learned from it. It is a shame that we actively discourage some of our top rising stars from experiencing this part of the sport.
I also recognize college isn’t for everyone. Some athletes may just not want to go to college. I am not suggesting one size fits all. Additionally, there can be a tradeoff for speed skiers, since college does not feature speed events. However it is universally accepted that World Class speed skiers are virtually always outstanding tech skiers before they transition to speed. In most cases the maturation and technical progression available while attending college can be developmentally useful.
The calendar is a challenge, one we can overcome
One of the controversies between college skiing and USST is always the NorAm schedule. Some of the conflict is natural and unavoidable. For example, it is important for some athletes to get a high-level (NorAm) start in the early season. That is especially true for those who have had a full fall prep period and are planning on racing in Europe in November and December. Eastern colleges, especially, have a very hard time being prepared for those early season races, as there is no snow on the ground in New England, and they have a hard time traveling to Colorado for training while missing school. I don’t see a solution for the entire college team. But for individual college racers, October training in Colorado can be a solution. This may just be the case of an unavoidable conflict.
Some of the controversy around NorAm scheduling can be avoided. I recognize it has been a challenge to get resorts to commit to NorAms. In addition, it is critical that the race venues are appropriate from a surface and pitch standpoint. It is not like we have inherently easy race venues. By all reports venues like Stowe and Mont Edouard are extremely challenging by any standard. I also recognize it is not just a USSS decision. NorAms are governed by a committee made up of Canadian and American representatives. There is a lot to balance. As a result, scheduling can be a last-minute process, and this creates conflicts with college races. But it can be resolved by sticking with resorts that will commit to dates in advance, assuming they are at the appropriate level for a NorAm, both from a terrain and a surface standpoint.
I am not suggesting it is easy. I am suggesting we need to prioritize this issue within our national system and in our discussions between the U.S. and Canada.
As Tiger said in his remarks at the college working group, NorAms are a vital stepping stone. NorAms need college racers to provide the point profile and to fill out the field. Therefore, treating colleges as vital partners seems like a no-brainer.
Scheduling flows downhill. First, World Cups are scheduled at least a year in advance. Then, Continental Cups, such as ECs and NorAms, should be scheduled, then college, FIS races, etc. It is critical the NorAm schedule is established no later than early April, so others can establish their respective scheduling. One thing for sure, we can’t have college teams driving 10 hours back and forth from NorAms to college races, as Peter Dodge recently described in our latest article on the subject.
The easy way out will not get us there
Shaw said, “We are hyper-focused on the pathways we have the most control over and the most influence on.” While that may make sense on the surface, when you dig in that is just taking the easy way out and following the same old path. Sure, it takes a lot more work, cooperation and creativity to manage a distributed system that you don’t control. But, it’s the American way. We don’t follow the herd. We forge our own path. We have many advantages. We have a model where athletes can continue following their dreams in a self-funded way. And yes, we have the U.S. college system. It is a unique differentiator and one we can and should embrace.
The solution is for colleges and U.S. Ski & Snowboard to work together more effectively. It is in the interest of all our athletes. It gives us a much broader cohort to work with. It utilizes millions of dollars in collegiate funding. This has been a problem forever. Thinking outside the box and embracing the American way, as opposed to simply following the European model, is how we can win.