I am writing to express my opinion on the recent articles about the development differences between the USST and NCAA. I am a three-time Olympian and have been involved in this sport for over four decades. I am also the parent of a first-year FIS athlete, who will one day have to make a choice in this regard (if he is fast enough to be in that position).

Choices are always difficult, we make them every day, yet they come with trade-offs. Skiing for the National Team or a college program are very different; they both require exceptional talent and speed. The rewards for success and risks are also different between the two. The path you take depends on your goals and ambition. There is no wrong path, but you will be forced to choose and in so doing, you will be faced with trade-offs. Some say you can do both, I disagree. Are their exceptions? Yes. But, if your measure of success is defined by World Cup, World Championship or Olympic podiums, the success rate through college racing is very low and data backs this up.

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Prior to the inception of the World Cup tour in 1966, college skiing was the path to the World Championships and Olympics. Once the season long World Cup tour was established, governing bodies around the world had to adjust and because of competitive forces, the path to these events changed. 

When I ask young children, who ski race what their goals or dreams are, they say “I want to ski in the Olympics, my dream is to win a Gold medal”. I have never heard “My goal is to ski for a certain college”. That’s not a knock, it’s just the way it is.

The World Cup is the highest level of competition that we have in skiing. It takes sacrifice, effort, talent and ultimately speed to achieve success. The mission of the National Team is to develop competitive athletes that win races, World Championship and Olympic medals. Especially Olympic medals, because that’s their currency of currency, their funding is based upon it.

The USST path is a full-time job. You compete against other athletes from other countries that train year-round. If you don’t, you are at a huge disadvantage and that compounds every year that you are not on that path. The USST has their development process, while not perfect, it again provides funding for athletes on the D and C teams, which was sorely lacking over the last five years and something that helped me in my career.  To make the team is great, but the goal of the program is to have skiers on the A Team, competing for podiums. That’s the truth; the tip of the spear is sharp and not always accommodating to athletes that can’t perform to this level.

This process requires solid progression and can’t take more than five years to show results, given funding limitations. Talent can be identified and progressed; however, some athletes will not make the next step and the Team is forced to make decisions. This is a risk with this path, not everyone who makes the National Team leaves happy. But if you have the speed it’s your path to ski at the highest level of this sport and achieve Olympic dreams. There are great skiers like the Phil and Steve Mahre, Tamara McKinney, Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin who have gone this path, stood on podiums-making a trade-off, forgoing college.

There is a lot of discussion around having the National Team accommodate the college schedule. The National Team needs to build their schedule for the benefit of their athletes. 90% of these races are on foreign soil. In the U.S. our highest level of racing is NorAm. In Europe, they have Europa Cup and World Cup. U.S. athletes must be able to adapt to living and racing in Europe. It is very rare that an athlete can show up in Europe, learn the lifestyle, be comfortable, and be competitive right away. It takes a couple years for this to happen.

That means that the D and C team athletes must compete over there. Our NorAm races are preparation and test events for the D and C team athletes. Ultimately, they need to compete in high level FIS and Europa Cup races in Europe and make their mark there, so NorAms need to be scheduled before the races in Europe or later in the season which conflicts with the college schedule.

College ski racing is a cool experience. Being able to ski race for four years at a great college or university and walk away with a degree is a great opportunity. With that said, the educational requirements, testing and workload are demanding and when you add alpine training, NCAA rules and the college calendar they simply do not align with the requirements of competing at a high level on the World Cup. Comparing other college sports and the progression to the pros is not accurate; there are so many differences in international ski racing and the countries that are represented. People just need to come to grips with this fact. 

The College path is an excellent option for athletes who don’t want to go the National Team route or for those who have been with the national team for two to three years but did not make the next level. NCAA Division 1 is very competitive and a spot on any team is not easy to achieve, even if you are trying to migrate from the National Team. College ski racing is very rewarding; my brother and sister took this path and they loved their experience.

In the end, all athletes need to understand which path is the best for them. There are trade-offs and sacrifices with both, as well as unique experiences. While each path requires a high level of commitment, the body of work are different, and choices must be made.

— Heidi Voelker
Former U.S. Ski Team member

Editor’s note: This letter was submitted in response to the article USST, NCAA butt heads over NorAm schedule. Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent. Thank you Heidi. This goes well with my comment on Dan’s editorial the other day. An athlete has to make a choice. The USST and the concept of the World Cup demands it.

  2. “Some say you can do both, I disagree. Are there exceptions? Yes.”
    Only the “exceptional” win medals. We are, and especially the USST, seeking the “exceptions”.

    There are several “exceptions” just named to the National Teams this year that would not have made it without the training and competition provided by college programs. USST: Krupka, Dupratt, Seymour, Moltzan, Hensein, CAST: Nullmeyer, Philp, Read, Remme, Smart, St-Germain, Fleckenstien, Villanova, Alkier, Fournier. From a purely athletic standpoint, disappearing, and only skiing and training in college for 4 years probably will not get you World Cup wins. However when the National teams work TOGETHER with the college programs it can and does work. This is only from a purely athletic stand point. What skiing in college does to make these skiers emotionally, psychologically, socially complete is just as important.

    There are many examples, that but one that I know personally is Tanguy Nef, who is ranked higher in World Cup Slalom than any US or CAN skiers. He would not be on the Swiss A Team and racing World Cup without college skiing and experience. This is both in terms of athletic and personal development. When he enrolled in 2016-17 he had just been selected to the Swiss D team based on rankings from a Swiss nation race series. No Europa Cup tech experience. His results in the US were not impressive the first year but we were not in hurry. We were able get him into some Junior and Devel FIS races where he learned to WIN. The next year 17-18 he learned to podium and WIN in College and NorAm races and captured an NCAA SL title. No Europa Cups or World Cups. In 18-19, he finally took a fall term off to train with the Swiss Team and started to successfully race Europa Cup and World Cup races and still returned to school in the winter to win an NCAA GS title. In 19-20 he was full time with the Swiss World Cup team Fall and Winter Term but returned to school in the spring to complete his computer science degree. He learned to race and win in college. The Swiss team welcomed him into the program whenever he was available. If he was fast, he was supported 100%. Equally as importantly, Nef, has said that he could not survive personally, intellectually, and social being with the Swiss team 24/7. The typically very regimented Swiss have been able to understand this and allow him to follow his path. There are many other examples of “exceptional” and fiercely committed individuals who have also followed this path.

    Why do we continue to waste time selecting USST athletes at 16 to only have them burn out at 18?

  3. I’m very respectful of your experience and career.

    I have a hard time with this point.
    When I ask young children, who ski race what their goals or dreams are, they say “I want to ski in the Olympics, my dream is to win a Gold medal”. I have never heard “My goal is to ski for a certain college”. That’s not a knock, it’s just the way it is.

    When I ask young children about playing football, they don’t say I want to play for ND or Alabama. They say I want to be a pro like Tom Brady. So, I’m not sure the gold medal comparison is accurate.

    Also when talking about the statistics, the data is obviously biased. Skiers have been dissuaded from the college path for years. It would be better to look at the success of the foreign students and give a larger weight to their success to alleviate the bias.

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