Collegiate skiing has a long and storied history in the United States, from the Dartmouth Outing Club hosting the country’s first ski race on the slopes of Mt. Moosilauke in 1927 to Bob Beattie moving from CU to coach the National Team in 1961, and then starting the World Cup in 1967.  Early Winter Olympic teams consisted almost entirely of collegiate athletes before the dawn of the World Cup and the professionalization of modern ski racing as we know it today. Tiger Shaw is an example from the 1980s of an athlete who was on the U.S. Ski Team, left the team to race D-1 for Dartmouth, and then made it back onto the National Team where he went on to have World Cup success and compete in the Olympics.

In the mid-1990s, college races became FIS sanctioned for the first time. This allowed college athletes to compete for their school while continuing to work on lowering their international FIS ranking. And with that connection to the international gold standard, athletes could also continue to compete in regional FIS races, NorAms, and even World Cups when their schedules allowed. As a result, college competition regained relevancy as a high-level circuit for athletes who still wished to compete at an elite level.

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One of the early pioneers in legitimizing this new pathway was Thomas Vonn, a 2002 Olympian who was named to the National Team, dropped, and then returned to the U.S. Ski Team to ultimately score two top-15 results after dominating the NCAA circuit for a year at St. Lawrence in 1999. Jimmy Cochran, a 2006 and 2010 Olympian who had five career top-10 World Cup results, also paved the way from college to the U.S. Ski Team after competing in the NCAA ranks for Middlebury and UVM in the early 2000s. On the women’s side, one of the biggest success stories has been Leanne Smith, who competed for UNH in 2006 before making the National Team and going on to achieve two World Cup podiums in her career. Dave Chodounsky later utilized the pathway from NCAA to the U.S. Ski Team in a whole new way, completing a four-year degree at Dartmouth in 2008 before forging a 10-year career with the National Team and earning eight top-10 World Cup results.

In recent years, the collegiate FIS-U circuit in the U.S. has become the highest level of domestic competition below the NorAm Cup. Many international athletes have recognized the opportunity to earn a top-notch education, sometimes even on scholarship, while continuing to ski race at a very high level. Combined with the opportunity to also attend NorAm races and score minimum FIS point results, the U.S. collegiate circuit has become an attractive option for athletes who have either not yet qualified for, or did not achieve criteria to remain on their national teams. Leif Haugen, Roni Remme, Jonathan Nordbotten, Laurence St.-Germain, and Tanguy Nef are all recent international success stories who have spent time competing in the United States’ collegiate ranks. Americans like Paula Moltzan have seized this opportunity too, making the leap to the U.S. Ski Team’s B Team and achieving World Cup success during or after racing NCAA.

The U.S. Ski Team values the collegiate circuit for providing high-level competition, increased domestic density, and an enduring pathway for athletes to continue to develop their skills in the sport of ski racing. Not only does it provide a bounce-back option for athletes like Thomas Vonn, and also Paula more recently, but also a development route for “late bloomers” like Jimmy Cochran and Dave Chodounsky. Moreover, collegiate racing has proven to be instrumental in inspiring a team mentality and long-term love of the sport for many of our best coaches and club leaders.

Still, collegiate skiing is not the World Cup. There are important benefits of college racing that the successful athletes all mention—having balance in their lives, skiing for a team, learning to perform consistently, and rekindling the passion for the sport. But it requires extraordinary desire and commitment to make the jump from the collegiate ranks to those of the World Cup. The international success stories have almost all been athletes who were identified early by their national team but fell off due to either poor performance, injury, or budget cuts. And then they fought tooth and nail to claw their way back to the top. Haugen, Remme, Nordbotten, St.-Germain, and Nef are all examples of this, and of athletes who missed consecutive weeks of school at a time to chase NorAm results and ultimately compete in Europe.

Many of our National Team athletes also appreciate the benefits of college even if they do not race NCAA. Over half of our adult alpine National Team members are currently enrolled in college, and we support them with up to $6,000 a year in tuition reimbursement. Tommy Ford did not race NCAA, but has four terms remaining en route to a Dartmouth degree. He also has   two World Cup podiums to date. Andrew Weibrecht has a Dartmouth degree, and two Olympic medals. Laurenne Ross just graduated from the University of Oregon this spring, and has two World Cup podiums in her career so far. Nina O’Brien is already a junior at Dartmouth and on her way to graduating while still in the prime of her career. These are just a few of the many examples of athletes who are balancing the pursuit of higher education with a full-time World Cup schedule.

In recognition of our mutual interest, U.S. Ski & Snowboard works collaboratively with representatives from the two collegiate leagues, RMISA and EISA, to be transparent about NorAm and national calendar planning and the myriad considerations involved—including the needs of Canada and our resort partners, the National Team, and those of emerging development athletes. At the NorAm level, U.S. races are typically scheduled early-season in Colorado, where many teams are already training and within driving distance for most of the western schools, and mid-winter on the East Coast, where the majority of collegiate athletes attend school. The National Championships are scheduled to take place in the same side of the country as the NCAA Championships, to limit cross-country travel as much as possible.

Understanding the whole picture, from the value of high-level domestic collegiate competition to the cut-throat level of World Cup competition, the U.S. Ski Team also works with collegiate athletes to provide them with high-level exposure opportunities to spark their athletic development. Sam DuPratt (UU), Jett Seymour (DU), and Jimmy Krupka (DAR) are successful examples of recent collegiate D-1 athletes who worked closely with the U.S. Ski Team World Cup and Europa Cup teams to achieve impressive results in the last year and ultimately earn a berth on the National Team for next season. Katie Hensien is on the National Team, but is also racing for DU. At the Development level, collegiate athletes are routinely invited to regional and national training projects to help foster their skillset and provide supplemental training opportunities outside of NCAA regulations.

While there is often negative commentary that pits the U.S. Ski Team against NCAA skiing, as well as a real difference between the level of collegiate and international competition, the two circuits have a long history of successfully working together. We will continue to seek ways to collaborate on a robust domestic collegiate racing series as well as provide a viable alternate pathway to the World Cup.

—Tiger Shaw, Jesse Hunt, and Chip Knight
U.S. Ski & Snowboard

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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5 COMMENTS

  1. In the college racers who then made the USSki Team you left out the First Female Jen Collins who raced for Dartmouth. She may have been before Thomas Vonn. She got a very bad hand injury so I think she was only on the USST for one season

  2. Good relationships require continual communication, agreement, disagreement, negotiation, and compromise. Lets continue to seek common ground and solutions to find ways college programs and national development and World Cup programs can work together
    Peter Dodge

  3. All the examples above are notable. And yes, the college circuit is not the world cup. For that matter, NorAms are not the world cup. Not sure what he implies by that statement. Could he imply that the college U-FIS circuit is not a respected race series even with the robust handicaps that it could attract? Is the NorAm circuit being drained of some competitors who would choose a college U FIS race because of some travel convenience that is then frowned upon by the US team? The college circuit certainly has given opportunity for the athletes listed above, and continues to hopefully give hope for future athletes. This…stimulates the development ranks at every level. I’m still not clear, based on this article by Tiger Shaw, what was said or implemented in the spring meetings that has squelched this collaboration. Can someone explain?

  4. This is an important and long overdue conversation ‎about the role of college racing and purpose of the NorAm Cup Series and hopefully, a larger awareness of who, where and why the line is drawn between performance and high-performance ski racing.

    Former USSA Alpine Competition Director, Walt Evans used to say the “calendar drives development”. When considering the impossible calendar challenges faced by FIS athletes, their coaches and parents over the past number of years, it is not surprising that this once sensible mantra looks to have been tossed out and left by the side of the road. In fact, the art of good calendaring practice seems to have been lost as those charged with leading the design are focused on other priorities.

    For many, it is disappointing that ‎the NorAm series can not seem to serve more athletes in a broader, deeper development pool. The long-held belief that ski racing was a European sport, contested in Europe, and with European rules is hard to refute. As a continental cup, the top 2 ranked, male and female in each discipline Nor-Am standings get reserved starts in the following season’s world cup.

    The NorAm‎ Cup is blunt tool – designed exclusively around a handful of athletes with legitimate prospects of earning a World Cup spot. The series represents the only viable path for Canadian and American skiers to earn a ticket to the white circus… the big show and at the end of the day, this is the only metric that really matters IF you are in it to win it.

    The recent criticism of Mr. Shaw and USSA’s strategy regarding the Nor-Am Cup has been somewhat unbalanced. When you consider the ever more limited resources national teams have to advance athletes to the highest level of the sport, it is not so surprising that only those that dedicate themselves completely to the preferred path will get attention and support.

    NSOs, like most businesses can only justify investment in what they consider the “probable” path to success in their market and can not (or will not) afford to entertain consideration of the “possible”. For Mr. Shaw to decide or declare otherwise would be sheer folly and result in a quick removal by his board whose interest and financial survival is wholly tied to winning World Cup and Olympic medals.

    The messaging by the nations’ alpine sport leaders and planning around this issue could indeed be improved. The on again, off again relationship between the NCAA programs and NSOs desperately needs attention for there can be little doubt, college cross-over opportunities have huge benefits to the intensity and economic viability of NorAm Cup fields.

    Overall, with an average of 1400 FIS carded athletes in the US and roughly 650 from Canada registered each season, you would think developing a workable seasonal calendar would be about the same as managing the schedule of large high school. People are looking to their NSO to promote excellence at every level, not just how they are affecting the tip of the arrow, highest performance pathway. For lots of reasons, most athletes, coaches, volunteers and fans, feel performance ski racing at the post grad or collegiate level has a meaningful and valuable space in the national consciousness of what it means to pursue excellence in alpine ski racing.

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