In examining the NCAA and U.S. Ski Team collegiate debate, first of all, we have to understand Tiger Shaw, Chip Knight, Jesse Hunt and their current goals and priorities. They are under significant pressure to perform, and it is important that they demonstrate accountability, strength and results. Financial support for U.S. Ski & Snowboard comes largely in the form of sponsorship, which is directly fed by results, and that’s where the horse is currently limping. 

The ski team continues to lack depth, and it is becoming increasingly evident it is not as strong as it once was. Part of this is due to the natural fluctuation of performance curves that every national program experiences. The team at the top seldom sits there very long and strength generally circulates through five or six nations. 

Advertisement

The key is to become one of those five or six, and the U.S. is currently not there.  

If this happens for an extended period, then the time has come to make a change, to rethink the system with big ideas. If leadership is not willing to make those changes, then someone will have to make those changes for them. The team has obviously felt some pressure, and is attempting to make some quick fixes, but they are simply putting a bandaid on a bigger, systemic problem.  

Broad changes in strategy have been applied several times in the past, including when Bill Marolt was at the helm. The first being from 1980 to ‘84 culminating with absolute success in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic Games, followed by the memorable “Best in the World” campaign. Although that handwritten sign on the wall of his office has probably been painted over by a current occupant, there is no denying that it worked. 

Then, from 1996 to 2014, U.S. skiers were among the big dogs. Focusing exclusively on an elite group of top athletes, cutting out all unnecessary distraction and identifying the most efficient way to accomplish the most aspirational goals. In that concept model there is little room for college.

There are a couple key differences between those days and now. Bill Marolt operated with a deeper elite team, more financial resources and no COVID restrictions, which hopefully will be short-lived. 

Resources and how to use them

Now, we have Ski Racing Media and Dan Leever’s comments at the front of the national dialogue. As usual, he is right on the money. His passion for collegiate competition is legendary and very rational.

To reinforce Mr. Leever’s point, college programs operate with solid financial resources and typically excellent facilities, staff and support systems, thanks to the presence of collegiate funding. For the NGB, this is an opportunity to broaden the developmental base of elite skiers in the United States. The best part — it’s free! 

If the ski team does not recognize this opportunity, we must come to one of three conclusions. They are either incompitent, bad businessmen, or perhaps they see the NCAA as a threat or competitor to their own interests and livelihood. 

What’s frustrating is we perform these simple financial equations every few years — whether to utilize NCAA resources or not. We leave the table and everybody agrees wholeheartedly on the principle, but then somewhere along the way the NGB dumps the concept. Obviously there are egos involved, as there always have been and always will be. But to hammer home the most important point — it’s free! 

When Tiger Shaw took over the office in 2014, Michelle Demschar had conducted a series of meetings with collegiate coaches. The goal was to identify the potential role of collegiate programs in NGB structure. Demschar collected a great amount of information, and we were all excited to see where this new opportunity would take us. Fast forward to the present, Michelle is no longer in the office and gone is the program. No meaningful change has taken place. 

Uniquely American opportunity

Chad Fleischer’s comment on domestic athletes is an excellent point. NCAA is an American program, funded by U.S. taxpayers and U.S. sponsors. Controlling a foreign influx of athletes should absolutely be a part of the solution. 

In 1999, I proposed the “maximum foreigners participation” rule to the NCAA for the first time, and I have done it a few times since. The answer has always been: No, the NCAA does not discriminate against anyone, they say, including foreigners. 

In meantime, NCAA became the only organization consistently providing scholarship opportunities for skiers. This opportunity is offered only in the U.S. — Europe has no program like it — and it is available to athletes from around the world, and everybody in skiing knows it. That’s why so many foreign athletes come to our shores to take advantage of it. What have they figured out that our own NGB can’t quite understand? 

We as coaches occasionally demonstrate a mild effort to control the international problem, but it is more less a gentlemen’s agreement. This gentlemen’s agreement is often tossed out the window, the moment a bluechip from Europe, the Southern Hemisphere or Canada announces his or her intent to go to school. 

The dogfight among the programs results in a full scholarship offer somewhere. It is a dark side of our jobs. One way or another, we all receive an implicit message from our superiors and constituency: Build the best team possible — or someone else will! This applies to nearly every NCAA sport, and if you think skiing is the most impacted by foreigners, you are wrong by far. 

To Dartmouth’s credit, they have always been a flagship of opportunities for U.S. athletes. Having their own ski area, eastern snow conditions, excellent academics and a top-notch ski program contributes to their success. 

Since foreign participation in U.S. schools is unavoidable, we try to make it beneficial for our athletes. Having stronger racers in our system helps accelerate the development of U.S. student-skiers. Students skiing at the World Cup and Europa Cup levels do miss a lot of school and domestic training, but the frequent opportunities to take five consecutive runs with someone coming fresh off the World Cup is priceless. Frequent video analysis and comparison to high-level skiing alongside our athletes gives them a fresh and different perspective, and it makes everyone better. 

Message to the NGB

We as a collegiate community need you. If not for any other reason than keeping the dreams of athletes alive — which is supposed to be your mission! There are very few domestic kids in NCAA schools who do not have the U.S. Ski Team as a personal goal. They all dream about it, and although very few will make it, that is OK. These dreams are driving progress, motivating and stimulating our student-athletes, making our nation stronger on and off the snow. 

In the same way we need you, you very much need us. Unless you have unlimited funds, you will need a consistent, reliable supply of 20 to 24-year-old, developing, enthusiastic athletes. You may get through the season with what you have now, likely with lackluster results, but how far can you go without any depth? We do not need contracts or guarantees; athletes need opportunities, and being able to race NorAms is a key opportunity!

We used to have a plan for this. The collegiate races could generate similar point penalties as NorAm or Europa Cup. Skiers could make criteria by skiing NCAA only, apply it in any country and ultimately make the national team of their respective countries.

Someone did not like the plan, and FIS-U got penalized, and without racing NorAms, there is no chance for collegiate skiers to make any advancement toward their goals.

It is not easy to add NorAm to the calendar for NCAA athletes. It is costly and time consuming, but we are forced work within that system, and we manage to make it happen. The foreign participants are not under such a strained financial burden because they race on their national quota and usually on a national budget, as well.

U.S. collegiate skiers traveling to NorAms are the “dreamers” trying to make criteria or come close to it, and they deserve a chance.

What’s it going to take?

A little good will would go a long way. How difficult is it to merge two circuits so there is not a  conflicting schedule? We can do this.  

Do not waste the money going to Europe. It is not as necessary as the ski team says it is. NorAms should be an opportunity for U.S. skiers to accomplish their goals. Your intent to take away this opportunity from collegiate athletes is lacking any fairness, and it is hurting the national system.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Nicely stated Richard! One of the best editorials on this subject to date. Not accusatory, but simply critical of meaningful change that does not just support lip service. Yes, we alpine race fans, former racers and all, absolutely want podiums at the top level. I recognize the immense tension that exists at the highest level of management of the top racers and those at the developmental level. Success involves being fluid in thought and leadership and per Roko’s editorial, recognize the collaboration that is waiting to be harnessed. This pandemic is giving all businesses, sports organizations and individuals an opportunity to really execute some thoughtful change. Perhaps the NGB needs a NCAA coach on the board, and perhaps that coach could be a part of the summer camps. Blending this and bringing all universities to be unified in a approach will make this sport survive. God help us!

  2. Well written Richard. I hope this article ignites dialog and change in our sport. It is much needed to ensure a healthy future for our young aspiring athletes and the sport itself.

  3. Maybe, offering structured ski racing sabbaticals for college credits, would allow promising NCAA racers to focus on NorAm racing and close the training gap with the racers in the USST program. Putting more competitive skiers on an equal footing and increasing the odds of finding the elite racers

  4. Well said, Richard. However, the USST perennial failure to raise adequate sponsorship to meet the requirements necessary to build a ground up national program cannot simply be tied to athlete performance. I led a team that raised over $1 billion to campaign over 100 teams in NASCAR competition over 20 years and suggest that the USST simply “doesn’t get it.” Stronger grass root programs make for stronger domestic talent pools, which is the only way to compete against blue chip foreigners for NCAA spots.

  5. This is a wonderful article, I have always thought that the NCAA system should be one of several methods to get to the top of the sport and we should have mechanisms to ensure US athletes have opportunities to continue to develop. I do like the idea of bringing in foreign talent as it will continue to raise the bar and help our athletes out, we just need to find a way to also ensure that US athletes get a chance too. 10-15 years ago Sasha did a study and I think the conclusion was, and maybe I am miss remembering but: we are getting rid of athletes too early and holding onto some older athletes that don’t quite have the stuff for the podium too long. It has been so sad to see so many good athletes hit a dead end before they had a real chance in the NCAA system, because it was bias against them.

    On two other notes not mentioned (but not part of the exact thesis of the article) is the quality of coaching and coaching alpine ski racing theory in the US. There are many fantastic coaches in the US, but still too few to get the sport to the population of athletes needed for the USA to really compete at the world stage. We need to develop, using scientific methods and evidence, better teaching programs, and we need to find ways to pay coaches more so they can have a career in the sport, without already having substantial personal wealth to support them, in my opinion. I would like to see athletes per discipline be competitive for the podium at any given time, having athletes so deep in telent that the US could send 2 teams to the world stage – this has been achieved in other olympic sports in recent years.

    Lastly, also could we bring some of the NCAA system to the world? I think the team racing strategy is much more interesting and creates more “races within the race,” this may drive more opportunity for advertising time by adding more engaging sport viewing time than just watching the top few athletes. This could drive increased revenue to support skiing racing.

    There are many other sports that have development programs to model and pull from, we should think outside-the-box more!

  6. The primary time the US ski team has had success has been with Marolt in charge. It is worth looking at the things he did in two separate stretches plus what he did when he was athletic director at Colorado and before that when he took over the CU team from Bob Beattie.

    I think that the key to his success at many levels was his ability to retain and promote the success of the best athletes. Phil and Steve and Bill Johnson immediately come to mind but there are a number of others who would have left the program but for his leadership which combined financing good organization and staying out of the way of people who did not need coaching motivation or anything but a clear path for their ability and motivation to take them to the top. Anyone who has come up through the ranks remembers very talented skiers who left the sport when if they had stayed in they might have succeeded at the top level.

    Partial disclaimer I skied for Bill at CU.

    Final comment the common denominator in success is access to small steep hills where you can go up and down a lot early on.

    I agree with Richard’s suggestion about scheduling coordination between at least some of the college races and Norams. Perhaps have the college race and follow with Noram at same venue?

  7. I could write a book on this, and yes I know exactly what I am talking about. Bryce was the top junior technical skier in North America, his brother Jason won the Junior Freeskiing World Championships, Chris (and his buddies) are the best skiers at Alta. I wanted Bryce to go to the U of U and ski and then go on to the World Cup. Why, because the cream always rises to the top! And either you’ve got it or you don’t. Bryce had a saying, “you want to do better, ski better”.

    I talked with Tiger about this exact subject, multiple times and was told “that just isn’t how it works in skiing”, I disagree. You think skiers are somehow unique athletes, wrong. Now let me say, I have no experience developing female skiers, although Jaqueline Pollard grew up skiing with Bryce, Chris and their buddies, she won the Freeride World Tour, so maybe I do. To this day she is one of the only girls that gets to ski with that pack of kids.

    Colleges, you are no better than USSA, don’t kid yourself. Rokos, as well as other coaches and I have discussed this over beers. I get it, they want to win. Not a single college tried to recruit Bryce, they were too busy going after foreigners. After all, what immature 18 year old kid can compete with a washed out 23 year World Cup skier? When colleges did start to zero in on Bryce it was too late, Bryce was beyond that option. I still wanted Bryce to ski for a college, he would be 22 or 23 at graduation and physically mature enough to take on the World Cup. I had a coach tell me “you don’t understand, I have been coaching for over 30 years and Bryce is it, he’s the one, he doesn’t need college”.

    Colleges need to make an agreement between themselves, NCAA won’t do it, each team is allowed two (2) foreigners. My experience was Volleyball and if you wanted to play professional Volleyball in Europe, each team was only allowed to have two (2) foreigners on a given team, this was at a professional level not college, college level should be more restrictive. The system worked. It’s that simple.

    How do you develop a great skier? That is another subject that I can go into extreme detail on because now I know what it takes, I’ve been there. It sure as hell isn’t chasing races all over the country. Do the math, are you getting in a lot of vertical mileage getting 50 or 60 race starts a year? Getting in 30,000 to 40,000 vert per day? No, you are not, it is a waste of time and money, 20 starts or so is plenty. At races I would hear kids say they were tired, no their weak because they don’t ski enough.
    Ask Michelle Demschar’s son Daniel what his most fun day of skiing was and he will likely tell you a story of skiing with Bryce after they were done racing that day at US Nationals. He learned the meaning of “Send It”.
    I will leave you with something that I wrote about Bryce after he was killed. Maybe it will help your child or a kid you are coaching attain greatness.
    My son Bryce William Astle died at the age of 19 in an avalanche while training with the U.S. Ski Team in Soelden, Austria. He was on the cusp of his breakout into the dream career of becoming a professional ski racer. Bryce was the top junior Slalom and Giant Slalom skier in North America. I believe he had the best chance for the next USA skier to win an overall title on the World Cup circuit because of his size (he would have been 6’-2”, 210+ Lbs.) and abilities. As a parent, I wanted to put some of my thoughts down on paper about Bryce and what enabled him to achieve his goals so others may possibly learn from his example.
    A “positive attitude” is was what I have heard most coaches, teammates, brand representatives and parents say was the secret to what separated my son from most others. In Bryce’s opinion, every day of skiing is a good day of skiing – period. Put your arms around that and you will be a better skier.
    But why was Bryce so good?
    • He embraced a positive attitude and was always able see the good things in bad situations. There are no bad days, hence his motto “Good Vibes Only”.
    • Bryce practiced extreme humility. He wanted everyone else to do as well as he did and he was more than willing to help others get better in the process. When he was done racing, he planned on becoming a coach.
    • Bryce didn’t want to be just good, he wanted to be the best and he was willing to put all distractions aside to accomplish that. He was totally committed and focused. I used to tell him, “To be successful you have to be willing to do the things that the unsuccessful people aren’t willing to do.” I think he embraced that. He achieved every goal he ever set for himself except when he ran out of time.
    • My son’s determination was evident in his unconditional willingness and commitment to do whatever was needed to reach his goals. His end goal was not to make the U.S. Ski Team but rather to be the best skier in the world.
    • This takes quite some time to develop but once you possess mental maturity, everything begins to be too easy. Bryce had gotten to a point mentally that at least in GS he could say to himself, “I can do that every run.”
    • My son truly loved skiing. He spent much more time freeskiing than he did racing. He loved all aspects of skiing: powder, hucking cliffs, wind buff, slopestyle, big mountain ripping and, yes, racing too. He loved the people, the mountains, the atmosphere, everything about it. This truly was his life.
    • What happened a second ago didn’t matter to Bryce – the only thing that mattered was what was in front of him. He could completely screw up his first run and not even make the flip, then go back out to win the second run. He lived in the moment.
    • Bryce was always working on skiing better by putting together the building blocks. There were no excuses about boots or equipment set-up, the light, snow conditions, course set, etc. – just ski better and you will do better.
    • My son knew if he had a good run or not, what place he came in did not matter because he was ultimately only racing against himself. Was he happy with his run or not? He would tell me that some of his best runs were DNFs. The last race of his life he said he was too conservative in his first run but he was ripping the second run up until he booted out. That would have been a 10-12 point GS finish. No problem, on to the next race. Unfortunately, that was his last.
    • I believe a major core strength in Bryce’s abilities was having the knowledge he could do something. Once he knew he could execute a particular skill, it was game over and on to the next building block.
    • Bryce could create speed like no other. From big mountain extreme skiing, he learned to work with the mountain instead of fighting against it by developing his touch. He could see and feel the fall line of the mountain and was able to move his body fore and aft in an effortless motion to create speed. Bryce was a silky smooth skier.
    • Both mileage and variety are the keys to development, and Bryce skied roughly 1,000 days before he ever went through a race course at age 12. At the age of 19, he still went over to Alta to rip the mountain with his brothers and friends after finishing training at Snowbird.
    • Bryce was dynamically athletic, with quick feet and developing strength. He knew this was critical to his success as a ski racer.
    • Until his later teenage years, he did not ski in the summer. Bryce played soccer, basketball, volleyball, lifted weights, surfed, road bikes and ran. Way too many kids and parents think that they are missing out if they don’t ski in the summer, but it’s a bad assumption. Being a well-rounded athlete is much more important.
    Bryce ran out of time to fulfill his higher goals and to make the changes he wanted to in his next ski race, but he possessed all the character traits and building blocks necessary to succeed in any endeavor. Those who can find the strength to do the same will undoubtedly discover the particular joy Bryce found in achieving his goals and then moving on to even more challenging ones. People don’t become “Great” by accident, it is rare to have all the ingredients to reach Greatness, but it cannot be done with a plan and execution. Bryce had those ingredients and the focus to reach his goal.

  8. Could not agree any more! ironic that while we are thinking of finding ways to replicate collegiate skiing in Europe, USSA does not understand their luck. well written as usual, Richard!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here