When the U.S. did not field a team in the Team Event at the 2019 World Championships, it was disappointing to American fans and U.S. athletes alike. Of course, we could have seen it coming after the Olympic Team Event last year in Pyeongchang, where the first U.S. star to pull out of the event tipped off a snowball effect of others doing the same. Two other skiers quickly followed, leaving the U.S. with a skeleton crew of youngsters, and a less-than-robust effort supporting them. Team-building opportunities declined further when U.S. Ski & Snowboard eliminated the slalom team last spring. On the women’s tech side, we now accept and expect that the word “team” refers to support staff rather than actual teammates. Still, medals are medals, and it seemed plausible that the U.S. could field a team from our top SL skiers, no matter their pedigree. Because this didn’t happen, we all question the organization’s recent pledge to prioritize team-building.
But then the U.S. nabbed a silver medal in the Team Event at the World Junior Championships. River Radamus foresaw our potential success in that event in his Super G gold interview the day prior: “I couldn’t have done this without my team,” he said. “We’ve been pushing each other’s limits all summer and winter. The last few weeks we’ve been really locked in—training with a common mission, and supporting each other as we pursued it. I was the one who got to take the top step today, but every one of them helped me get here.” In this case, Radamus’s team reference extends well beyond support staff and even the other three individuals—Ben Ritchie, Katie Hensien and AJ Hurt—in the team event. He refers to the type of team needed to build broader success as a country, and the Team Event is the leading indicator. Proving that, Radamus won another gold, Ben Ritchie nabbed a silver medal in SL, and the U.S. finished third among all countries at the World Juniors.
So what gives? How can the U.S. Ski Team embody and embrace team at the junior level, and completely abdicate it on the senior level? The answer lies in the chasm between Project 26 and Project Here and Now, a chasm that could be filled.
Jesse Hunt, who took the reins as Alpine Director just last spring, is rightly proud of U.S. success at the junior level, and how Project 26, in its effort to manage athletes to the right levels, speaks to the future. “We will build this team back if we can adhere to this management for a period of time. We are committed to move this generation of athletes to the top of international competition.” As for the Team Event in Are, Sweden, he explained that we simply had no men’s slalom athletes to participate. “We did not have any athletes qualifying for a second run this season. Therefore, it is tough to put them in the World Championships.”
Indeed, just as success followed support at the junior levels, it disappeared entirely at the World Cup level when the slalom team was cut last spring. The few American athletes who attempted to race independently and who earned World Cup spots this season learned how daunting and grueling it is to compete at the World Cup level with no national team support. They also learned that success is unlikely. As those athletes disappear from the World Cup, so do their World Cup spots. Both leave a hole.
To take credit for results of the juniors, the national team must also take ownership for the results of the athletes who came through their own development system. These athletes, originally targeted for 2022 and beyond, were yesterday’s shiny new stars and now, still not fully matured, find themselves outside the stringent age bands that determine team qualification. Thanks to the college racing circuit and privately funded teams, however, many of them are still developing outside the national team and feeding the ecosystem of ski racing. From a purely return on investment standpoint—and certainly from an ethical standpoint—we have a responsibility to consider this generation of athletes as shepherds of P-26 athletes; we can leverage their maturity and their experience, rather than disregard them entirely.
Hopefully, this World Junior Champs team, and youngsters yet on radar, will continue to excel and be ready to win adult medals in seven years, when Project 2026 comes to fruition. Much can happen in that time to propel, stall or derail a young athlete, however. Anything with the term “project” attached to it tends to require twice as much time and funding. Many of these athletes will not make linear progress, and they will have plateaus, injuries, droughts…of varying depth and intensity. While we wait for their talent to blossom, we’d be wise as a country to cast as wide a net as possible. The more athletes we keep in the mix and the longer—ideally well past their teens— the better our odds at capturing those who will ultimately succeed.
You need to have a team to build a team
As U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Alpine Development Director, Chip Knight, said after Radamus’s Super G win, “It takes a team to push athletes to the top.” We are now missing athletes to help push and pull up their peer athletes.
Ted Ligety also recently shared his thoughts on this topic with the AP: “It’s sad. Last year we had Nolan Kasper scoring points and Mark Engel and Dave Chodounsky and AJ Ginnis. We do have guys who can ski elite slalom, it’s just that the criteria changed this year in a way that none of those guys could have the opportunity within the team.”
Vonn echoed this same concern on the women’s side: “We are dwindling. I can’t remember a time being on the U.S. Ski Team when there weren’t two or three people who could have taken the four spots (in each race of the World Championships). We always had a full quota.”
One viable alternative to punting for the next seven years is to look outside the box of age-restrictive team criteria. The solution is hiding in plain sight. I’ve had the extremely good fortune to see the magic of true teamwork on the eastern college carnival circuit this season. At carnival races you can observe the vast difference in physical, technical and tactical maturity between 19-year-old true freshman just cutting their teeth on NorAm racing and 25-year-old seniors, some of whom have taken gap years and garnered significant international racing experience. This age span captures a huge swath of the learning curve, all within an environment relying on, acknowledging and rewarding progress at each stage. It’s highly competitive, highly fun, and—with a four-year horizon, at minimum, for each athlete—truly nurturing. Due to its positive team and development qualities, the NCAA circuit has become a place where athletes can mature physically, technically, tactically and mentally. In this environment, athletes who slipped off the narrow track of U.S. Ski Team criteria often find the breathing room to regain a genuine love of the sport and a path to develop through and beyond their college years.
America’s got talent and it’s on display this week
The NCAA Championships are happening March 6-9 in Stowe, Vermont. This event will be well-stocked with former national team athletes who fell outside the age bands for Project 26, and it will be sprinkled with athletes who competed in this year’s World Championships for their own national teams. Seven NCAA athletes (two men and five women) competed in the World Championships, all of them finishing (as college skiers learn to do) and placing in the top 30, and as high as sixth. Of the four collegiate athletes on the World Junior Team, only one qualified and was selected by their respective schools to compete at the NCAA Championships, meaning these athletes still have room to grow, progress and perform within their own college teams.
The day after the NCAA wraps, an even broader representation of talent will be on display up the road from Stowe at Cochran’s in the “Redneck Racing Slalom Showdown.” The best skiers—collegiate, national team or independent— gathered for the upcoming Nor Ams can and will throw $20 in the ring to go head-to-head in single pole duals. Everyone watching will see we have talent to spare.
This is the spirit of ski racing in America, and these athletes—the vast majority of whom are not on U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s dime—are its life blood. Let’s celebrate their commitment and encourage them.
Considering Shiffrin’s success, it’s unlikely she will anchor a team event anytime soon, if ever. But no worries; one person does not constitute the heart of a team. The Austrians soldiered on (and silvered) without Hirscher. No, we’re not Austria, but we’re a country of 300 million plus people, with a race-ready army of physically mature ski racers looking for action. Surely, we can field a team of adult athletes at the next big ski racing event, even if it means running a winner-take-all dual to earn those spots. It’d be fun and exciting and give underdogs a chance to shine.
Who wouldn’t tune in for that? Maybe we win a medal, and maybe we don’t. Either way the money is minimal and the shot in the arm factor for ski racing would boost all age groups. I am not alone in hoping U.S. Ski Team never again foregoes fielding a team at a big event. Let’s use our country’s very best athletes to start celebrating the team in U.S. Ski Team right now.