1. Ski racing in college is:
A) a piece of cake
B) a dead end
D) none of the above
Back in the day, “going to college” was code for quitting the dream, the first and irreversible step into the pasture. When a college coach approached a racer who still harbored elite aspirations, he (no “she” coaches back then, sorry!) did so knowing that the advance might be taken as an insult, a suggestion that it was time to throw in the towel. The good news is that mentality has changed. The collective wisdom in the ski world is finally accepting of the fact that athletes do indeed continue to mature and improve well past high school and even past college graduation. College racing is not the dead end in a skiing career that it once was.
The existence of the National University Team confirms that college racing can indeed be part of a traditional development path, for male athletes at least. The few females who have broken through so far and continued to develop through their college careers have been European or Canadian. They have, however, set an example and indicate a possible move in that direction globally. Despite ample suggestions on how the National University Team could operate more symbiotically with U.S colleges, the consensus among collegiate coaches is that it has created a shift in perception, validating college racing as a viable development path.
Plan A, Plan B, and the Long-term Plan
Racing in college, once the Plan B, can be a highly competitive Plan A even for those committed to the elite path. The National University Team attests to this, as do the number of students taking one or more gap years just to qualify for a spot on a college roster. Part of this trend is purely practical. There are no more free rides, even on the national team at anything short of the A-team level. Parents are less likely to fund the astronomical price tag that accompanies every year off to ski race without some academic plan in place. When it comes to continuing to develop athletically while simultaneously moving on in life, college programs are the gatekeepers.
Getting a Spot
How hard is it to get a spot? Short answer: Hard. Long answer: Read on. There are 13 schools racing on the NCAA circuit in the East as part of the EISA (Eastern Intercollegiate Skiing Association), and six schools in the West, as part of the RMISA (Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association). Each of these teams gets to score six men and six women per race. The sweet spot — having enough athletes to provide back-up and healthy competition, but few enough to be able to provide good training with one coach and one assistant coach — is eight men and eight women. Some rosters are even smaller. Montana State University, due to the makeup of team sports at the school, must fund twice as many women as men on the ski team. As a consequence, they run a very tight ship, with only six men maximum. Depending on the year, these teams need to replenish 2-4 spots each coming winter due to turnover.
How to fill those spots presents a challenging task for coaches. At the heart of that challenge is the notion that anyone can predict how good a skier might be based on his or her snapshot at age 17. With the minimum age to compete on the FIS level now 16, rising seniors going through the application process have only raced FIS for one year. As Dartmouth men’s coach Peter Dodge explains, “It is very difficult to recruit a kid with one year FIS experience. It’s impossible to select stars from that group.” Dodge points out that David Chodounsky, Warner Nickerson, Charles Christianson and Patrick Biggs — all of whom raced on the World Cup — were on the fringe of being recruited when they were entering college. Stever Bartlett, coach for Middlebury College, concurs with Dodge. For that reason he likes to see potential recruits in their senior years. “I like to leave spots for regular admission [versus Early Decision] to see them race head-to-head,” says Bartlett.
Age Matters and the Gap Year
In 2016, the average age of the top-10 finishers at the NCAA Championships (including the top 34 collegiate men and women nationwide), was 22 for women and 23 for men. The youngest competitors to qualify were 20 years old, and there were only two of those among the men’s field. This indicates that “true freshmen”, those who go directly to college after high school, should not expect to be on their team’s carnival or invitational rosters.
Most skiers, even those without national team aspirations, take at least one gap year to improve their points and increase their chances of making a college team. “It is very rare for anyone who wants to ski for us — men or women — to come straight from high school,” says Bartlett.
Even more rare are walk-ons, athletes who qualify for the team without being recruited. Willi Steinrottter, coach at Saint Lawrence University explains that it can be difficult to tell someone who is eager for admission and on the bubble of making the team to wait a year. “We want to give them the best opportunity to race for us and sometimes that will mean taking a gap year,” he says. Dodge explains that the gap year can help athletes who by the spring of their senior year can often put themselves in a much stronger position to be considered as a recruit. “Equally important, they will have a complete academic record at that time,” says Dodge, whose picks need to be both academically and athletically strong to clear the Ivy League admissions office.
Tick, Tick, Tick
For NCAA Division I schools, your four-year eligibility clock starts when you enroll full time or when you turn 21, whichever comes first. There is no age limit at Division III schools where the clock only ticks once students are enrolled full time. Robby Cone started racing for Middlebury as a true freshman, took two years off to race for the U.S. Ski Team and then resumed racing for college as a sophomore, with three years of eligibility left. In World Championship and Olympic years, national team athletes can be granted a bye year by the NCAA at Division I schools, and this is how some athletes continue to compete for specific colleges and universities in excess of four consecutive years. The USCSA (whose bylaws page sports the tagline “The Fun Starts Here”), has no age limitations. See more on USCSA below.
Tougher East or West?
Skiing wise, it’s tougher to get a spot on the western teams where foreigner athletes fresh off their national teams are heavily recruited and take advantage of scholarships. Conversely, while there may be more NCAA programs in the East, getting accepted at a top eastern school with a ski team can be a more lengthy, complicated, and demanding process. Coaches at eastern schools with prestigious academic reputations admit it is very rare one of their recruited athletes could get in solely by virtue of transcripts and test scores. The kid with a 32+ ACT score who is making the flip in NorAms is a rare and coveted creature on the ski circuit. “For that kid, I’d say, ‘Apply tomorrow!’” explains Bartlett.
Points Matter, But Only to a Point
As with test scores, each school has a point threshold below which they concentrate their recruitment efforts. That too, however, varies year-to-year and is a less reliable yardstick with younger athletes. Steinrotter explains that many kids in first-year FIS racing are still struggling to manage the longer skis and have a hard time finishing races. “In those cases, the videos they send in can be an important tool,” he says. All coaches are wary of relying on points to tell the whole story. A late-season trip to Lutsen or an off-season trip to New Zealand can make for a misleading profile.
Getting a Scholarship
If you make it onto a team, how hard is it to get a scholarship? Short answer: Be sure to 20 points or less. Long answer: Read on, but don’t quit your day job(s). In the NCAA, only Division I and II schools can offer scholarships, and of those only non-Ivy League schools.
“Even without a scholarship, college racing where you get most of your competition and training paid for while you work towards a college degree — is a screaming deal, especially considering the amount of money it takes to ski race at an academy or during a gap year.”
So that leaves UVM and UNH in the East. In the West, where the big scholarships live, programs are under the directive to win in the current season. They are less likely to recruit younger athletes and wait for them to develop, and more likely to recruit older, better-established athletes even with less than four years of eligibility remaining. In other words, for a “full ride” experience, try Disneyland. Even without a scholarship, however, college racing where you get most of your competition and training paid for while you work towards a college degree — is a screaming deal, especially considering the amount of money it takes to ski race at an academy or during a gap year.
The Good News
You knew there was some good news. “There is a level for every kid out there who wants to ski race in college,” says Steinrotter. “I always say, pick a school where you could see yourself thriving if skiing was out of the equation.” To this point, USCSA with 420 alpine programs offers many options. Most are club teams but some are varsity programs, funded by the colleges’ athletic departments and offering a high level of competition and even scholarships. Chris Hendrickson, former coach at USCSA powerhouse Sierra Nevada College, is now at Westminster College in Utah, which has a probationary spot in the NCAA. He’s been known for recruiting high-level skiers to small schools with small budgets. “There’s no secret racer out there that’s looking to go to school. You just have to find the ones that are the best fit for your program,” explains Hendrickson. “We all work hard to recruit, but we try to find people that want to come for the right reasons.”