All Grown Up With Nowhere To Go
Team selections are always a bit of a mystery, and no less so on the U.S. Ski Team. It’s always a mixture of clear calls and tough calls, cool calls and missed calls. Some people are grandfathered onto the team indefinitely. Others can put forth heroic independent efforts, fall a whisker short, and never get the nod. As a U.S. Ski Team executive once reminded all of us athletes: Gravity is fair. That’s about it.
Team selection is especially complicated as shrinking budgets get allocated to a growing number of sports. Notably lacking within the ranks, however, especially in an Olympic year, are women’s technical skiers. There are two active tech skiers on the A Team (Mikaela Shiffrin and Resi Stiegler), and one on the B Team (Tricia Mangan – who actually qualified through her super-G results.) Beyond them comes an all-teenager squad who, while talented, will likely need many years and miles to become consistently competitive internationally. It’s not that the U.S. doesn’t have tech skiers to bridge that gap — it’s just that we don’t acknowledge them as part of the country’s skiing development. Why not? The answer has to do with performance bands.
YOU’RE IN THE BAND OR YOU’RE OUT
Three of the top four GS skiers in the country are not on the national team, because they fall outside the “performance bands.” Performance bands are age-based ranges within which athletes must place that essentially raise the bar on qualification criteria as an athlete gets older. The bands, based on historical data of international athlete development, are used to predict future performance and to determine which athletes are a good bet for development dollars. When used as a flexible guide, the bands can be helpful tools. When applied rigidly, however, they can become tourniquets, cutting off the vital flow of talent and experience.
To see the potential limitations of performance bands, look no further than Kristina Riis-Johannessen. At age 24, Riis-Johannessen graduated from the University of Vermont (UVM) after racing four years on the NCAA circuit. During that time, save for a few races in Scandinavia over her freshman year holiday break, Riis-Johannessen raced exclusively in North American FIS races, where she raised the level of her own skiing and the entire circuit. That spring she was named to Norway’s European Cup Team where she competed for the next two seasons.
After winning the 2017 overall Europa Cup title, she was named to the Norwegian World Cup Team this spring at the age of 26. She is at her athletic peak heading into an Olympic year. (As precedent, Norway scooped up Middlebury skier Hedda Berntsen at age 23 after she graduated. Two years later she won slalom bronze at the 2001 World Championships.) If Riis-Johannessen were an American, at age 24 she would not have been eligible for the national team based on her results. Her only available route — qualifying for the A team — would have been impossible without World Cup starts. She could compete as an independent for a year, secure NorAm results to ensure World Cup starts the following season, compete another year on the World Cup as an independent, and eventually make A team criteria. Facing such a daunting and expensive route, her skiing career most likely would have been over, like it has been with every American female college graduate so far.
Was Norway’s selection of Riis-Johannessen after her four years of college racing (on somebody else’s budget) an efficient use of resources or a waste of them? Similarly, does it make sense to invest heavily in athletes before college, then categorically walk away from that investment when the athletes fall below a statistical line? I asked these questions last winter in Stay Classy, when marveling at the high level of skiing amongst the top collegiate women skiers. Looking at the end-of-year standings, and the tech-starved U.S. Ski Team roster, I ask them again, with a related follow-up: Does it also make sense, for younger athletes and the U.S. Ski Team, to invest in each other when history indicates that those athletes will likely relive this incomplete athletic lifecycle?
TAKING A PAGE FROM THE CUBS
This also happens to be graduation season, when wisdom bombs get dropped in the form of commencement addresses. The one delivered by Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein at his alma mater Yale seems especially appropriate for U.S. Skiing. Specifically, the “heads-up” paradigm shift Epstein embraced while reinventing the Cubs supports the case for a broader approach to skier development.
Epstein talks about the difference between a heads down and heads up philosophy: “… some players — and some of us — go through our careers with our heads down, focused on our craft and our tasks, keeping to ourselves, worrying about our numbers or our grades, pursuing the next objective goal, building our resumes, protecting our individual interests. Other players — and others amongst us — go through our careers with our heads up, as real parts of a team, alert and aware of others, embracing difference, employing empathy, genuinely connecting, putting collective interests ahead of our own.”
Later, Epstein explains how his own thinking evolved to a heads up approach: “Early in my career, I used to think of players as assets, statistics on a spreadsheet I could use to project future performance and measure precisely how much they would impact our team on the field. I used to think of teams as portfolios, diversified collections of player assets paid to produce up to their projections to ensure the organization’s success. My head had been down. That narrow approach worked for a while, but it certainly had its limits. I grew and my team building philosophy grew as well. The truth – as our team proved in Cleveland — is that a player’s character matters. The heartbeat matters. Fears and aspirations matter. The player’s impact on others matters. The tone he sets matters. The willingness to connect matters. Breaking down cliques and overcoming stereotypes in the clubhouse matters. Who you are, how you live among others — that all matters.”
THE HEADS-UP APPROACH
When looking at ski racers and their potential through Epstein’s paradigm, the strength gained through succeeding at the top level of college racing matters. Maximizing every precious moment of training, maturing emotionally and physically, managing oneself independently yet working together as a team, finding and funding independent off-season training, pursuing this sport passionately and wholeheartedly while fulfilling rigorous academic demands — it all matters. The fact that these women do all of the above despite the consistent affirmation from the top that no level of achievement will make them worthy of investment past the age of 22 makes the level of commitment even more remarkable.
Ski racing in this country has unique challenges including geography, cost, lack of funding, cultural apathy, and societal education/career expectations. It also has unique advantages of population, top skiing and athletic facilities, economic opportunities and an entrepreneurial, innovative spirit. Perhaps most importantly, we are the only country in the world with a fully developed, highly competitive collegiate ski racing system. Why not shift our development paradigm, pull our heads up from statistics and projections, and exploit our unique advantages? At most, every year a small handful of women may earn special consideration around the bands. Giving those few their hard-earned recognition, however, will send a message of encouragement to a wider range of girls and women who might then dare to dream of following in their tracks.
We are so lucky, in this Olympic season, that Killington will again host two November World Cup tech races. What a perfect opportunity to showcase and launch the absolute fastest women tech skiers we have. Period. It starts now, by picking our heads up from the spreadsheets, seeing our fastest skiers and actively seeking ways to connect them all with the best training possible. Or, in the words of one seasoned observer: “Stop playing God, and start creating opportunities!”
Amen to that.