“As you can tell, I’m just a little bit passionate about ski racing.” That was how ex-U.S. Ski Teamer and newly-appointed Alpine Program Director of Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Will Brandenburg concluded an hour of fervent, earnest, and thoughtful discussion on everything ranging from his new position at SVSEF to the current health of the overall sport of ski racing in the U.S.
Fresh off the salted lanes of Mammoth Mountain, California, immediately post job-transition, newly relocated to Sun Valley, and adjusting to being a father of three months, Brandenburg himself confessed that he feels like he’s finally coming up for air. However, his admitted passion for ski racing has a history of not allowing him much of a break; nor would he want it to. His fierce adoration for the sport is mirrored in every step of his career, from the precision and drive with which he tackled being an athlete, to the exhaustive thought he’s poured into coaching, to the vision he holds for the future of the sport through his position at SVSEF.
For those unfamiliar with Brandenburg, the ex-U.S. Ski Team athlete grew up skiing at Ski Bluewood south of Dayton, Washington. At nineteen years old, he secured a position with the U.S. Ski Team. Despite bouts of injury and inconsistent (at best) finishes, his career was marked by his tenacious, fighting spirit, which knew only push on—if not by brute force — than by tactical creativity.
Brandenburg became known for adopting a riskier technique to stay on par with the more naturally-talented athletes, differentiating himself from the pack in the face of what should have been a sizable challenge to his career. Although he did not attain a position with the U.S. Ski Team in his final year on the World Cup, staying true to his resolute character, he raised the support and funds for his own team, “Team Willy B.”
While racing independently, Brandenburg’s training base was Sun Valley, Idaho, where he got roped into helping Hailey Duke — who was also in Sun Valley at the time and being coached independently by SVSEF’s Erika Rixon—with a U16 camp she was running. As he casually put it, “I helped her… and then I kinda figured out I love coaching.”
That love is hard to miss, should Brandenburg be asked about it. His already-huge grin lights up in describing the details.
“Helping teach a kid how to feel a ski turn that is super powerful and amazing is just one of the coolest things ever,” he says. “It’s amazing because I know how they are feeling.”
However, for knowing precisely what’s felt and experienced, not every aspect of being a once-elite athlete translates well to being a coach.
“A lot of people say just because you’re a really good skier doesn’t mean you’re a really good coach, and it’s super true.” Brandenburg admitted. “I try to use what I’ve learned but not project what I know, and let [the athletes] build it for themselves… Which is hard to do, at times.”
He also realizes that the value of his experience lays not only in his own development as a skier, but additionally the conditions in which that development occurred. His main approach is to coach how he wanted to be coached, connect the way with which he wanted to be connected. Additionally, he makes an effort to draw on and learn from the methodology of both his previous coaches and his current colleagues, weaving in aspects to his own style.
During his independent racing stint, Brandenburg also became acquainted with SVSEF’s then-Alpine Director Scott McGrew. Like-minded and similarly passionate, the two connected immediately. McGrew offered Brandenburg the position of head U16 coach with the club for the 2016-2017 season. Brandenburg accepted, but with the expectation of going back to the World Cup the next year; his priorities shifting over the course of the season, leading him to eventually abandon the idea of a return. The decision was by no means a simple call.
“Leaving the sport is so hard, it being something that you’ve just given yourself to… I can’t stress how hard it is.” Brandenburg related. Coaching not only remedied the shock of the transition, but posed something of a moral obligation to the sport. “I was on the national team for 10 years. They put a ton of money into me and resources into me, and I gained experience that you rarely get in this sport, so it’d be a really bad thing if I didn’t turn around as quickly as possible and try to share the knowledge that I was given back into it.”
It was this desire to give back that led Brandenburg to accept the position of Western Region Development Coach offered to him by U.S. Ski & Snowboard the following year.
“In a sense I took the job with the ski team because I really wanted to help ski racing,” he explained. In broad strokes, the position involved working with high-potential athletes of clubs throughout the Western Region. Consequently, it also called for simultaneous interaction with the objectives of the region’s clubs and the general agenda of U.S. Ski & Snowboard. Brandenburg’s experience in this position hugely informs his role—current and yet to come—in the greater scope of U.S. skiing.
What role can we expect this to be? An advocate for the soul of the sport. If there’s anything to learn from Brandenburg’s conduct to date, we can expect this advocacy to to be as relentless as his passion, but executed deliberately as his slalom turn.
“The endgame is starting to become so outcome-oriented in our sport that if [as an athlete] I’m not at this certain point, then what’s the point of me doing the sport?” Brandenburg discussed. “What we are asking FIS athletes to do is absolutely insane. We’re asking them to miss a ton of school, train really hard basically at professional athlete status when they are fourteen to eighteen years old, and it isn’t meant for everyone. Not every kid can dedicate themselves that drastically in that way, nor should they.”
That’s not even to mention the reality of economic strain on athletes. He gave the example that fifteen years ago, going to the Southern Hemisphere to train was more of a special instance. Currently, the existing convention is that if athletes are not getting those additional days in gates they are going to fall behind; never mind that lots of potential talent simply cannot afford to travel that far, that often. With increasing expenses, aspirations have begun to shift as well.
“Kids who are 15 years old are not me—they are not sitting, jaw dropped, dreaming about only racing World Cup,” he says. “If you ask most of the kids now, they want to race in college, because of the funding and the financial game. I think that has shifted kids’ focus and parent’s focus on where they want to take the sport.”
None of this is to say, however, that Brandenburg does not see the call for extreme concentration and intensity for young athletes; some need the drive and the push, he admitted, especially if they are looking for D1 positions at top NCAA schools. What concerns Brandenburg is the route of extremity being the only option.
“We have to find the balance of athletic programming and making sure kids can reach their dreams, but still making sure we are doing a good job of taking care of this beautiful sport we have and making it fun so as many kids can experience it as possible at a high level,” he says.
“What happened was that there was this era that was unreal.” Brandenburg points to the hallmark athletes of the last decade: Bode, Daron, Ted, Julia, Lindsey. “When we look at them, those are our legends. We put more resources in trying to recreate what happened. We focused on getting more of that and I think we’ve lost a little bit of what created that generation.”
Losing touch with the soul of the sport, however, is a far from an unfamiliar dispute, especially in recent years. However, where Brandenburg believes he differs from most, is that he advocates working on the issue partially through collaboration in an increasingly competitive club environment.
“Whether clubs like it or not, we are all connected, and we are a part of something way bigger than ourselves,” he commented. Speaking to the effect ski racing has had on his character, he continued, “I’m a better person because of my experience as a ski racer… The experiences and the journey and the situations—all of that—were so powerful, and it is so unique! How many other sports is your best friend and roommate your biggest competitor? All of those situations I just really believe help build really strong individuals. How we are connected, how every club plays a part in this, is that the U.S. would be better at ski racing, but then the bigger picture is that the sport sustainable, and still around.”
The latest transition in Brandenburg’s career has been his return to SVSEF, officially as of mid-April this year. He is doing so largely under the premise that he might be able to use the position to better ski racing in the region, and ideally, in the nation.
“I think SVSEF has the ability to be a program that is really a big piece for the sport, and within our region as the Western Region” Brandenburg explained. “Seeing the opportunity here to help a program that I think is in a community that loves alpine ski racing, in a community that wants to support this sport, I think there’s bigger and better things we can do as a staff to help be a piece of the puzzle of how this sport stays around and is sustainable for a long time.”
It is specifically under the leadership of Scott McGrew, now Executive Director of SVSEF, that Brandenburg endeavors on to this next stage: “I don’t think I would have done this type of position for anyone else, but he believes in me, and he gave me the opportunity and I don’t know if anyone else would’ve given me this opportunity so quickly, but he gave it to me because I think he sees really where my heart is.”
Brandenburg’s ceaseless determination, bound in his pure adoration for the sport and paired with the exactitude with which he handles challenges may be the combination needed to instigate serious reconsiderations within the sport. At the least, in practicing at SVSEF what he preaches for U.S. skiing at large, he may just demonstrate that bringing back the fun, the importance of the journey, the general spirit can be done in balance with regimented athletic programming. It might just be a better way to strive for the excellence U.S. skiing aims for.
In his own words, referring to himself and McGrew: “We see it’s about the kids! It is not about the coaches, it is not about the medals—it’s about the turns, and the athletes, and nurturing their experience and how they can grow from it. If we were only fixated on that, we would win a lot more medals.”