Evolution or revolution? Depending on who you ask, opinions vary on what has happened in the world of U.S. ski racing over the past several months since the closing ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Games. The U.S. alpine team walked away with three medals — all from the women’s side — and by most people’s criteria had underperformed given expectations heading into the season and past records of Olympic success.
Then, in March, the floodgates opened. Social media was awash with opinions and cries for change. Some constructive, others… Not so much.
“Ski racing is dead, like golf,” says one Facebook commenter. “The system needs to be gutted,” adds another.
These comments did not fall on deaf ears as the public outcry galvanized members of the alpine team to come together as one united group and voice their frustrations to U.S. Ski & Snowboard at an athlete meeting with executive management during U.S. alpine championships in Sun Valley, Idaho, in late March.
What started as an informal discussion between athletes at this past season’s NorAm finals in Kimberly, Canada, turned into an organized effort by athletes at all levels of the national team to address the issues of team culture, organizational accountability, and financial transparency that have plagued the U.S. Ski Team for years.
“Basically, we had all been talking about the Leever post,” says development athlete and Dartmouth student Jimmy Krupka. “That was kind of what got the conversation started and got the ball rolling but we realized that we were all really on the same page and needed to bring this conversation a little deeper so we involved the girls team and then we ultimately talked to the (U.S. Ski & Snowboard) executives in Sun Valley.”
The meeting in Sun Valley was attended by U.S. Ski & Snowboard CEO Tiger Shaw, VP of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner, Alpine Development Director Chip Knight, and the head coaching staff of both the men’s and women’s teams. By all accounts, the discussion was generally positive with both sides realizing their past shortcomings and opening an important dialogue between the athletes and management that is essential if any real change is to be accomplished in the coming years.
“It was a huge, huge group effort,” Says 2018 Olympian Patricia Mangan. “We thought it would be more effective if we didn’t have everybody talking so we picked a few people to be the spokespersons.”
“I walked away thrilled, enthused, and very optimistic,” Shaw says. “The best way to look at this is as a kickoff to a discussion and agreement to work very closely together moving forward. It was a very organized meeting. They were on top of it, which was cool. What got me so excited was that they had a lot to say about the way they think things aren’t working well and in the same breath they were saying, ‘We know that we all together need to fix this, including the athletes.’”
According to the athletes, the biggest take-away from the Sun Valley meeting was a recognized need to change the culture of the alpine team. Athletes voiced frustration with moving up within the team, like making the jump from the NorAm to the World Cup level, and struggling to find their place due to unwelcoming athletes or staff. The athletes hope to build a team culture that better fosters an environment of inclusiveness, accountability, and commitment to developing the athlete from the junior ranks all the way to World Cup and Olympic success.
“I think (team culture) is the biggest issue, in my mind,” says Mangan. “I want to be faster and I want U.S. skiers to be faster and I think that is the biggest thing that is holding the U.S. Ski Team back.”
“We would kind of joke about the (U.S. Ski & Snowboard message of) ‘One Team’ because it still doesn’t feel like – even within the alpine team – that we’re all part of the same team,” Krupka adds. “That’s what we’re trying to change and I’m hoping that our little movement here can be part of that ‘One Team’ message and a revival of that.”
In the time since the meeting in Sun Valley, Krupka and a handful of other athletes have taken the lead in drafting a new alpine team agreement that puts their goals into writing. Modeled after the success of the U.S. cross-country team over the past several seasons and their approach to team culture, the new agreement puts communication, accountability, and commitment to the team at the forefront and aims to be a framework for future success at all levels.
“We basically wanted to figure out a way to take the really positive conversation we’d had with Tiger, Luke, and the rest of them and turn it into something a little more concrete,” explains Krupka. “We’ve narrowed the team agreement down to a pretty simple document.”
Shaw agrees that regular communication between athletes and coaches is absolutely essential if team culture is to change. Shaw says that although any athlete at any level is welcome to come to him or the executive staff with their concerns, nothing takes the place of direct, honest, and respectful conversations between the individuals at odds with each other. Fixing relationships at the point of contact is the first step in improving a team’s culture.
“It also includes the stars on our teams accepting and working closely with and making feel at home the younger athletes as they work their way up the pipeline,” Shaw explains. “It really means stealing a page back from the Norwegians in this regard. We all know how much was written up about their success, but what they’re doing if you read carefully into those articles … is it’s taken athletes like (Aksel Lund) Svindal realizing that he can lead the culture of that team and that he must. Culture is living relationships working towards a common goal.”
Financial transparency is another hot-button topic that has been on people’s minds for years. Previously shrouded in mystery, World Cup veteran Tommy Ford has taken the reigns on this issue and hopes to cast some light on the subject in the coming months for athletes and their families footing the bills each season.
“To me, what’s been important is that people have been talking and thinking and I think that Tiger and Luke are listening,” Ford says. “Luke shared what U.S. Ski & Snowboard shares with their own staff with us and was pretty open to share their current numbers of revenue and their breakdowns of that information. He explained more and was just clear with how alpine athletes pay for the team rather than having it be unclear and individual.”
Shaw says that over the next month, U.S. Ski & Snowboard will be publishing a large amount of financial information pertaining to athlete costs and benefits in an effort to be fully transparent on the issue of out-of-pocket athlete expenses.
“It will be a very comprehensive document that shows what the actual travel cost is for a particular person on a particular team,” says Shaw. “It will also show the gross athlete cost we are asking them to contribute towards that travel cost. We’re trying to reduce that gross cost to the athlete. We should be able to do that and show a significant positive shift. We also want to communicate that although an athlete might have a bill to pay, there are several things they can do that can mitigate that gross cost.”
Shaw explains that through taking advantage of things like USOC grants, the Beattie Travel Fund (which is a part of U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Merolt Endowment), FIS travel money for World Cup athletes with a certain ranking, and team-organized fundraisers, an athlete can significantly reduce their out-of-pocket costs for the season.
“It’s a good start to get more information out there because even though we don’t all necessarily agree on whether we should be paying or not, we just know what is out there and where the money is going a little bit more and I think that’s really helpful and eases people’s minds,” adds Ford. “It’s answers questions rather than constantly being in the dark.”
What is clear is that U.S. Ski & Snowboard is a big ship that can’t change direction on a dime. If the athletes themselves are at the helm of this change, however, things might be moving in the right direction faster than many people think.