It’s a question that has been a topic of debate for years at the dinner parties of ski racing parents, the boardrooms at the Center of Excellence in Park City, and the comments section of this very website: What can the U.S. do to become the best skiing nation in the world?
Short answer? There is no short answer.
Much has been said about the U.S. Ski Team’s “Best in the World” mantra in the years since its adoption, including some vocal criticism from those who perceive the saying as rather foolish considering that issues with athlete funding, the various geographical challenges of managing rising talent spread across such a vast country, and the dueling egos and ideologies of various athletes, clubs, teams, and officials seemingly persist year after year despite the efforts of those in management at U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
How can we build a better system that fosters growth at the junior and club levels all while supporting those in the elite ranks with dreams of World Cup and Olympic success? And just what does it mean to be “Best in the World?”
“That’s the key question, isn’t it?” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner. “I think there’s a growing recognition and willingness in the community that understands that if we are going to be as good as we really, truly can be in this nation and give our athletes the best opportunities and clearest pathway possible to reach the top of the podium, then it’s on all of our shoulders to answer that question together. It’s obviously tricky because there are a lot of players and a lot of people [who] are trying to accomplish a lot of different things with their resources.”
Bodensteiner and the rest of the staff at U.S. Ski & Snowboard have mulled over these question for years alongside the best minds at the club level. If there’s one thing that history has taught us, it’s that tackling the biggest problems in our sport is always easier said than done. It’s one thing to talk the talk, it’s another to walk the walk.
“There’s a recognition that our system as a whole hasn’t been optimized and hasn’t been providing the best environment for our best athletes,” admits Bodensteiner. “I think over the past two or three years there has been a real spirit of, ‘How do we pull together, and how do we each contribute our piece into a bigger environment that helps to create really great ski racers?'”
“I don’t think we’re ever satisfied,” adds Chip Knight, who has served as U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Alpine Development Director since 2015. “We’re actually currently going through a very comprehensive long-term planning process with an eye towards 2026 thinking about reallocating resources and really trying to invest in the next generation. ”
But that begs the question of just what those changes will be and what specifically we are doing to optimize our development system to foster success at the elite levels of the sport?
For starters, since the beginning of Knight’s tenure, there have been significant revisions to how the national team looks at a developing athlete when it comes to team selections and project invitations at the junior levels.
“Since I’ve come in, we’ve done the best we could to peel back from early selection and provide much more transparency and porosity in the opportunities for young athletes,” Knight says. “I believe we’ve created a much more open-faced system at the development level for athletes to come up and into. I think we’ve made good shifts in the last couple of years, but what we’re really looking at is whether those shifts are enough to be game changing going forward; meaning if the next Ted (Ligety) or Lindsey (Vonn) is in our midst, are we a system that facilitates that?”
Becoming less rigid when it comes to selecting athletes for particular teams or on-snow projects allows young athletes to develop as much as possible at their respective clubs before any selection to the national team takes place. This does come with a trade-off, however, as it means clubs will potentially have to be responsible for committing greater resources towards a growing number of older elite athletes than they have in the past.
“It doesn’t help to take those actions and stack the deck unless everybody is really prepared for those and prepared to adapt and leverage their own resources in a way that’s very systematic with what everybody else is doing,” adds Bodensteiner.
In the words of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, it will only work if everyone has a stake in the program and invests time and additional resources.
TALENT IDENTIFICATION AND THE RELATIVE AGE EFFECT
“The one thing that’s almost impossible to do is talent select,” says Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Athletic Director and former U.S. Ski Team Head Men’s Coach Phil McNichol. “Pick anybody who works in the business and ask them to tell you the top U16s [who] will be ranked in the top 15 in their World Cup career; it’s almost impossible.”
Identifying and selecting talent – and doing it early – has been on the minds of many movers and shakers in the ski racing world for a long time. Conventional wisdom suggests that the earlier an athlete can be identified as “elite” the better his or her chances will be at success at the higher levels of the sport. However, Knight and a growing number of sports science experts actually believe that an athlete’s true potential may not show until much later than some might think.
The concept of relative age effect (RAE) is commonly used to describe the bias in participation and success in athletics towards those born early in a relevant selection period such as a grade in school or an age group in sports. Essentially, two athletes who share the same birth year with one being born on January 1 and the other on December 31 would be the same age as far as age groups in ski racing are concerned, even though one is nearly a full year older than the other.
Statistics show that across a wide range of sports, RAE is prevalent at the youth levels, with ski racing being no different.
“I’ve seen it,” says Knight. “When I first came on, we were doing a lot of NTG programming, selecting U16s and such. Many of those kids were born, say, in the first half of the year, and that’s a big reason why we’ve moved away from selecting kids at that age.”
A recent study published by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Nord University looked at RAE in the ranks of the World Cup and drew some intriguing conclusions.
The study tracked the birth dates of the top-50 skiers in the world and their World Cup points over a period of 20 years. According to their findings, RAE can be observed in the junior ranks but disappears and even reverses on the men’s side on the World Cup. Male skiers born late in the year collected, on average, more World Cup points than their earlier born peers. Interestingly, no such effect was observed on the women’s side.
Knight hopes that keeping the system much more open at the junior level will have clear benefits because it provides more time and opportunity for athletes who are still developing and may be 11 or 12 months younger or older than their peers in the same birth year. The last thing anyone wants is for a prospective talent to be left by the wayside because of RAE.
TRAINING PARTNERSHIP PROGRAMS
So, just what is U.S. Ski & Snowboard and its clubs around the country doing to implement these changes? This spring, the national governing body announced a number of training partnership programs with its leading clubs, academy programs, resorts, and sport performance facilities that will enable young racers from coast to coast to hone their skills close to home at some of the best snowsports venues in the country with the support of the national system.
These partnerships are divided into four levels and aim to provide low-cost regional training opportunities through co-branding with partners as either U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team Development Sites, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team Training Sites, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team High Performance Centers, or as a U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team Certified Center of Excellence.
“When a kid is skiing well and coming up through their club and they get invited to a regional camp, instead of us saying that it’s $1,500, we can say it’s $150 for a week of training,” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Tiger Shaw. “As a development site, it requires that 20 days of training a year for groups up to 30 in size with subsidized housing and food be provided. It’s not for everyone because you have to have a lot of resources that you control. We want these sites to be a regional resource where anyone who is emerging as an elite athlete can go and train with the other best athletes in the region.”
Knight hopes these partnerships will help fulfill his vision of a more open development system through more progression at the club level. With the premier clubs and academies in the country investing more than ever before in state-of-the-art facilities, the timing is right to formalize these agreements and define what the national governing body expects of clubs, regions, and the national team during an athlete’s development.
“What we have right now is a fairly well-funded and resourced club base,” says Knight. “We have a number of incredibly strong clubs with great resources. Coming from my generation, I look at it and go, ‘Holy cow, there’s so much opportunity.’ Through the development site agreements, we’re trying to provide regional level development resources through our biggest and most well-funded clubs for athletes to stay a little closer to home and get more cost effective and high-quality training. Those are the kinds of relationships we really want to foster going forward so that the athletes that will mature between 14 at the youngest to 18 still have a good fertile ground in which to mature and advance.”
These benefits won’t stop at the bottom of the race course, either as the partnerships extend to off-snow programming as well, and will allow for a better two-way flow of information between the Center of Excellence and the clubs in areas like dryland training and nutrition.
ARE WE REALLY THAT DIFFERENT?
It’s one thing to put athletes on the national team; it’s another to see them make the all-important leap to success on the World Cup. There’s been no denying that over the last 15 or so years, some of the greatest champions in the history of the sport have graced American skiing. The likes of Vonn, Miller, Shiffrin, Ligety, and Mancuso have been the poster children for American success on the world stage, but who’s next?
“This isn’t a new dilemma,” says McNichol. “We’ve always tried to keep up with the Jones’, so to speak, in terms of the world of ski racing. I don’t know if we’re fighting an uphill battle, but it’s kind of impossible to replicate Austria at the very extreme in terms of their system and depth of support. … I’m all for performance bands and yes, when you take athletes [who] are the best in the world, they will reflect an international standard, but who’s done the deep dive on just our skiers to really intimately understand our athlete body?”
Taking a look back at American men’s World Cup giant slalom skiing since the year 2000, there have been 17 different athletes who have found themselves in the points. Of those, only Bode Miller and Ted Ligety have won, and Daron Rahlves and Erik Schlopy are the only others with podium finishes to their name.
The timeline above shows each American man who has scored World Cup GS points since the 2000 season and the year of his first scoring race during that timeframe. Tracking each skier’s GS world rank from his first year of FIS racing until the season of his first World Cup GS scoring result to develop a “performance band” enables us to compare with other international standards and current U.S. Ski Team criteria.
According to this analysis, an American man spends an average of 10 years – 9.94, to be exact – racing at the FIS level before scoring his first World Cup GS points. Bode Miller and Tommy Ford both spent the least amount of time in the FIS ranks before scoring with six years, with David Chodounsky and Knight sharing the honor of most years with both of them spending 16 racing FIS before achieving a scoring GS result.
By the 10th year of FIS racing, the average world rank of an American male athlete achieving his first scoring result is 89. In contrast, the study conducted by Dan Leever and the Team America Foundation in 2016 found the average world rank of the top-25 percent of the current World Cup top-30 GS men to be a bit lower overall than the American average – 69 compared to 105 for the Americans at the eighth FIS year – although the American average is well inside the maximum data points in the Leever study.
Comparing the world rank of each skier at the end of the season of his first scoring result and checking to see if it would be good enough for current 2017-2018 U.S. Ski Team nomination criteria yield another rabbit hole. Of the 17 scorers, 10 had world ranks in GS at the end of their first scoring season that would be good enough to make current criteria; seven would have fallen short. It is worth noting, however, that David Chodounsky had a world rank in slalom good enough to qualify at the time of his first GS score.
“I think as Americans, we always think of that, ‘There’s got to be another way, our culture is different,’ and I think there is some truth to that, but our champions were all pretty good, even the late bloomers, as juniors,” adds Knight. “I think it’s a little bit of a fallacy to think there’s an alternative American development timetable. My feeling is that our system has to be open and transparent enough to let athletes fully mature through those development years, so we’re not selecting too early and closing the door on others that are still developing.”
Is this enough data to suggest that American skiers develop differently than the rest of the world? Certainly not. A much more thorough analysis of Americans across both genders and all disciplines would be necessary to come to any definitive conclusions, but it does raise the question of how to best facilitate success on the World Cup while being careful not to push out older athletes who may require more time to mature.
THE DEPTH PARADOX
The lack of American depth at the World Cup level leaves many fans scratching their heads as they watch European powers land five or more skiers in the points race after race while Americans sometimes struggle to secure a single scoring result.
According to Knight, depth at the World Cup could be a catch-22 for the United States. Having a large number of top-ranked World Cup skiers is great, but the economic realities of supporting an A-team that large could be bad news for the next generation.
“One of the things is when you start to build a deep team, you need a lot of resources,” explains Knight. “The deeper you are and the older you are, the harder it gets to allocate those resources. Everyone wants depth, and it’s awesome to see a bunch of Americans in the second run or everyone on the women’s speed team be on the podium, but the reality of sustaining that is really, really hard.”
To put it bluntly, we’re not Austria, France, or Italy where the next World Cup is no longer than a day’s drive away. Funding a large number of middle-level World Cup athletes who don’t have the support of big-money sponsors to stay in Europe six months out of the year would mean that tough decisions are made in other areas – namely funding for junior programs. In matters of team naming and funding for older athletes, it comes down to strategic resource allocation.
That being said, with the recent push for clubs to pick up some of the slack in development through training partnerships and the continuing efforts in how to best utilize the NCAA ranks, there’s definite potential for more funds to become available in the future for athletes at the World and Europa Cup levels.
“We need depth in order to produce champions, but I don’t think we can shoot primarily for depth at the top level,” Knight admits. “I think we need depth at the junior and developing levels so the champions can emerge and have enough depth at the top so there are stepping stones or rungs on a ladder for athletes to shoot for and pass as they go up. We can’t cut out the middle and expect someone to go from 100th in the world to top seed.”
“It’s not an easy process by any means; it takes a lot of discussion and coming together and sharing ideas,” says Bodensteiner. “Part of it is why we’re going down this road of how do we make a broader system that’s less focused on individual high-achieving athletes and more focused on helping the clubs get the most out of their programs. Ultimately, that’s where we’re heading.”
It’s a tough task that is constantly changing, but the work of putting athletes on the national team with the hopes of success at the World Cup and beyond is most definitely a labor of love. If recent changes are any indication of the direction we are headed as a nation, I’d say we’re in pretty good hands.