Much of the talk about ski racing after high school, when it does get talked about, is focused on Division I NCAA racing. The skiing at the highest NCAA level (it actually spans Divisions I-III) is indeed impressive, making it an increasingly viable path for elite racers to continue their athletic development. As NCAA teams start to look more like World Cup incubators, however, the chances of securing a coveted roster spot can seem hopelessly distant to teenagers who just want to keep going to the mountains and growing with the sport they love.
What does that scenario mean for kids who want a version of the classic college racing experience that falls somewhere along the continuum from pure inclusive fun to pure competitive commitment? Furthermore, if an unintended consequence of a robust and highly competitive college racing circuit is to drive kids away from the sport at earlier ages, when they look ahead and see no viable path to continue racing past high school, then it’s not part of our long-term solution to retaining athletes in the sport.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for everyone to keep racing past high school, particularly if you know where to look. Here’s a hint: It’s called USCSA. The United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association keeps ski racing alive at more than 180 colleges across the country. That keeps 5,000 or so athletes on snow, competing in alpine, cross-country, freeskiing and snowboarding.
USCSA programs range from well-funded varsity teams with both on-snow and dryland training, to highly organized, student-run club teams, to small clubs with a few members who rally last-minute for races. Among the ranks are current FIS, NCAA, and USSA athletes, former racers who still like to pursue the sport and be part of a familiar scene, and college kids trying out ski racing for the first time. With a little research and guidance, it’s likely college-bound skiers can find a USCSA program that matches whatever balance between academics and athletics they seek.
Rowmark Ski Academy, which is known for its rigorous college prep academics and elite ski racing, actively looks at both NCAA and USCSA programs when counseling kids for college choices. “I would say that 100 percent of our Rowmark student-athletes hope to race in college,” says Head Coach Jim Tschabrun. In his seven years there, he’s seen almost all of their athletes have the option to continue racing beyond Rowmark. “Providing students with the skills and opportunity to ski and improve beyond Rowmark is one of the primary tenants of our coaching philosophy,” he says.
While almost all athletes tell Tschabrun they would love to ski for one of the NCAA Championship contenders, that aspiration now resides in the category of dream goal and the search inevitably gets broader. Tschabrun explains that some students choose USCSA schools over NCAA opportunities because of location, the size of college, or their preferred course of study. “That’s another factor,” says Tschabrun. “The upper-level USCSA programs have become really attractive for academically competitive students whose focus lies more professionally than athletically. It enables them to continue racing at a high level, though admittedly below [NCAA] Division I, while pursuing a degree at places like Brown, Babson, Hamilton, Tufts, MIT, Clarkson, St. Olaf, Carleton, etc.”
Rowmark’s college counseling department focuses on “the right fit” for their students because, as Tschabrun notes, the preconceived notions many students have about where they would like to attend college often change as they gain experience and perspective through high school. Among the factors Rowmark’s counselors discuss in detail and urge students to consider when seeking a school with the best fit include: academic and cultural fit; the feeling they get from the school when they visit; their rapport with the coach; and their likely role/spot on the team.
With so many options out there for racing after high school, where do you start the search? That’s the question Carrie Ulvestad asked herself in 2011 when her daughter was looking at colleges where she could continue ski racing. Ulvestad and two other PNSA moms, Alden Garrett and Robin Ahmann, got to work creating a simple and brilliantly presented chart (link below), which was last updated in 2015.
This chart, when made accessible to all high school ski racers and their parents – I’m talking to you, clubs, high schools, regions and divisions, let’s post this thing! – provides an excellent framework for how to start the process. Ron Bonneau, longtime coach at the College of Idaho is also a longtime advocate of USCSA skiing at all levels. He has tirelessly advocated building awareness of the many college pathways available to skiers. In a sport with a much-acknowledged crisis in retention (look for an upcoming article on USSA and grassroots initiatives addressing this), he sees spreading the word about opportunities as all upside. “At the end of the day, how do we keep more kids playing? How do we create a culture that promotes excellence but also encourages them to stay in the game because it’s fun?” asks Bonneau.
Laura Sullivan, USCSA’s executive director, also leads the effort and speaks regularly to clubs and USSA members and officials about options for kids in snowsports beyond high school. As a parent of teenagers, she understands how difficult it is to navigate the process of finding the right college to allow students to pursue their interests. “All you want to do is see your kids happy,” she says. “Many of these USCSA programs that exist keep kids in college.”
USSA Western Region Development Director Bill Gunesch is part of USSA’s Domestic Development Task Force, which, among other things, aims to mend fences between USSA and USCSA. The relationship deteriorated when competition costs increased dramatically in 2013. “The goal is to educate families that ski racing still exists after high school, hopefully keeping more skiers engaged through their high school years, and then, beyond,” says Gunesch, who notes that in his region, “most families are not aware of the many very good colleges and universities that have ski teams.”
Sullivan acknowledges an increased sense of shared mission with USSA, and feels the key to awareness starts with education at the grassroots level. “We have to start at younger ages, with coaches and programs, and encourage more people to talk inclusively,” she says, rather than focusing on the brass ring of individual successes. “We have to get back to the process. You have to love the process.” The big key to that, she asserts, is the team, which lets the members feel part of something bigger than themselves. Sullivan processes the team paperwork for
Sullivan processes all the team paperwork for USCSA, and estimates that 90 percent of college skiing is club organized, ranging from the single kid who is starting a program at his Midwest school to long-standing teams that are run like varsity programs. Some of the most impressive clubs operate in geographically unlikely places. For example, University of Virginia’s all-student run team includes more than 100 athletes, organizes races and training, and runs perfectly. Indeed, running the ski team is a business education in itself. As one student told Sullivan, “It was Business 101! I learned more running the ski team than anything I learned in a class.”
The main reason to keep racing in college is the main reason you started the sport. It’s fun. As a coach and a parent, it’s a rare and wonderful thing to see a kid achieve his or her ultimate dream in ski racing, but it’s just as gratifying to see kids find a way to stay in the sport in a way that gives them a sense of belonging and makes them happy. “Might that be OK?” asks Bonneau. “Let’s all cheer on the U.S. Ski Team to be ‘Best in the World’ while we also promote inclusive opportunities for skiers to seek their best day – a day where they realize their personal best as a participant in the process. The challenge for many of us is to learn to enjoy the journey and to let success seek its own path. There are many ways to ‘Get to YES’ and we should explore all in the best interest of the sport and the athletes we serve.”
Want more on college racing? Visit CollegeSnowSports.com for results and links, and a quick reference covering the differences between NCAA and USCSA competition. The site, which is run and updated by Tim Longenecker, a former NCSA (now USCSA) racer and USCSA Executive Director, has a fun and inviting tone that “reflects college racing’s more relaxed atmosphere where athletes can find their love for the sport again,” says Longenecker. “My hope is that parents and coaches of young racers see CSS News and become educated to the many options available for their children to continue their interest in ski racing, at whatever level it may be.”