Growing up in rural Upstate New York, I fondly remember my red K2 XR 10 skis from when I was around nine years old. I lived on those skis, bombing all over the mountain with my family, going over jumps, bouncing through moguls, tucking the green trails and even entering our Sunday club races. The vast majority of children today still ski at mountains on just one pair of skis.
One of the best ways to promote ski racing is to ensure we keep the sport accessible to as many children as possible. A wide range of youth sports in the U.S., including ski racing, golf, sailing, and hockey, have become expensive to the extent of manufacturing exclusivity, and it’s often a challenge for parents and their young athletes to keep up financially. But some of our most successful U.S. Ski Team racers, including Bode Miller, came from fairly modest economic backgrounds. As coaches, officials, and various development committees, do we have a responsibility to keep alpine ski racing in the U.S. at least reasonably affordable?
When I started coaching J4/J5 athletes (now classified as U10-U14s) in the late 1980s, we had a “One Pair Rule” to help keep the cost of the sport in check for aspiring racers. The rule required that racers compete in all events on a single pair of race skis each season, either using the honor system or in some regions by placing a sticker on the selected skis to enforce compliance. As a coach, I thought it was a great rule because I never had to worry about these young racers showing up to training with the wrong pair of skis and we also could very easily vary the course sets. As a parent, I particularly appreciated the rule as it afforded my own children the opportunity to race.
With the introduction of shaped skis, some coaches thought the One Pair Rule was no longer applicable. At the time, J4/J5 race courses were often set with similar vertical distance and turn shape to those for older athletes. Today, U10/U12 courses are set more appropriately for the age group. USSA equipment rules do not extend down to the U12 or U10 levels, but rather begin with the U14 age class. However, USSA does recommend that young athletes limit skis based on recommendations in the Alpine Training System and Course Setting Matrix which indicate two pairs (slalom, GS) for U12s and a single multi-event ski for U10s.
Many regions now offer U10/U12 Kombi courses, paneled slaloms, and 22-meter maximum distances for GS. The Kombi event exemplifies why it makes sense to reexamine the One Pair Rule at this time, and even ski companies stand to gain because they would eventually sell more race skis if participation increases at the point of entry.
The U.S. Ski Team currently has budgetary shortfalls with lack of funding for athletes below the A-Team level and with fewer resources for regional development programs. Some national team members spend the offseason soliciting donors and selling calendars just to pay the bills. Unlike alpine nations that receive governmental support, USSA generates nearly all of its revenue from sponsorships, memberships, competition fees, and donations. As a result, USSA needs increasing participation levels to fund the national team and regional development programs to a greater degree. According to a 2015 SIA survey, the United States has approximately 9.3 million active alpine skiers, but less than a fraction of one percent participate in USSA programs. If we could raise that number above one percent, USSA and the U.S. Ski Team would increase funding for all of their programs. We don’t need more equipment, we need more athletes!
A One Pair Rule could help relieve some of the financial anxiety for parents, especially those who live in rural areas near ski resorts. As coaches, our primary focus with U10/U12 athletes is to teach the basic fundamentals of both skiing and alpine racing. We don’t need multiple pairs of race skis to teach stance, ankle flexion, balance, pole planting, or even speed elements. If you examine a pair of junior slalom or GS skis designed for this age group, there is a fairly small difference in sidecut and length. Let’s cut the difference and go with one pair. Other expensive youth sports like golf and sailing have similar rules to help keep costs down which include limiting the number of clubs in a bag and one-design sailboats.
While we may not be able to eliminate all of the financial burdens for parents, I believe we have a responsibility to make alpine ski racing more affordable where we can. Skiing is a wonderful family sport, and knocking down some of the barriers to entry could help improve our participation across the board. A USSA-wide One Pair Rule for our children’s programs is a step in the right direction to reach the ultimate goal of being “Best in the World”.