An earlier version of this article appeared on Morgan’s blog Racer eX.
Over the summer I had the privilege of talking to some of the smartest cookies on the World Cup: college racers who managed to find World Cup success by continuing their development through the collegiate racing system. All of the athletes with whom I spoke raced on the U.S. collegiate tour and then joined or rejoined their national teams on the World Cup.
While there is much debate and frustration about the high proportion of non-U.S. skiers in the collegiate ranks (from 2000-2016, American participation in NCAA Championship Alpine Skiing was down 41 percent, while foreign participation was up 200 percent) the talent and energy of foreign skiers has greatly enriched the domestic ecosystem. The successes of collegiate racers not only proves that NorAm and NCAA racing is robust enough to prepare skiers for World Cup competition but also offers guideposts and a roadmap for how to make it work. From balancing the demands of concurrent academic and athletic pursuits to negotiating with national federations, arranging sufficient offseason training, and transitioning from the NCAA to the World Cup, the experiences of these athletes offers insight on how to make the most of collegiate ski racing, a precious and uniquely American resource. We would be wise to take notes!
The following athletes generously contributed to this piece:
- David Chodounsky USA: Dartmouth ‘o8 double major in engineering and geology, 2014 Olympian, 4 World Championship teams 2011-2017.
- Jonathan Nordbotten NOR: University of Vermont ’14 community entrepreneurship degree; 2015 and 2017 World Championship teams.
- Uros Pavlovcic SLO: Sierra Nevada College ’99 environmental science and ecology degree; 2001 World Championship team, 2002 Olympian, current FIS coach at Buck Hill and founder of UP Ski Racing.
- Trevor Philp CAN: University of Denver ’15 finance degree, 2014 Olympian, 3 World Championship teams 2013-2017, silver medal 2015 World Championships Team Event
- Erik Read CAN: University of Denver ’18 business major; 2015, 2017 World Championship teams, silver medal 2015 World Championships Team Event
- Kristina Riis-Johannessen NOR: University of Vermont ’15 finance and marketing degree; 2017 World Championship team, overall European Cup winner 2016-17.
Also weighing in:
- Urban Planinsek SLO: Sierra Nevada College ’94 business administration degree. Planinsek raced on the USCSA circuit for Sierra Nevada College. He has coached the Canadian, Slovenian, and Russian national teams and coached at every Olympics and World Championships since 2001. He is currently alpine director of the Russian National Ski Federation.
10 WAYS COLLEGE SKIING BUILDS GREAT SKI RACERS
1. The Power of Team
“There was a great team atmosphere. For me that was very important,” says Uros Pavlovcic. The Slovenian came to Sierra Nevada College (SNC) after being demoted to the Slovenian B-2 team, which he describes as, “A nice way of saying goodbye.” At SNC he found a coach who boosted his confidence and a supportive group of teammates who trained hard because they wanted to, not because they had to. “I sometimes joke it was ‘four years of vacation’ because it was so much fun.” The spring that Pavlovcic graduated, the head Slovenian coach looked at his world rankings and invited him back. He agreed to give it a try and raced his way to the World Championships, the Olympics, and a World Cup podium.
Every athlete interviewed echoes the positive impact of feeling part of a supportive team, sometimes for the first time. That includes cheering for each other, carrying each other’s jackets, and also being able to keep individual performances from defining the entire experience. Being part of a bigger effort than your own improves both the bad days and the good days. “My most important lesson was how much you can support each other and build each other up,” says Kristina Riis-Johannessen, who now feels that same sense of togetherness on the Norwegian World Cup team. She and Team Norway’s Kristine Haugen (University of Denver ’15) are redefining their country’s perception towards female collegiate racers, and showing how mature athletes can benefit and balance a national team.
2. Scarcity Value
A major challenge of collegiate racing – not enough offseason training to keep developing and stay competitive – can be turned in to an advantage. Because NCAA rules limit the amount of offseason training you can do with your team, athletes need to actively seek their own ways to supplement their training early season and in the offseason. In his freshman year at Denver (the only year in college he was not a member of the Canadian Alpine Team), Trevor Philp, who had been accustomed to the structure of the Canadian Prospect Team (similar to the U.S. development team) found himself borrowing teammates’ cars to get to Loveland in October and connecting with other teams that would let him train. “I had no one. The biggest thing I learned that year was how much desire and incentive it took to get the training I needed,” says Philp. “As an athlete it was good to find that passion you need to have if you want to succeed.” Riis-Johannessen had a similar revelation when she came to the University of Vermont (UVM), after a few years of bouncing on and off the Norwegian junior team. “I had lost some of the joy and the spark,” she recalls. That fall, however, not being able to ski from August to Thanksgiving made her appreciate skiing more. She and her teammates carpooled to Killington for early snow and learned how to race early NorAms with minimal training. “It’s stressful but you figure it out your own way,” says Riis-Johannessen who, two years after graduation and heading into an Olympic year, still gets excited to get on snow.
The value of four collegiate years spent building strength, size, endurance, technical, and tactical skills cannot be overstated. “It’s hard to break in when average age of the first seed for men is 28-30,” says Urban Planinsek. “Unless you are a special case, you have no chance at age 21. Why not go to school?” he suggests. The emotional and social maturity that develops in college is similarly precious. During college, Pavlovcic spent much of his summer coaching camps at Mt. Hood. “Through the process of coaching I matured a lot as an athlete,” he explains. When he returned to his national team, he not only understood himself better but also had the assertiveness to articulate and advocate for his training and equipment needs. Later, on the Slovenian team, Planinsek became Pavlovcic’s coach, and remembers learning from him. “He was much more mature than everyone else, and he got that at SNC,” says Planinsek. Managing athletic and academic schedules, forging relationships with professors, and finding supplemental training are absolutely necessary for success in college racing. Even for the NCAA Championships, professors are encouraged but not required to accommodate absences. “You have to take control of your own program and seek your own development,” explains Jonathan Nordbotten, who added national team obligations to his mix. “It took a lot of tough choices.”
4. A Four-Year Horizon
For the athletes who come to college racing after batting around on their national junior teams, the four-year horizon guaranteed by college racing provides valuable security. “When you are on the national team, it is year-to-year,” explains Nordbotten. “In college, you can start as a not very developed 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old and develop as an athlete and a person. That’s what makes it a good opportunity.” David Chodounsky concurs on the benefits of job security, though he was not on the U.S. Ski Team’s radar before entering Dartmouth. “For me it was all upside going to college. I may not have gotten here otherwise, and I definitely would not have had the fun.” He didn’t experience qualification uncertainty until after graduation in 2008, when he bounced on and off the team, always chasing criteria. It was not until the fall of 2010, when he scored two early-season results guaranteeing him a spot for that season and the next one that he gained the breathing room and time he needed. “That’s when I got more confidence.”
5. Positive Training Environment
The close proximity to training and racing venues at Eastern schools, the length of the skiable season at Western schools, and the level of peer competition within all of the teams can make training in college extremely productive. “From January through the season, you ski and train a lot without a lot of travel,” says Nordbotten of his time at UVM, where the midseason schedule featured four good days of training, two days of racing, and one day off. Such consistency, amidst the grind of the competition season, is a luxury. Western schools spend more days traveling to competitions, but on the flip side they have the clear advantage of proximity to early- and late-season snow. For Erik Read, a full-time Denver (DU) student and full-time member of Canada’s World Cup team, that plays well into his preparation. “By the first World Cup we’ve been on snow over a month and are ahead of other teams,” he explains. High-level peers can turn college teams into their own development engine. When Chodounsky was accepted at Dartmouth he was barely recruitment material. “The team was stacked,” he recalls. Even after a post-graduate (PG) year, Chodounsky was not at their level. “Skiing with those guys picked up my pace, and it all started to click.” He qualified for the first carnival and ended up winning the NCAA slalom title as a freshman.
6. Communication and Collaboration
Successful college and national team coaches play a critical and often unseen role, fostering the health and integrity of their teams without diminishing the goals of the individual. Relinquishing control of a top athlete is a test of faith. “If I had to miss early races for World Cups, that was OK as long as I was ready to help at NCAAs,” explains Nordbotten, who actively advocated on both sides of the pond for his earned World Cup opportunities. National federations that work with athletes through college need to take a unique approach with them. When Philp left the Canadian team for DU he made sure his Canadian team coach knew he was still interested in ski racing. “I did not expect any cooperation, but he let me join them at NorAms when I was on my own,” recalls Philp. Later that year, the same coach invited Philp to his first World Cup. By the end of the year, Philp had outpaced his national team peers and was invited to join the Canadian World Cup Team. Both Nordbotten and Philp moderated the negotiations and conversations necessary to compete for their colleges and their countries all four years.
7. Technical Mastery
There is no crying in baseball, and there is no speed skiing in college. While that can seem like a disadvantage to speed skiers, you rarely hear anyone argue that four years of skiing tech will hurt an athlete’s speed skiing long term. More people point to the downhill stars who were successful tech skiers as juniors. Last season, in her second year back on the national team (and her first back from injury), slalom ace Riis-Johannessen didn’t expect to venture beyond technical events. “I hadn’t skied speed in five years, and wasn’t expecting to race it.” She started 58th (fourth from last) in a European Cup downhill in Davos, Switzerland, won the race, and went on to win the overall Europa Cup title. “Maybe last year I was just ready, and maybe I was not before,” she reasons.
8. Made in the USA
Conventional ski racing wisdom doggedly advocates the European Cup Battle Plan, whereby the only route to World Cup worthiness is through the (literal) trenches of the Europa Cup. The NorAm/NCAA circuit – with familiar venues, better hill prep, more recognized sets and lightly-stacked fields – offers a civilized path around it. While all agree you need to taste the grit in the gladiator-like competition of the Europa Cup, they also point to the circuit’s often spirit-crushing futility. Planinsek says it best: “Too many years on the Europa Cup, and you are stuck there for life. It’s like WWI fighting your way out.” It is especially difficult to dabble on the European Cup, where top-30 starts are based on Europa Cup standings. “You can start further back in a Europa Cup than in a World Cup,” says Philp, adding that, “NorAms on home soil are more friendly.” Nordbotten, who had 40-plus frustrating starts on the European Cup before starting college, won the NorAm slalom title his freshman year. The next year he scored points in his second ever World Cup. “All I thought was, ‘It’s not that hard! I just have to ski normal,’” remembers Nordbotten. “If you come in with good self-esteem, then it’s easy. If you start way back, you get crushed.” Pavlovcic, Read, and Chodounsky concur with the “strike while you’re hot and go directly to the World Cup” strategy. If you are having success at NorAms, and your confidence is high, it’s better to take a shot at the World Cup than to grind it out on the Europa Cup.
9. Perspective and Peace of Mind
Managing academics and athletics requires efficient use of time and prioritization. There are benefits to having the broader perspective that comes with switching back and forth between intensive academics and athletics. “They complement each other,” says Read. “I always skied well in December after grinding out the last few weeks at school.” Having something else to focus on takes the pressure off both pursuits, and having a college degree in your pocket may be the best mental edge of all. “So many athletes close to retirement don’t know what they’re going to do,” says Read. “They’ve spent lots of time not engaging their brain like you do in school. I don’t think that’s healthy.” Chodounsky concurs: “Having a degree is a huge load off your shoulders. There is a big question mark about what to do after skiing. Without a college degree that question mark is even bigger.” Riis-Johannessen agrees: “I don’t have the stress of what am I going to do. I could get a decent job right now,” she says.
10. Mentors Who Matter
When a 17-year-old Trevor Philp foreran the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he remembers seeing Leif Haugen who was racing for Norway while studying at DU. “I thought that was the coolest thing.” Since Philp followed Haugen’s example, several Canadians – men and women alike – have successfully navigated both worlds. “Trevor was an inspiration,” says Read, who is one year older than Philp and from the same club. “He proved to the national team that this was possible, so I had their support to start DU.” Following Haugen from Norway were athletes like Espen Lysdahl, Nordbotton, Riis-Johannessen, and Leif’s own sister Kristine. Chodounsky was inspired by Paul McDonald, Jimmy Cochran, Roger Brown, Evan Weiss, Patrick Biggs and others near him who forged dual national team/college paths. Has Chodounsky’s success had an effect in this country? “I hope so!” he says. “When kids ask me about college, I absolutely tell them going to college is not a bad thing. You can develop, and when you graduate you are stronger and more mature mentally. Look at every other sport. You go to college and then transition to the pros.”
Finally, A Bit of Advice
As for when to start college, Philp and Nordbotten are big proponents of diving right in as soon as possible. Nordbotten, who started school at 21 wishes he’d gone at 19. “I like the idea of going earlier,” Philp concurs. “Those are the big development years. If you can spend them growing as a person, and an athlete, and can do NorAms and NCAA it is ideal.” Read, a 4.0 business finance student, is more circumspect and realistic about the enormity of balancing full-time college and elite athletics. His father, downhill racing legend Ken Read, chipped away at college throughout his career, and Erik did the same thing at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University before attending DU full time. “It totally depends on the person,” says Read. “College is a great avenue, but it is not for everyone. If it is a priority, you can go that route. We’ve proven it’s viable.”