This week marks the start of the NCAA Ski Championships at Lake Placid, with Whiteface Mountain showcasing the best of college racing for the first time in 32 years.
There’s another piece of history happening here too, however: the shift toward higher education helping athletes land on the World Cup tour.
Sure, the NCAA circuit has always been considered in the upper echelon of skiing, but traditionally, the team mentality came first and foremost. Now, athletes are finding that they can ski for their college teams and as individuals on the international level.
“A lot of the guys are racing World Cup and college, and it’s just cool to see as a college skier where you stack up against a guy who’s just been 20th in Schladming,” says 2011 NCAA slalom champion Tim Kelley.
This crossover has led to a number of athletes achieving success on the World Cup tour, both after finishing college and while competing stateside. Never was the high level of college skiing more apparent than at the recent Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships, where an impressive six athletes with individual NCAA titles were competing for various countries.
Leif Kristian Haugen (University of Denver), David Chodounsky (Dartmouth College), Tim Kelley (University of Vermont), Espen Lysdahl (DU), Jonathan Nordbotten (UVM), and Joonas Rasanen (University of New Mexico) all raced in either the giant slalom or slalom at World Championships. An additional seven athletes who are current college ski racers were named to the World Championship teams for their respective nations.
For many years, the college ranks were more of a fallback for athletes who were cut from their national teams or who were just missing qualification. NCAA was seen as a last hurrah for people who had dedicated their lives to the sport, but never quite reached the top level. But in the early to mid 2000s, that began to change, partly because of the age restriction that was changed to no longer allow athletes to compete past the age of 25. (Somehow teams still find ways to work around this rule.)
Jimmy Cochran, Paul McDonald, Roger Brown and Chodounsky all competed together on the Eastern college circuit and all qualified for the U.S. Ski Team by improving their point profiles competing on the NCAA circuit. Haugen, on the Western circuit, was not far behind.
Cochran went on to spend nine years on the U.S. Ski Team, competing in two Olympics and three World Championships. Chodounsky is currently a member of the U.S. Ski Team and has been thriving in his post-college years, finishing 21st and 19th in the World Cup slalom standings in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and racing in the 2011, 2013 and 2015 World Championships as well at the 2014 Olympics.
“Looking back, I couldn’t have planned it better myself; I’m so happy it worked out the way it did,” says Chodounsky. “I wouldn’t change anything, I think it was perfect. Some of my best times skiing, when I had my most fun, was during my college years so I couldn’t ask for a better turnout for my career.”
Now looking to follow that trend are several others, particularly Norwegian and Canadian skiers. DU alone had three current student/athletes in addition to Lysdahl competing in Vail/Beaver Creek: Trevor Philp, Erik Read and Sebastian Brigovic. Lysdahl, Philp and Read have all scored World Cup points this season, and Brigovic has won three races for DU this season alone. That makes it difficult to leave one off the roster this week at Whiteface.
Unlike other schools that run on semesters, DU follows a quarterly selection, and, of course, sits right next to the Rockies. That’s produced a large number of skiers who’ve been able to make the transition between college and World Cup. Haugen attended DU as a freshman in 2009, and after competing for Norway in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, returned to school and won the NCAA GS title, helping lead DU to its third consecutive team title. Haugen’s successful World Cup career has seen him land on three World Championship teams and two Olympic teams; last season, he finished a career-high 10th in the World Cup GS standings.
“DU — and all the NCAA schools — have a great sports program; they really support you and allow you to do school and also combine that with sports,” says Haugen. “You have access to great training facilities, you have good coaches, and you have first-class skiing.” He cites a 45-minute drive to top training at Loveland as among the draws of DU.
Meanwhile, a shortage of funding for spots on national teams for development and junior athletes — even those with very low point profiles — has led to an influx of high-level college skiers. That creates a very competitive team environment that has brought out the best in several athletes.
“When I started college there was not really a program for me in Norway,” says Nordbotten, adding that meeting Tim Kelley and other teammates at UVM pushed him to be a better skier. “It’s really healthy because not everyone can be like Henrik [Kristoffersen] or [Marcel] Hirscher and win World Cups when they are 19 or 20. College definitely helped me and it brought the enjoyment of ski racing back to life again. I feel like I got to develop myself as a skier.”
Nordbotten skied all four years at UVM; won an individual and team title for UVM; won numerous NorAms; and upon graduating last spring was given an opportunity to race for the Norwegian alpine team. He has scored World Cup points in each of the last three seasons, and this season, sits 33rd in the slalom standings. Two of Nordbotten’s teammates from UVM have also found success after college racing. Robby Kelley, Tim’s younger brother, raced World Cups for the better part of 2013 and 2014, scoring World Cup points in both seasons and competing in the 2013 Schladming World Championships. In addition to racing at the 2015 World Championships, Tim currently leads the NorAm slalom standings.
“In college, there are so many good guys; we had guys scoring World Cup points, and so you couldn’t just slide down and try to get points for your team,” says Tim of UVM’s success. “Racing for UVM, just to race on the carnival team there you had to be a really fast skier, let alone do well in the races.”
So what does all this mean in the long run for the current college athletes now competing at Whiteface? Well for one, winning and racing on the college circuit now has a proven track record of later World Cup success, and it gives athletes a pretty good idea of where their skiing stands in the big picture.
But it also serves as a source of motivation. All six of the NCAA champions competing in Vail/Beaver Creek took vastly different paths to start their college careers. Some were cut from their national teams, others needed the change to find maturity in their skiing, and some just were not good enough at the time to compete at a higher level. But in the end they all left the same starting gate during a two-day period in Beaver Creek in one of the biggest events in alpine skiing with one big thing in common — college skiing helped get them there.
“I think the national teams have to open their eyes and take more advantage of the college system because they have a program for people four years ahead,” says Nordbotten. “And if you develop yourself as a skier and you have good FIS points from NorAms, you can get a degree and be 24 and go and race World Cup races. So I think that it’s very important for the national teams to start to take college racing seriously.”
NCAA Champions in Vail/Beaver Creek
David Chodounsky, USA, Dartmouth College, 2005 NCAA slalom champion
Leif Kristian Haugen, NOR, DU, 2010 NCAA GS champion
Tim Kelley, USA, UVM, 2011 NCAA slalom champion
Espen Lysdahl, NOR, DU, 2012, 2014 NCAA slalom champion
Jonathan Nordbotten, NOR, UVM, 2013 NCAA GS champion
Joonas Rasanen, FIN, University of New Mexico, 2013 NCAA slalom champion