In February, the United States Development team showed their country, and the world, what they are made of at the World Junior Championships in Val di Fassa, Italy. River Radamus led the charge for the men, winning two individual golds (one in giant slalom, the other in super-G) and contributing to a collaborative silver medal in the team event. In December, he scored his first World Cup points on the notorious Gran Risa in Alta Badia, Italy. Most recently, he competed in the giant slalom at World Finals. Given his success throughout the 2018/19 season, many fans of the United States team have started to label to him as the next big thing.
But Radamus isn’t the only up and coming talent in the U.S. men’s junior repertoire. At World Juniors, 18-year-old Benjamin Ritchie also contributed to the United State’s silver in the team event and he earned an individual silver of his own in the slalom. In the slalom discipline, the Americans had three guys in the top ten, more than any other nation. In the giant slalom, all six U.S. starters finished in the top 30. On the NorAm circuit, Kyle Negomir currently sits in second in the overall standings heading into the final speed series in Sugarloaf. Just last week, the 20-year-old won his first NorAm slalom at Burke Mountain. Both athletes also started World Cups for the first time this season. Negomir skied in the giant slalom at Beaver Creek, and Ritchie took on the slalom track in Wengen.
“It was a really cool opportunity because there are not a lot of guys ,really ever, who can say they started their first World Cup and got to sleep in their own bed. My mom drove me up and dropped me off at the race and that was pretty unique for sure,” says Negomir on his first World Cup start. “For me personally, being able to start Beaver Creek and kind of see where I’m at on the highest level was really helpful to me so I came into Lake Louise [NorAms] with some more confidence.”
World Cup starts don’t just come with speed and summer training. Negomir and Ritchie both have been competing on the NorAm circuit in order to build the skills to perform on the World Junior and World Cup levels. The circuit’s capacity to pit young racers against NCAA, Europa Cup, and World Cup veterans is part of the benefit for juniors because it simulates the level of competition and pressure that they will see as they rise through the ranks.
“I started [NorAms] pretty young. I’m one of the younger ones still competing in them. And it just kind of gives me the perspective of, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re starting bib 40 or competing against someone five years older than you,” says Ritchie. “On any given day you can come down and beat them. You just gotta give it your best shot and that’s all you can do.”
Ritchie was a contender for the second spot on the podium in the race for the NorAm slalom title this season and finished third in the standings, just short of claiming the World Cup spot behind American Luke Winters and Canadian Simon Fournier.
“These guys are all going for titles,” says Sasha Rearick, Head Men’s Development Coach for Alpine at U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “They’re trying to get the NorAm title and the first or second spot which guarantees them their first World Cup spot. Going through that process where you have to ski a little bit faster, handle the pressure and execute day in and day out on different hills, different snow, different depth is really a great stepping stone to the Europa Cup and the World Cup.”
“Obviously, it’s the highest level of competition there is in North America,” adds Negomir. “And we’ve proven it. You look at guys like Brian [McLaughlin] that came out of winning the GS title last year and then scoring World Cup points multiple times this year. River’s obviously doing well, you can tell that the top level of NorAm skiing is really high and it’s preparing guys well enough to start being successful in the World Cup.”
Ritchie and Negomir are just a few examples of the upcoming junior talent on the men’s side of the U.S. Ski Team. Rearick also points to Jimmy Krupka, Bridger Gile, Jett Seymour, and Jacob Dilling as a few other men to keep an eye on in coming seasons. Each and every one of these athletes has spent a majority of the season competing on the NorAm circuit, working tirelessly to continue to better their starting positions and eventually situate themselves to earn a designated World Cup spot.
What the men on the junior level have that other racers may lack, is a team dynamic that lifts and supports the goals and ambitions of each individual, a component to ski racing that often falls through the cracks as athlete’s start to compete on the world stage. Not only are they competing together on the world stage, but they are also training together in season and in the summer, and competing together across North America on the NorAm circuit.
“In all of my years that I’ve coached on the U.S. Ski Team, one of the most important things I’ve noticed is a tight group that is very cohesive,” says Rearick. “Professional cohesion is especially important to the group, to push each other, challenge each other, support each other in many different ways. And this group has come together in a great way.”
A large chunk of the current World Juniors team hails from the Avon/Vail area of Colorado, and have grown up training together. In the summer, the crew trains in Park City at the ski team’s Center of Excellence or on snow in various camps and have continued to build on those relationships throughout the season by hanging out and relaxing together off the hill. By constantly pushing their own limits they, in turn, push each other to be better than the day before. Both Negomir and Ritchie say that the team atmosphere makes the sport more fun. If one of the guys has a good race, they all have a good race.
“Any day that you can be excited for one of your teammates even though you didn’t have the best day kind of takes the focus off yourself and makes it a lot more fun,” says Negomir. “Then knowing that everyone has your back and will get excited for you when you ski well, I think that’s a really cool atmosphere to be a part of. Really from 97, 98, all the way down to first-year FIS guys, there’s fast groups of kids that the US team is bringing together right now for training camps and projects. I think we proved that pretty well at World Juniors this year – that our development team right now is in a pretty good place on the world scale.”
Granted, there are still steps that need to be taken in order for success to be fostered on the World Cup in the coming years. The media and fans of United State’s skiing have focused in particular on the lack of a slalom team on the World Cup stage in the 2018/19 season. As a slalom specialist, Ritchie aims to be apart of the movement that breathes positive conversation into a negative atmosphere surrounding U.S. men’s slalom. He thinks they’ve caught more flack than they deserve.
“I’m just trying to make the steps with this team I have here and try and bring us to the top because I think we have had some tough years in the past but I think we can make a name for our slalom team,” says Ritchie. “But I don’t think I have a chip on my shoulder as more of a U.S. slalom skier. There’s more than just the three guys that were in the top ten [at World Juniors], there’s a lot more skiers that are just as fast as all of us in slalom and I think with the proper steps and training we can all take it to the World Cup and do really well.”
A lot of guys on the junior level are still focused on building their foundation of technical skills in combination with physical fitness and mental strength. Rearick can see the potential and knows where each athlete lacks on an individual level. In the summer of 2019, he looks to hammer the guys in the gym and encourage the kind of athletic creativity necessary for each athlete to excel on a course and fight their way to reach faster speeds.
“What I wanna see is that these guys are able to perform at their highest level. The highest level that they are capable of. And there’s a lot of guys out there that if they continue to work day in and day out, nail the right steps at the right time, they can play the game at the world stage, at the big events,” says Rearick.
As the 2018/19 season comes to a close, with the last set of NorAm races happening in Sugarloaf March 19th & 20th, followed by U.S. Nationals in Waterville, there is more time for young athletes to rise and prove that they are capable of “closing the gap.” By continuing to use the NorAm circuit’s strengths, the men’s team can continue on the path of upward growth in the development of a versatile, young, and capable team.