For a snapshot of what was new and different in US Skiing this season, all you needed to do was look at the podium at the US Nationals Parallel event. All three spots were occupied by athletes representing independent teams. Garret Driller, Tucker Marshall and Alex Leever, representing Team America and Redneck Racing, bested the field after ten head-to-head runs, showing consistency and endurance. On slalom day, Driller was again on the podium, this time joined by Redneck Racing’s Sandy Vietze. In the men’s GS, Team America’s Brian McLaughlin claimed the silver. On the women’s side, current American college skiers Paula Moltzan and Patricia Mangan—both of whom pursued some level of World Cup skiing along with racing full time for their colleges—also appeared on the podium.
Independent athletes are those who don’t fit within the national team criteria age bands, either that or they choose to pursue college and ski racing at the same time. They are racing on their own terms, committing themselves to the dream with the help of supporters and programs that match their level of competition, regardless of national team status. Independent athletes are frothing up the domestic ecosystem by generating low penalties with their FIS points, while keeping the level of competition high with their skills and experience. As if that’s not enough community service, they’re also garnering World Cup start rights for their county and (in some cases) themselves.
Beyond the podium shots, independent athletes delivered exciting, gritty and memorable performances this season.
- UVM racer Paula Moltzan, after winning a one shot time trial in Colorado, earned a World Cup start in Killington, which led to a string of World Cup scores and a start in the 2019 World Championships. Along the way she spent quality time in the hot seat, moving up from her second runs, and firmly cementing her spot as our 2nd best SL skier. Most impressively, Moltzan did it all on her own, with coaching/tech/moral support from her boyfriend Ryan Mooney, and financial support from their families and the skiing community..
- Brian McLaughlin did not get the nod from the national team, but got cash love and teammate support from Team America. He leveraged his earned World Cup start into 18th place at the Beaver Creek World Cup. By the end of the year, his world rank earned him a World Cup start spot for his country, while his NorAm success earned him his own guaranteed World Cup GS spot.
- Sam Dupratt, skiing for Groundswell Athletics, returned to speed after spending two years racing tech at the University of Utah. He scored his first World Cup points at Kitzbuhel in the Super G, on what was described by veterans as the bumpiest track ever.
- Garret Driller and Alex Leever leveraged their trips to the Pro Tour into gold and bronze at the first ever US Alpine Championships parallel. In the SL Driller nabbed silver, Redneck Racing’s Sandy Vietze took bronze and Leever finished fourth.
- Robby Kelley, patron saint of independent racers and founder of Redneck Racing, though sidelined with a hip injury for much of the season, used his energy to start the first ever Redneck Slalom Showdown. The top racers—gathered for NCAA Nationals, Nor Ams and National Alpine Championships—took each other on in a single pole dual slalom. Team America’s Leever and Team Clif Bar’s Lila Lapanja won the men’s and women’s crowns respectively.
- Rob Cone brought the term weekend warrior into an entirely different realm, working his logistics job at Wayfair in Boston all week, then tuning up his skis in the furnace room of his apartment and hitting NorAm, Carnival and Pro races on the weekend. After flying in at 4 am from a work trip in Vegas, Cone traded his business suit for his race suit, rolled into Sunday River and won the final Pro race of the season, beating out Swiss B teamer and NCAA champ Tanguy Nef.
THE COMMON THREAD OF ENTHUSIASM
Independent athletes are showing that there are multiple paths toward the top in ski racing, which is a healthy, refreshing and optimistic message to the next generation of ski racers. Other than sharing an unquenchable love of the sport, all of these independent athletes share roots in the national team development system. Driller, Leever, McLaughlin and Vietze were all part of the (now abandoned) National University Team experiment. They advanced their rankings through college. Now they have graduated, are racing independently and they are fueling their own development and the domestic ecosystem. Along with their talent, they now have the physical and mental maturity to pursue the highest level of the sport. Driller, who entered Montana State University as a true freshman at age 18, and earned his engineering degree in 4 ½ years, says of he and Leever: “We’re content where we are in life. We’ve got an education and we’re still young.” Driller skis with a strength and consistency very different from what he had at age 18, and notes that full-time year-round training and racing with Team America has given him the added volume he needed to progress, but adds, “I would not be here now if I did not have the college years.”
WITH AGE COMES WISDOM… AND HOPEFULLY OPPORTUNITY
By World Cup standards, Driller—and all of his N-Uni Team cohort—are still very, very young. As one European coach recently pointed out regarding developing World Cup ready athletes: “You’re ‘old’ until you break through. And then, once you break through you are the youngest.” The US has a lot of “too old” young athletes. Tanner Farrow and Sam Dupratt saw opportunity among the next generation of speed skiers, many of whom are now racing in college. Earlier this season the pair talked about how long it takes to mature, especially in speed, on this podcast about complacency. Farrow and DuPratt spent four years racing speed on the Europa Cup, then left for two years to race college. When Groundswell Athletics afforded them the chance to return to the European tour, all the same names were, “still there, grinding away.” Rather than losing ground, the two felt they had gained ground, both by skiing tech events, and also by taking a hard look at their own goals and weaknesses. DuPratt nabbed a NorAm title and with it a World Cup start for next season.
Independent athletes like McLaughlin, Moltzan and DuPratt, with World Cup starts and World Cup credibility, who fall outside national team criteria for their respective age bands, historically have not receieved discretionary nods to the national team. Slalom athletes who master the domestic circuit no longer have a World Cup team to help pull them to the next level. That is a tremendous shame, because these athletes, in whom our development system has heavily invested along their way, represent the best of our maturing talent pool.
LET’S LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN AND THE LIGHT ON
How do we leverage all our country’s talent and enthusiasm, no matter the provenance? There are lots of ideas, requiring varying levels of cooperation and financial support, but one NCAA coach put it very simply: “The main thing we need is to be acknowledged and encouraged.” In the meantime, colleges are funding four years of their athletes’ development, private teams are supporting programs for compatible athletes, the Pro Tour is expanding, and kids are seeing fun opportunities to develop along the path that most suits their needs.
The poster boy for pursuing ski racing independently, for the pure love of the sport, is Rob Cone. Cone went straight to Middlebury College as a true freshman, racing for them on the NCAA circuit. He then raced two years for the US Ski Team, and went back to finish his Econ degree at Middlebury. Now, in his athletic prime at age 27, Cone strives to find a balance of pursuing his career and his passions, building what he has learned from all his teams into a unique program that works for him. “I’m really trying to tell people that you don’t need to take a bunch of PG years,” says Cone, who thrives on a seasonal balance of sports, to prevent burnout. “You don’t have to stress if you don’t ski for a month, or more. I’ve realized we don’t forget how to turn. If you can stay healthy and be fit and work on the mental side, you can perform the way you know you can.” Cone’s advice to ski racers who want to keep at it: “Find your own balance. I want more of my friends to do it, and more people to expect that they can make this sport last longer, because they can.”