A couple of years ago, I was sitting on my couch taking a break from homework and scrolling through Facebook, when an article published by Ski Racing caught my eye. The article spoke about how FIS was aiming to engage younger fans and viewers in the coming years. For anyone with any form of interest in the sport, this topic should be of some concern. Ski racing, as we all know, has been in the shadow of “big money” sports in the United States like football, basketball, and baseball for decades. Needless to say, I was very interested in what kind of scheme our friends at FIS had in mind.
I opened up the article, anticipating some solid ideas from FIS for the future of alpine racing. New start order format? Okay. Live data? Cool. More spectacular courses? Now you really have my attention! And then I read this:
“More speed wouldn’t be a safe solution, so we work with the terrain and build more rolls and jumps that force the racer to come out of his position and fight to stay on the right line,” said FIS men’s race director Markus Waldner. “Many discussions have been started regarding the number of disciplines. Some of our disciplines developed in a way that is no longer very attractive for normal TV viewers, but only for hard-core ski fans who know the technical details. So, to activate and involve a wider audience, we need to have an easy and understandable product. The parallel races are a good example, as the head-to-head format is very exciting and very easy to understand.”
That sounds exactly like skicross. You know, that thing where four people race down a course filled with turns, bumps, and jumps at the same time, and probably one of the most viewer-friendly disciplines of skiing?
Skicross has plenty of benefits from both a popularity standpoint with a growing international fanbase and a coaching standpoint that can even help diehard alpine racers hone their skills.
Skicross is the only FIS-sanctioned racing discipline categorized under freestyle, and has been that way since FIS began hosting skicross World Cup events in 2004. Yet, in ski cross, athletes don giant slalom skis and clothing that resembles a two-piece slalom suit that is a few sizes too big. Canada, who has been able to develop one of the most dominant skicross programs in the world, realizes the sport’s potential and categorizes their skicross program under the Alpine Canada umbrella alongside their alpine racing teams.
Skicross has established itself as a popular discipline with televised North American events such as Jeep King of the Mountain/48 straight, the Winter X Games, Freeski Grand Prix events, and since Vancouver 2010, the Winter Olympics. Even fringe competitions like Lord of the Boards, the Rahlves Banzai Tour, and, if I must mention it, the Chinese downhill scene from the legendary ski flick Hot Dog… The Movie all have elements of skicross and have helped to add a little more spice to the ski racing world.
Think about it: you have an event that combines elements from all four alpine racing disciplines. Its head-to-head format can easily be turned into a team event or relay like the Red Bull Kronplatz Cross, can be held day or night, and can be a huge thrill to both new young fans and the typical 45-year-old demographic that FIS is so eager to tap into. It’s motocross on skis! So why is FIS just now trying to implement “something new” on the alpine side when it has been right in front of them for over a decade? Why have they overlooked the one discipline that throws such a broad spectrum of skills into one event?
Skicross is a unique tool for teaching and applying fundamentals involving general stance and balance, pressure, edging, rotary skills, and coordination, as well as more advanced elements like air awareness and terrain negotiation. Skicross is also great for endurance, flexibility, agility, and full body strength, with added benefits of increasing mental alertness and situational awareness.
Bank turns require heightened fore-aft and rotational balance, angulation, as well as other components like the strength to handle g-forces not commonly found in alpine racing. Rollers require increased ankle flexion, upper body stability, fore-aft pressure, and flexibility in order to maintain ski contact on the snow and generate speed with efficiency. I’ve already seen Instagram videos of one of the world’s best alpine racers, Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather, integrating elements of skicross into her training by running pump tracks both on rollerblades and on snow.
I have acquired a fair amount of knowledge in the sport of skiing in my 29 years, especially in my 23 years in the alpine racing and skicross scenes as an athlete and coach. One thing I have learned is that skicross and its athletes have a reputation; it’s reckless, it’s too dangerous, they’re just burned out alpine racers, they’re nothing but a bunch of hooligans on skis. You name it, I’ve heard it.
Although these conservative stigmas helped refine my coaching philosophy, I have still struggled through years of nothing but an uphill battle to try and integrate skicross with alpine locally at the team level. I’ve fought through countless dissenters and feigned interest, but I’ve been blessed with a handful of families that see the benefits that I have so persistently tried to explain to parents and other coaches.
I’m not saying skicross will make miracles happen, but if U.S. Ski & Snowboard wants to bring some meaning back to their maxim of “Best in the World,” skicross is a creative way to benefit an alpine racer’s training and racing schedule.
Skicross isn’t just an added training benefit to alpine racing, but it also creates an alternate path for a career in ski racing. Lately, there has been concerns about the accessibility of ski racing for athletes at all levels and ski cross can also be a method of keeping athletes on snow. Kevin Drury of Canada went from a successful NCAA career at the University of Vermont to one of the top skicross racers in the world in just a few years. Drury’s compatriots Brady Leman and Georgia Simmerling were both on Canada’s alpine team before deciding to switch to skicross. Leman was even the Olympic skicross gold medalist at Pyeongchang 2018.
Skicross can be a valuable asset to the sport of ski racing. From pleasing viewers to promoting athlete development, skicross is an obvious catalyst for the progression of the sport of skiing as a whole. No matter what position in this world you are in, race organizers, coaches, TV networks, we all want what is best for the sport. As a coach, we want our athletes to get the most out of their experience with skiing. We’re here to help our athletes do many things like push the envelope, get them out of their comfort zone, and teach them how to be hard-working human beings both on and off snow, but mostly, to develop an everlasting passion for this sport and to have fun. There may be more to it, but I do know that the ski racing world needs change, and I think that change has been right under our noses all along.
RADFORD BIRMINGHAM, Head Skicross Coach for the Diamond Peak Ski Team in Incline Village, Nevada.
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