Last year, I discovered the joy of being a carnie, as a parent on EISA college carnival circuit. The circuit starts up for the season this weekend at Waterville Valley, when Harvard hosts the first of six carnivals — each hosted by a different school — over seven weekends. All have their own flavor, but share the same basic ingredients, featuring, among many things, great shows of athleticism, competition, personality, teamwork and pot-lucking. They are first class entertainment for all that make even the bleak depths of January bright.
College racing feels like payback for all those years of slogging it out in this physically, emotionally and financially challenging sport. A large part of that payback is feeling the torture of an entirely individual focus shift to a much more humane and satisfy team dynamic. Rather than single gender races, men and women race together, bringing each others’ coats down, slipping the course and cheering for every teammate; good days are more fun to celebrate and bad days are more easily shrugged off in good company; in short, athletes learn to see beyond themselves, which invites a broader perspective that extends well beyond the slopes.
This is not to say that there is no pressure in college skiing. On the contrary, even racers who have gone on to World Cup and Olympic competition recall the enormity of the pressure when they stood in the starting gate at the NCAA championships, knowing that the team’s fortunes depended on their performance. On some teams, athletes must qualify for a carnival spot each week. Even considering that, college racing affords ski racers a welcome unwinding. After having to qualify for some special event every year since being a U-14, here are four years to just train and race and get better. It’s not surprising that many college athletes start relaxing, enjoying the process and performing to a potential they would never otherwise have discovered.
That’s the athletic case for college racing. From a purely parental perspective, getting to spend time with these fully grown humans who you have watched from the time they were mere grommets, and seeing them morph into the adults we’d hoped they’d become through the trials of this sport, is immensely fun. After all those years of seeing them navigate results-induced moods and contrived pecking orders, or zip off to the terrain park rather than get stuck with a grown up, you get to have adult conversations, while also seeing them settle in and mature into themselves. For sure, most use the four years to transition out of sport by the time they graduate, but some use the college years to solidify technique while building strength, consistency and mental skills, and emerge from college ready to rumble athletically at a higher level.
To that point, every year a few more racers emerge on the World Cup from the college ranks. Last year, I put together a White Paper on collegiate racing which now resides on the USSS site. It’s a lot of info to wade through, about how college skiing works, as well as numbers of teams and roster spots throughout the country, but the takeaway isn’t complicated: NCAA and USCSA racing keeps more kids ski racing longer. That’s all upside for the sport. Among other things, the paper highlights how a few outliers turned into a smattering, and then into a small but steady flow of athletes who used college skiing as a path to the World Cup and even to Olympic medals.
This year, that trend has continued with both men and women college racers. So far this season, five men and six women—all current or former NCAA racers, representing five different schools—have scored World Cup points, and several more have earned individual World Cup starts. Men like Erik Read and Tanguy Nef are scoring regularly and Leif Kristian Nestvold-Haugen landed on the podium. Women college skiers are a few steps behind, but are now becoming regulars on the tour. Beyond the World Cup, Middlebury and USST athlete Rob Cone just won the first two races on the World Pro Ski Tour (check out race 3 this weekend), which is populated by former college athletes from the east and west.
There is nothing easy about pursuing the elite skiing path while also racing for college, and for many athletes the effort it takes to balance school and skiing year-round is not an ideal or viable way to develop their skiing. But who cares? It’s a path, and it’s a darned fun one that is far more fulfilling and financially doable than taking multiple gap years. That’s reason enough to be a raving fan of college racing, but wait…there’s more. Every carnival oozes the essence of what skiing used to be all about. It celebrates the art of figuring things out creatively, with friends. It’s about getting it done with what you’ve got vs seeking the perfectly groomed path. It’s about being the most phenomenal you rather than the next phenom. It’s about seeing the bigger picture, balancing responsibility, prioritizing what matters, bolstering teammates and appreciating great efforts from those around you. These things are all too often lost in the arms race of developing faster.
College racing gives me hope, but more importantly, it gives aspiring young skiers hope, and entices them to keep racing. This is a choice they make well before filling out college applications, or graduating from high school, or deciding to take a gap year. It happens when kids are looking to make the expensive and time-intensive jump to U-16s or to FIS racing. It happens when they’re deciding to train all summer or to spend the summer like a regular kid. It happens when they look at other sports and choose one they can do with intensity and purpose for as long as possible.
Keeping more kids involved in college racing serves a greater purpose in the sport than just developing individual skiers. To see this, just look at the start list of a high-level FIS race in this country, and take out the college skiers. You won’t have much of a race left. Even if these college athletes aren’t going to “make it” and compete beyond college, the ecosystem they support creates opportunity for younger racers. Giving kids hope, by reminding them that they’re not done at age 18 or 20 or 22, keeps the ecosystem alive. Rather than deflating them with Doomsday Data about why they missed the boat, we could fill them up with encouragement to race their hearts out as long as they can, and see what happens.
And now the dream sequence:
What if there were more college teams, especially in the west, where so many have disappeared? What if Wyoming, New Mexico and UNR all revived their NCAA ski teams, along with smaller schools like Western State, Boise State, Colorado College, Colorado Mines, Colorado State, Utah State and Whitman College? What if schools in Oregon and Washington, with easy access to big population bases and big mountains fielded teams? What if there were enough college teams to support a Pacific, Intermountain and Rocky Mountain circuit? These would still not be as geographically dense as the EISA, but the travel would be doable from a time and expense perspective. What if today’s 323 NCAA roster spots (72 percent of which are now in the east) doubled or even tripled, so there were enough spots for developing Americans as well as the Europeans who keep the circuit competitive? What if kids at 14 and 16 saw a future for themselves in the sport they love that didn’t come to a hard stop at age 18, but could take them to age 22 and beyond? What if that future had the blessings of society and their parents, because it encompassed their development athletically, socially, emotionally and professionally?
That’s a lot of dreaming, but it doesn’t seem impossible, especially not in this country, where we have so far cornered the market on competitive collegiate ski racing. For now, I’m just psyched carnival season is here. It’s time to pack the coolers, find a big table in the lodge and watch it fill up with bright-eyed interesting, fun-loving kids ready to send it on the slopes and have a blast.
Can’t get there? Stalk the action at http://eisa.bullitttiming.com by choosing the appropriate carnival, or catch the live stream of Friday’s race on ESPN for $4.95/ month.