As the White Circus moves its tents across the pond, we have a moment to reflect on the past couple of weeks of World Cup action in North America. I had the privilege of being in Killington and Beaver Creek, both of which were phenomenally run events that set a high bar for the rest of the season. Let’s briefly review:
Most recently, the Beav pulled out all the stops to build the entire Birds of Prey course—top to bottom, B net and surface prep—not once but three times over the course of the week, to accommodate heavy snows. The last full rebuild happened the night before the Downhill event, when a layer of very un-Coloradoesque “concrete” blanketed the course. Somehow, amidst that, and blizzard conditions for the Super G, Birds of Prey delivered.
As for Killington, everyone who attended may still be recovering from a Love Hangover. More than 18,000 eastern ski fans showed up on each day of the weekend, and were rewarded not only with great competition that included a Shiffrin victory but also, on SL day, three Americans to cheer in the second run, including Nina O’Brian who was first out of the gate. Fans also got a two-day party that exceeded all expectations, reminiscent of when Park City –in the Badami era—hosted America’s Opening complete with street concerts, finish line dancing and global good vibes. Killington gave every competitor star treatment, while also welcoming the skiing community to a massive block party with non-stop concerts, fully endorsed tailgates and an irrepressible urge to celebrate. Kudos to Killington for bringing it, and to Mother Nature for rewarding the east with an early winter.
At both venues college skiers added mightily to both the competition and to the spectating. In Beaver Creek, former NCAA skiers—Norwegian Leif Nestvold-Haugen, Canadians Trevor Philp and Erik Read, and American Brian McLaughlin— took the stage on GS day. A sea of green Dartmouth jackets filled the finish area, cheering for 2018 NCAA GS champ McLaughlin, and off-season Dartmouth student Tommy Ford. Though not named to the U.S. Ski Team or funded by them, McLaughlin has an earned start in every World Cup GS this year. As an invitee to the U.S. Ski Team, he has been fully integrated with GS teammates Ford and Ryan Cochran-Siegle. The training benefits showed, as Ford, McLaughlin and Cochran-Siegle, finished 15th, 18th and 22nd respectively. In all, three former NCAA skiers landed in the top 20 in the GS (earlier this season, 2018 NCAA slalom champ and current Dartmouth junior Tanguy Nef—racing for both the Swiss Ski Team and Dartmouth this season—finished 11th in his first World Cup in Levi. Nef recently nabbed 4th in a Europa Cup).
Killington was all tech, and college skiing’s influence was strong, both in the results, and in the fan base. For the Americans, Foreste Peterson and Paula Moltzan, both former US Ski Team athletes, earned start spots by winning GS and SL time trials respectively, in Colorado. Peterson, a 2018 Dartmouth graduate, now races full time with Team X. Moltzan, 2015 World Junior Champion, is now a junior at UVM, racing full-time for the Catamounts.
The GS included Norwegian DU graduate Kristine Haugen, Canadian Mikaela Tommy, a freshman at CU, and Peterson, who did not make the flip, but, as second fastest American (behind Shiffrin) lit up the crowd with her hard-charging run. On slalom day, three NCAA athletes—Canadians, Remme and Laurence St. Germain (both 2018 Olympians), and Moltzan—qualified for the second run. University of Utah’s Remme finished 13th while UVM skiers St-Germain and Moltzan finished 14th and 17th respectively. In this clip the teammates talk about their races, and St. Germain explains what college skiing has meant for her career.
“I don’t think I would have been to the Olympics without going to UVM,” says St. Germain in the interview. “Four years ago Bill [Reichelt] took a chance on me after a tough season and I’m really glad he did because that’s why I’m here today.”
Remme, who returned to Utah after taking last season off from school to race full time on the Canadian National Team, had similar sentiments. In an interview for “The Inside Line” last year she called the decision to go to college, where she rebuilt her body, her spirit and her love of ski racing, “the best decision I ever made.” Remme and others credit the need for consistency (you have to finish in college races), the value of team support, the mental diversion of classes and the security of a four-year commitment as just some of the ways college skiing has helped their athletic development. Seeing these college skiers take their turns beaming in the leader seat on the second run, marked a notable shift in the possibilities for women in ski racing.
THE NEW NORMAL
I was recently at my childhood home, sifting through boxes of clippings and photos, and ran across a folder of my college application materials. It included solicitous letters from top colleges, enticing me to be on their ski teams. I remembered being flattered and enticed by the idea of someone wanting me, but I also remember that I barely considered the offers. Rather, I did consider college racing, and even fantasized about the fun of it, but only in my low moments, when my future as a world-class skier seemed hopeless. At the time, college was where you went when you were done with real racing. In that era, ski racing’s biggest female stars called it quits by their mid-twenties. So, naturally the rush to develop felt real. Furthermore, college races were not FIS, the competition was not as robust as it is now, and—most important to all of us trying to “make it” in skiing—no women had managed to pursue high level ski racing and full-time college. We had no example.
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGING
Ski racing, it seems, has caught up with other professional sports, where women continue to develop and compete longer. Sharing the podium with young stars Shiffrin and Petra Vlhova was 32-year-old, Frida Hanstodder, who’s first World Cup win came at age 28. As women’s skiing is changing, so too is the U.S. Ski Team’s philosophy toward female skiers, though the cultural shift has been particularly slow to happen with athletes who develop outside the realm of US Ski and Snowboard.
Luke Bodensteiner, Chief of Sport at U.S. Ski & Snowboard, acknowledges the open attitude toward non-named team athletes is a work in progress, but insists it is real. Non-named World Cup athletes are now featured on the US Ski and Snowboard website, and selection criteria is evolving to be more open.
“We’ve got to make things as objective as we can. We’ve got to be able to take people who perform from whatever path they take,” says Bodensteiner, who is rankled by the divide between “independent” vs “team” athletes. “Maybe it’s my background in cross-country [where athlete status is historically more fluid], but I’d like to blur that line more. To me everyone is part of the U.S. Ski Team.”
As for Moltzan, and McLaughlin, and for other athletes who may earn spots this season, Bodensteiner says, “When we’ve got people we have selected to World Cup starts, they’re part of the team. That may be for four weeks, it may be for one week or it may be for the entire season.”
An inclusive culture toward all athletes, or lack thereof, has been historically problematic, which Bodensteiner also acknowledges. He advises coaches who are in the position to either embrace/encourage, or ignore/discourage incoming athletes, to take responsibility for integrating and supporting them. To them,
“The selection criteria may have selected these athletes, but you wrote the criteria, so they are under your purview. They are yours,” Bodensteiner says.
Ski & Snowboard will get their chance to show this inclusive approach with Moltzan, who, with no summer skiing and only a week of training in Colorado, earned her spot for Killington. She now hopes to take full advantage of the starts she has earned in the upcoming World Cup slaloms before the college carnival season starts. If she races in both the NCAA Finals and the World Championships, she’ll be following a path already blazed by Norwegians and Canadians.
Looking out at the masses in the finish area at Killington, I thought about all the girls in that crowd. Of course they all want to be the next Mikaela Shiffrin. But what happens when, by age 13, they realize that is not going to happen? Now, they can envision all the possibilities on the spectrum— from Shiffrin to O’Brien to Moltzan— and see living proof that there still might be a long future for themselves in the sport. Hopefully, many of them in the crowd, after hearing the deafening roar that urged Moltzan down the course, are making plans to ski race through high school, and beyond.