As a coach and a parent, I have been an advocate over the years for making alpine ski racing more affordable to improve accessibility and grow our sport. The high cost of alpine ski racing can place a lot of stress on racers and their parents. The good news is there are a wide range of options available for training and racing. Regardless of your financial situation, the key to success in ski racing is not how much you spend, but the time and effort you put into the sport. As a coach I enjoy some of the drill options Mikaela Shiffrin has posted online and no doubt her success can be traced to her focus on fundamental skiing. Junior racers can practice those same drills at virtually any size ski area.
The first step is to establish a realistic plan for training, and racing. For example, if you’re weekend skiers your kids may not have the opportunity to ski every day, but maybe you can find a smaller area near your home that has night skiing for after school training during the week. Skiing in the evening after school is probably one of the most cost effective and efficient ways to train. Sweden has traditionally been a ski racing powerhouse. Many of their ski areas are fairly small and due to their northern latitude nearly all of them have lights for night skiing. The best racers may not always come from a high profile program, but they make good use of the time they do have on snow.
Another easy way to keep costs down is to free ski as much as possible. Many season’s passes now offer multi-resort access and though some resorts are expensive to ski at, there are still plenty that are relatively affordable. Far too many kids go out and train gates for a few hours and they’re done. However, most great ski racing champions like Julia Mancuso would spend many hours free skiing. It would be hard to find a downside to more freeskiing.
Another great way to improve your skiing and keep costs down is by playing other sports. Skiing is still primarily a winter sport and other than a week or two at Mt. Hood, most of us will be off snow for at least five or six months. The vast majority of World Cup racers are not just good skiers, but great athletes. Kids become better athletes by playing a wide variety of sports. Playing other sports also pushes your boundaries in a competitive environment, where just working out on your own may not have the same intensity. While sports specialization may be the trend, in reality nearly every major sport in the United States is made up of multi-sport athletes from soccer’s Alex Morgan to the NBA’s LeBron James.
Many ski racers have a dream to become the next superstar like Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller. Once ski racers move into the U16/U19 ranks, many think about whether they should be racing at the High School, USSA, or FIS level. No doubt it’s a big decision, but it’s much more important to just ski the best you can in whichever circuit you pursue. For example, it can often be difficult for many U19 racers to gain access to FIS competitions. In that case, USSA is a great circuit with many opportunities for advancement and invitations to development projects. If you’re consistently winning local races at the USSA level eventually the development system will take notice and more FIS opportunities will arise. While we all want to compete at the highest level, it’s much more important for racers to have success at their current level and then move up the development ladder as their skills progress.
In addition to training and travel, equipment purchases can be very expensive. As a parent I worked closely with our local ski shops to purchase equipment either during their annual “racer nights” or late season sales to match my budget. The vast majority of junior racers only need one set of race skis for the season. According to a number of ski reps I have consulted, each pair of race skis should last at least 100 – 125 days if they’re well maintained. The best way to make your skis fast is to wax and ski on them. Your race day skis are not getting faster stored away in your locker. For example, if you ski 100 days per season, that’s probably 50 days on both your GS and SL skis. Add in super-G skis and most racers probably ski less than 50 days on each pair of skis. While top racers may have multiple sets of skis, many of them have ski sponsors to off-set the cost and once again you have to be realistic in what you can actually afford.
As a long time club coach, it’s frustrating to see the high attrition rate among promising racers who leave the sport once they reach the U16 or U19 level due to overwhelming expenses. However, there are so many opportunities for advancement in ski racing whether you race at either a grass-roots club or a more elaborate academy based program. Either way, if you’re really fast there will be plenty of opportunity for advancement regardless of your point profile or training program. Many of my former athletes tell me NCAA or USCSA college ski racing is so much fun and they’re glad for the opportunity to continue racing, even when most of them will be going pro in something other than sports. Either way, the door may still be open if you want to give international racing another shot after college. Even better the new World Pro Ski Tour does not utilize FIS points and is another avenue for former junior and college racers.
Remember ski racing is ski racing and anyone regardless of their budget can be a “gym rat” on snow by working hard to reach their goals. Whether you’re racing for your high school team, USSA, or FIS, once you get in the starting gate it’s all the same. So, while the cost of ski racing may seem daunting, the good news is there are ways to creatively approach creating a program that works with your budget which will also result in success and a healthy, effective path for improvement. There are many opportunities within U.S. junior ski racing and if you’re really fast regardless of your budget you’ll most likely break through to wearing the red, white, and blue.