Everyone loves an underdog story. The saga of the down-on-their-luck athlete independently scraping together funds to compete at the sport’s highest levels evokes passionate feelings in many members of the ski racing community. Many column inches here at Ski Racing Media have been dedicated to discussing the trials and tribulations of these very athletes as they aim to break through to the World Cup. What if, in the near future, our best independent athletes didn’t have to worry about many of the additional hoops they are required to jump through compared to their national team counterparts?
That is the hope of CLIF Bar founder and Chief Visionary Officer, Gary Erickson, who has recently expanded Team CLIF Bar Ski Racing from a program of one surrounding Former U.S. Ski Team athlete Lila Lapanja, to a stable of five elite-level athletes.
For the 2018-19 winter, Lapanja will be joined by the likes of 2018 U.S. slalom champion, Hig Roberts, 2018 Olympian, Mark Engel, 2017 U.S. slalom champion, AJ Ginnis, and 2018 World Junior Championship team member, Isabella Wright, as new members of Team CLIF Bar Ski Racing. The athletes will receive financial and program support this winter from CLIF as they race on elite circuits around the world.
Erickson’s daughter grew up racing in the Lake Tahoe area with Lapanja and the two families developed a close friendship as the girls progressed through the youth ranks of the sport. When Lapanja eventually made the jump to the U.S. Ski Team in 2011, CLIF was a natural fit as a sponsor, a partnership she has had ever since.
“Last year, we just wanted to dip our toes into the idea of having a high-level NorAm to World Cup race team,” explains Erickson. “We really didn’t have the ability to add skiers on last year in addition to Lila. It was a lot trying to figure everything out.”
Erickson started contacting potential athletes at the conclusion of last season and began building the framework for what would eventually become Team CLIF Ski Racing.
CLIF has, in essence, created the first “factory” ski team independent of a national team for athletes aspiring to the sport’s highest levels. Modeled after CLIF’s well-known cycling teams, which have been a staple in the industry for over 18 years, Team CLIF Ski Racing hopes to translate that same success to the snowsports arena.
Erickson explains that Team CLIF will be structured more like the model of Redneck Racing than a program like Team X Alpine in that athletes will be associated with the formal team but have the freedom to train and compete where it best suits their individual needs. This type of team structure is essential when both men and women are involved in a program.
“There’s independent teams, but there’s no corporate, branded teams like this one,” Erickson says. “We know how to acquire sponsors, we know how to promote, and we know how to manage. Skiing is a little bit different than cycling, but not really. CLIF Bar isn’t in this for any multi-million-dollar sponsorships; we have a vision. We’re supporting them with our brand and some funds and where they can train together, they do.”
“It’s really cool to see a corporate sponsor go all-in with ski racing in America,” adds Roberts. “A model like this hasn’t really been tested so it’s really cool to have a company like CLIF that has experience running professional teams step in.”
For athletes like Roberts and his CLIF Bar teammates, the support of a sponsor with so much clout in the outdoor sports realm provides them with a new avenue towards success and exposure to additional sponsors that may have been out of reach in past seasons.
“I think all the skiers on the current CLIF Bar team are pretty like-minded and have similar passions for skiing and other things off the hill,” Roberts says. “It’s a pretty cool concept, especially with how funding is handled in the U.S. with ski racing and how expensive of a sport it has gotten. I think CLIF is really creating a new path for athletes like myself who are still competing at the highest level but are struggling to find the funding and resources. I think all of U.S. skiing is going to benefit from this type of cooperation.”
Team CLIF Bar Ski Racing will have a focus on the NorAm through World Cup levels this season. If Erickson’s vision of a corporately-supported ski racing team pans out like he envisions, there may be more teams formed in CLIF’s image sprouting up in the seasons to come.