Thinking Outside the Alps Box
Editor’s note – 12/24/17: Based in part on findings from Project 26, World Cup advancement is no longer explicitly predicated on Europa Cup results, as it had been for many years. The updated (and now findable) link to nomination criteria, acknowledges Europa Cups as a performance marker but does not define specific objective criteria for advancement.
Ah, the Europa Cup. Proving your grit on this circuit, by starting in the weeds and enduring the indignities of extended anonymity, is one of ski racing’s time-honored traditions. My own introduction to the Europa Cup—starting 120th among fire-breathing competitors in the frigid murk of a January day, where the only visual contrast came from the gravel at the bottom of each rut and the only solace came from making it down the hill intact—is fairly consistent with the experience it still delivers. For North Americans, the first exposure to the rabidly competitive European racing scene is an eye-opening wake-up call that says, “Welcome to the show. Buckle up!”
The European development model, designed around a talent pool that is deep and geographically dense, dictates that the path to World Cup competition progresses steadily from FIS races to the Europa Cup to the World Cup. Success at each level, in head-to-head competition, is the ticket to advancement. Historically, North Americans have followed that same paradigm, whereby Europa Cup success precedes World Cup readiness. The current U.S. Ski Team nomination criteria, under “Athlete Competition Advancement” reads like this:
Athletes will be advanced based on the following general guidelines:
1. Win a NorAm race: you will be entered in the next available and practical Europa Cup competition, in that event, in the same season.
2. Place in the top 3 in a Europa Cup race: you will be entered in the next available World Cup.
As Paul Kristofic, head women’s coach of the U.S. Ski Team explains: “success at the Europa Cup (a podium) is a good indicator of speed, which is why we have it set as a performance benchmark for World Cup start rights.” Men’s World Cup SL coach Ian Lochhead points out that athletes who have built the toughness and consistency needed to succeed on the Europa Cup are well-prepared to break through on the World Cup.
Europa Cup success is undeniably an indicator of speed, but when nobody is actually hitting that mark—in the past ten years, podiums among North American tech skiers have been an exceedingly rare occurrence, with even Mikaela Shiffrin failing to nab one in her four appearances— the circuit can hardly be considered the go-to vehicle for upward mobility. Even if athletes did achieve Step 1, our physical distance from Europe does not accommodate fluid, timely, performance-based movement. With nobody achieving that objective criteria, the process for advancement then necessarily leads down the subjective slope of coaches’ discretion and into the tight tourniquet of age-based performance bands. And that, my friends, is where my many conversations on this topic tend to go off the reservation and off the record.
The question becomes this: With the growth of the NorAm circuit and the shrinking of national team athlete funding, does it still make sense for North Americans to use the Europa Cup as the main gateway to the World Cup? Specifically, are the benefits of committing to the Europa Cup as the one true development model, worth the potential damage to one’s skiing, one’s psyche and one’s pocketbook?
The question jumped to the forefront while I was interviewing coaches and athletes for Foreign Exchange, a piece about collegiate racers who have advanced to the World Cup through the NorAm circuit. Their answer was a resounding “No!” If I could sum up many conversations into one recommended strategy for men and women it would be this: “Go to the NorAms, get your six points, get a decent start number in the World Cup and start with confidence.”
The issue, of course, is more complex.
WHY THE EUROPA CUP
With fields from all Alpine and Scandinavian nations that are stacked (often with World Cuppers) and deep (14 points might get you bib 65), the Europa Cup is the ultimate, eye-opening gladiatoresque arena. “I’m still a little old school and believe one should battle through the ranks with the toughest competitions and competitors,” says former U.S. World Cup slalom star Felix McGrath, who now manages Baerums Ski Club and Dønski Toppidrett ski academy in Norway. “Even if you don’t advance, the combat experience can have long term benefits.” As Lochhead points out: “The guys who get 6 points in NorAms are fast skiers, but the style and tactics of skiing you need to win a NorAm, doesn’t always align with what’s needed to be a consistent performer on the World Cup.” He notes that Norwegian World Cup regulars Leif Haugen and Jonathan Nordbotten both spent substantial time on the Europa Cup before their success on the NCAA/NorAm circuits. Seth McCadam, a U.S. Women’s Alpine Team coach from 2005-2014, explains that, “it’s not a clear step from NorAm to World Cup,” and believes the Europa Cup should be utilized with a very individualized approach. “When our Europa Cup group started to score, it gave them confidence.” For men and women who are easily winning NorAms but not quite qualifying in World Cup, the Europa Cup is the only other option to keep developing.
THE PITFALLS OF THE EUROPA CUP
Even Europa Cup proponents, however, agree that it can be damaging. “Too many years of getting beaten up in the Europa Cup is clearly not the long-term solution and breaks most skiers,” says McGrath. Urban Planinsek, former coach of the Canadian and Slovenian National Teams, and current head coach for the Russian Ski Federation, came to North America with his old-school Europa Cup imperative, but his perspective soon evolved. “Too many years on the Europa Cup and you are stuck there for life.” says Planinsek. He still brings his younger athletes to the Europa Cup, but he manages their exposure. “You need to learn how to win races. If you’re always getting beaten up you don’t build self-confidence.”
Successfully moving ahead on the Europa Cup requires a commitment for at least an entire season, because start orders are determined by Europa Cup standings. Even top athletes can find themselves starting further back in a Europa Cup than in a World Cup. For emerging athletes, the start order alone can be insurmountable, but other factors also make the Europa Cup road rough for North Americans. The course sets, the hills, the hill preparation—all are typically less consistent on the Europa Cup than at the NorAms, making it even more difficult to advance significantly, if at all. As Lochhead admits, “To be sure, this is a puzzle that I am still also trying to solve!”
THE COST FACTOR
Adding the December Europa Cups to the mix, for anyone hoping to advance objectively (and establish good starts numbers for the season), adds two weeks of brutal travel and many thousands of dollars to an already obscene budget. This forces the question of how long anyone can afford to chase the dream this way. Talk about these issues abounds throughout the skiing community, though mostly within the free flow of off-the-record exchanges. Some animated responses, like this one from a former athlete and coach, capture a deep, long-standing frustration with the status quo: “Think of all the money saved and extra training/recovery time our athletes could have if they weren’t messing around over there getting their a—- handed to them and having their Euro coaches telling them ‘See? You’re not good enough.’ Use all that plane ticket and cargo money to host amazing racing festivals here, prop up ski areas, and forge agreements for training/lodging/meals in CA, OR, CO, NH, VT, ME.”
Someone who welcomes all conversation on the issue is Daniel Lavallée, CEO of the Quebec Ski Federation, where he has a dual mandate to build participation and develop elite ski racers. “It’s about developing athletes and people,” says Lavallée, who believes that keeping developing athletes closer to home, longer, as well as attracting more international racers, would help build the NorAms (now a two-nation Cup) into a stronger Continental Cup. “I have never been convinced that Europe is the proving ground. I am not a fan of that old mentality that it toughens you up,” says Lavallée. “You need a base of athletics, proper technique and desire. I don’t believe you go there to get bashed and then you ‘get it.’” He maintains that North American skiers are not technically so far back. “They are just not used to so many athletes at the same level in the same race.”
GIVING WOMEN SOME RESPECT
The conversation gets even more contested—and more important to explore— on the women’s side where the gap between the Europa Cup and the other Continental Cups is broader, in depth and also in consistency throughout the year. The level of competition is one consequence of a long-standing and persistent reticence to acknowledge college-age women as developing athletes. Kristina Riis-Johannessen, who graduated from UVM, went on to win the Europa Cup Overall last season, at age 25, and is now on the Norwegian World Cup Team. She acknowledges the lack of depth but maintains that NorAm podiums are hard-won. Says Riis-Johannessen, who, in her four years on the NorAm circuit had one victory: “The best skiers are really good.”
What if, we gave our best skiers the option to stay closer to home for longer, and also rewarded them with recognition and attainable advancement incentives?
What if seeing that advancement happen enticed more athletes to stay in the sport longer, and raised the level of competition at home?
And what if that didn’t make a huge difference? Would we really be any worse off for giving more kids the positive message of respect and recognition?
BUILDING A SYSTEM VS A STRATEGY
Using the Europa Cup as the benchmark for objective advancement creates a conundrum: Do you fully commit to the Europa Cup for the grit-building benefits of the competitive experience and to have the best chance of success on that circuit? Or, do you protect your World Cup starts and your National Team standing? As of now they are not mutually supportive pursuits, which leads to a question Lavallée often poses to his peers: “Is the NorAm a development circuit or a strategic circuit, used to get World Cup spots?”
In the current system, North American racers on the Europa Cup need to dabble in the NorAms if they want to protect their World Rank and their World Cup starts (by winning a NorAm title). One point on which people agree, is that the gray area of toggling between Continental Cup circuits is unproductive, at best. McCadam suggests an approach to development that allows athletes the breathing room to commit to a season on the Europa Cup, while accommodating our unique challenges, namely geography and later athlete development. “It’s hard to peak when you’re bouncing across continents. It’s not setting up an athlete for success at either level,” he says. “It’s not like baseball where you can go down to Triple A and come back up when you’re ready.” In ski racing, it’s more like you’re on a hot streak or you’re out. Supporting our athletes longer, and not only accepting but expecting the longer development path, would allow the system to work for them.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The main argument for staying closer to home may simply be, home. “Some kids need to go home and check in, with parents, girlfriends, boyfriends,” says Planinsek. For the Europeans, a bad day on the Europa Cup can be followed by dinner and a movie at home with friends and family. For North Americans, it’s followed by another day in a van, and night in a hotel. One coach points out that, “the value that European athletes get from being able to touch-down at home, see their friends, Mom and Dad, during the season is HUGE. That’s the advantage they have that no one talks about.” As Lavallée observes, “The toughest road, that hurts the most, doesn’t need to be the one you follow.”