It’s no secret that balancing academics and athletics is tough, and it gets tougher in college. Managing internships, jobs, dryland training, on snow training, competition schedules, a full course load — and of course the need for a social life and a little downtime — is challenging to say the least. Further complicating that is the NCAA rule that prohibits athletes from training with their teams outside of the school year. This is especially tough for skiers, who depend on high level peers and faraway travel to create the off-season training opportunities they need. Because each school has a slightly different schedule, and different courses of study require different commitments, athletes tend to be, as one coach puts it, “vagabondish” in their approach throughout the year. Piecing together a full, year-round training plan is a true team effort that enlists the greater ski racing community.
Each NCAA division — I,II and III — has its own rules, layered in with NESCAC and Ivy League rules. Harvard ski coach Scott MacPherson explains how the year works for NCAA Division I teams:
“Our year is segmented out into three categories,” he says. “Off season, in season, and championship segment. ‘Off season’ is when the athletes are not enrolled in classes and essentially no team sponsored activity is allowed. ‘In season’ comprises calendar dates where students are in classes, but not in the championship segment, roughly Sept-Oct and April-May. During that period, no competition is allowed. Championship segment is 144 days total during the academic calendar, less vacation and exam days.”
Coaches typically plan their seasons by starting with the last date they might race and working backwards. That usually gets MacPherson to around October 15. Programs that race later in the spring may not be able to start up until November.
Outside of their “season” athletes need to get creative and opportunistic to find snow, peers and coaching that all aligns with their schedules. Each school exploits their unique advantages of geography, academic calendars and connections to maximize what they can get accomplished within the NCAA restrictions.
“As for summer, our kids typically try to get on snow either at Mt. Hood working with a junior camp or in Europe at one of many training venues depending upon their nationality,” says the University of Alaska’s Sparky Anderson.
Rising juniors at Colby, Middlebury, and Saint Lawrence University (SLU) are among the colleges that utilize the same New Zealand campus to do a summer term that accommodates winter training and even races down under. As Middlebury coach Stever Bartlett explains, the real advantage comes at the end of that term, which is over by early November and allows athletes a big prep period through January when classes start. “That one-and-a-half months with no school gives a ton of extra volume,” says Bartlett.
Athletes banding together independently eliminates any NCAA restrictions. High level training, however, is difficult to organize and fund on their own. Alternatively, MacPherson explains that a coach could apply to U.S. Ski & Snowboard to host a regional collegiate development project. These collaborations, that are neither funded nor organized by a specific team, can include student-athletes from multiple programs and comply with NCAA regulations. They are an increasingly viable and attractive option for off-season training.
As Eastern Region Director, Sam Damon creates projects year-round aimed at taking athletes from the regional level to the national or international level.
“I look for people ready to make the jump, and help them make that jump,” says Damon. One big component of these projects are the collegiate athletes, who represent not only a broad range of competition experience but also a range in their off-season needs and availability. For the past two summers, Damon organized an August camp that brought together Eastern college athletes from multiple schools.
The concept behind these camps is to create high level summer training opportunities, not only for collegiate athletes but also for younger FIS athletes trying to make their jump to the next level. Beyond the organizational challenge of coordinating athletes from many different teams, this year Damon also had to manage a move from snowless Chile to glacier-top Italy less than two weeks from departure.
“There were some logistical hurdles,” admits Damon, who persevered and pulled off a successful camp with help from the ski racing community. “Even people with no skin in the game were invested.”
Just as Killington Mountain School played a big role organizing last year’s camp in Saas Fee, the last minute switch from Chile to Stelvio was facilitated with help from a Waterville Valley group that had just returned from there.
“I thought that was a cool sign of coordination,” says Damon. The group was smaller than he’d envisioned, but as proof of concept, Damon says it worked. “I understand we have to prove ourselves and demonstrate value over time.”
One way Damon is doing that is by providing a low price tag. With help from Killington Mountain School’s Tao Smith’s fundraising, and the Killington World Cup Foundation, Damon was able to offer grants of up to $1,000 per athlete to defray costs.
Fall Freelancing Into Preseason
Once the school year starts, so does the creativity. From the East, collegiate athletes with the resources and connections can make it to Europe for a quick hit of training on the glaciers or at indoor facilities over their fall break. Athletes studying abroad in Europe for the fall can get some training on weekends. In the west, students at DU and CU are well situated to access on snow training as early as October at Loveland and points along I-70. That proximity and availability builds through the season, and often persists through the entire school year with late season training opportunities.
All the top programs host some sort of pre-season camp in Colorado or, increasingly, at less crowded and less expensive venues. SLU and Harvard will go to Nakiska, outside of Calgary, and University of Alaska, with its proximity to unique opportunities, is driving into the Yukon Territory to get 16 days on snow in November. Montana State University has three early season trips planned in Colorado, Idaho, and Canada.
Working the Calendar
Dartmouth and other quarter-based schools have the most widely touted skier-friendly schedules. Not only does the regular term allows athletes to have the entire time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s (like Denver University), but the mandatory “Sophomore Summer” at Dartmouth creates a built-in term to take off and use for training or competing. Athletes racing full-time but not on the NCAA circuit can piece together two academic terms a year on the quarter plan. Dartmouth and DU athletes on a national team and also racing NCAA can, with cooperation from both sides, join their National Team not only in summer camps but for all of late November and December as well.
The tradeoff for Dartmouth skiers is being in full academic mode during the entire carnival season, and having finals smack during the NCAA championships in March. Schools like Middlebury and Colby have the “Jan Plan” where students concentrate on only one course or project during January and the first three carnivals. This allows for a huge block of in season training and competing with relatively light academics. Middlebury sweetens the pot with a February break immediately after Jan Plan, meaning that Middlebury skiers miss only one Friday of school during the entire six-carnival season.
As mentioned above, Western collegiate athletes can often take advantage of spring training through the end of the school year, as long as it is in a non-team setting. Here again, U.S. Ski & Snowboard projects can provide opportunities by including college athletes. Damon hopes to keep the U.S. Ski & Snowboard programs throughout the entire season fluid so there is less of a distinction between college and non-college athletes. For instance, off-term college athletes are joining an indoor project in Belgium this fall, and Damon envisions college athletes being able to join his training project in January at Mittersill between carnivals. If these projects are organized and presented early enough, athletes can plan their training around them.
Damon notes that Western and Rocky have a better history than Eastern of collaboration.
“We have to do a better job at working together, not casting college coaches and teams into their own bucket,” says Damon, adding, “and colleges need to do a better job of embracing us.”
As far as the upside potential of working together, Damon points to last year at U.S. Alpine Championships, where Eastern coaches — including college coaches — all worked together, sharing radios and coaching duties. At that competition, the East won as a region, to which Damon says, “We’re on the right track!”