Any athlete’s first few years in the FIS ranks are filled with uncertainty, numerous learning experiences, and opportunities for growth. This past season, U.S. Ski & Snowboard made an effort to bring the best athletes of that age group together for high-level training and racing opportunities several times during the competition season with the hope of stimulating development at this critical time in an athlete’s career.
Now in its third year, the U19 National Performance Series (NPS) brought together the best U19 athletes from across the country at multiple times throughout the winter to compete in a head-to-head training and racing environment. This year’s events took place in Copper and Vail, Colo., Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, and the Junior National Championships in Sun Valley, Idaho, in March. The goals of the NPS series are to expose young athletes to their national peer group and stimulate growth through a series of competitions, accelerating elite-level development toward international competition.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard Alpine Development Director, Chip Knight, has overseen the projects since their inception and sees obvious value in initiatives that brings top talent together that wouldn’t typically have exposure to one another until later in their careers.
“The NPS is a unique format where we bring our best young athletes from across the country together throughout the season to feed off one another and push each other forward,” says Knight. “As an athlete, competing against the best makes you better in the long-run, regardless of the immediate result. These series are a chance to make a long-standing positive impact for the next generation of U.S. athletes.”
The first project of the season took place in Copper Mountain, Colo., last November and was followed by another series in Vail in early December. The final NPS project of the winter was in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, in February before the top juniors in the country descended on Sun Valley, Idaho, for the National Junior Championships in March. Focusing primarily on slalom and giant slalom, several athletes took advantage of these opportunities and used these projects as a stepping stone in their young careers.
“There are a couple of athletes who did really well at this level of competition that I think are worth highlighting,” Knight says. “Trey Seymour and Isaiah Nelson met national team criteria through the U19 NPS series. Also, Jacob Dilling, who hadn’t really done a whole lot, really took advantage of the Sun Valley series with two podium-level performances.”
Seymour, whose older brother, Jett, is also a U.S. Ski Team member, took a win in Waterville Valley and had several other strong results throughout the season. Nelson was also impressive, particularly in the spring where he showed competitive pace against much older athletes. Dilling took a pair of third-place finishes in super-G and slalom home from Sun Valley.
“On the women’s side, we’re still trying to encourage all of our young women of all FIS ages to be at the NorAms but the National Junior Championships was a real a launching pad for Alix Wilkinson,” explained Knight. “She was able to get two podiums and that was awesome.”
Wilkinson won the GS in Sun Valley ahead of several national team athletes and added a third in super-G.
Knight says that although National Junior Championships was a tough series for the U19 age group as they were also competing against the nation’s top U21 talent, there are clear advantages to exposing young talent to a higher level of competition early on in their development.
“I think a really nice way to look at that event for U19s and the women, especially, is that there’s huge value for those athletes to step forward and do so with confidence and perform at a high level against athletes like AJ Hurt and River Radamus. If you look a little deeper, there are some really exciting results from athletes like Sanne Cassee and Kellen Kinsella. They’re both first-year athletes and had top 10s against our top juniors in Sun Valley.”
Cassee, who attends Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, finished with a 10th in super-G, 13th in slalom, and 17th in GS in her first major national-level events. Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s Kinsella finished no worse than 11th in the men’s races. Not too shabby for a couple of kids who are just getting their feet wet at the FIS level.
With all the talk of new development models over the past year, the U19 NPS has been a proven development initiative for several seasons and doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.