Mikaela Shiffrin, Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety — we have some of the best performers in the business. But how does American ski racing stand against our European counterparts when it comes to depth?
I put together a simple spreadsheet using the most recent FIS points list for men and women. I looked at two things to determine depth: the number of athletes ranked in the top 30, and the 20th-ranked skier in each event in each nation. These numbers convey not only what each country is presently delivering at the highest level, but also the potential of younger racers to keep performing in the future.
Take a minute to look over the two charts. The first trend that jumps out at me is how dramatically better the Alps nations are for both men and women. Yes, Austria is clearly the most dominant, but the rest of the Alps are very impressive — what’s going on geographically?
Austria, Switzerland, and Italy have the most skiers in the top 30 across all discipline and gender, and also have the lowest average points. These countries also have vast mountain ranges that facilitate great freeskiing and training in all four events and low training costs (very rarely — only once in my 10 year career — was I ever charged for training space in addition to lift tickets as a national team member or private skier). This geographic heart of racing also has glaciers for skiing in all seasons, and he ability to inject good training venues. The culture of skiing is strong, so mountain operators are more interested in devoting certain hills for training and racing full-time.
The next interesting trend is Scandinavia. Sweden’s dominance is impressive in both genders of slalom. Sweden has six women — tied with Austria— and seven men in the top 30, but quickly falls off when it comes to GS and speed disciplines. Is that because Sweden has great slalom venues very close to urban centers? Think Buck Hill in Minneapolis. Stockholm is surrounded by one-lift or two lift hills that are great for 20 to 30 seconds of slalom training and have relatively long seasons.
Speed in Sweden, is a different story. The country hosted 83 slalom races, but just one speed series, at their nationals in Are. As you can see, Sweden’s 20th-ranked male downhill skier has 98.11 points — not good. “It comes down to culture and the federation,” says Daniel Ericsson a former Swedish national team speed skier and current coach. “We had Ingemar Stenmark, the best tech skier of all time. Everyone in Austria wants to be a downhiller. They have a tough time filling 10 spots in Europa Cup slaloms.”
Everyone in Sweden wants to be a slalom skier
Norway has similar small local ski areas near Oslo, but they are larger than Stockholm’s hills: long enough for one-minute FIS giant slalom races. Norway also has more speed venues. This past year Norway had speed events in Kvitfjell, Aal, Hafjell, and Hemsedal. Speed also permeates the culture here, thanks to today’s Kjetil Jansrud and Aksel Lund Svindal and yesterday’s Lasse Kjus and Kjetil André Aamodt.
Now, onto the U.S. It’s the best ski nation outside of the Alps, finishing fifth for men and fourth for women on the top-30 count. But the U.S. is far more focused on the very top-level athletes than the middle range ones, which echoes in USSA’s motto “Best in the World” and the way the USST has essentially private coaches for those aforementioned superstars.
What’s going on regionally on all levels in the U.S.? “The skill level needed to succeed is so high now that most clubs and some academies currently don’t have the resources available to take their fastest kids to the next level,” says USST coach Mike Kenney. “We’ll have to throw in together if we are to return to the Nation’s Cup podium.”
Kenney makes a good point. It’s important to bring skiers together to allow them to ski on the most challenging terrain possible. And then, once they are at a certain level, it’s time to pick up shop and move for most of the season to Europe for the best resources and strongest competition. Bode Miller and Erik Schlopy did this more than 15 years ago when they rented a house in Innsbruck, Austria.
More recently, the U.S. Ski Team’s Tim Jitloff, currently ranked 17th in the world in GS, moved to Germany to live with his German girlfriend. “Racing is much easier for me over here,” says Jitloff. “I have the chance to really relax and feel comfortable after training and racing because I have my own bubble.” A European base also keeps Jitloff physically stronger, as he can return go home after almost every World Cup competition for dryland workouts. “I think living here has allowed me to become a better ski racer,” he says. “People here care about what we are doing, and that, in turn, makes you feel like everything you are doing to reach the top matters.”
In “The Secret Race,” Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle describe how Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton relocated to France and Spain to be where the best riders lived, trained and raced. All doping scandals aside, ski racers should note that if you want to compete in a European sport, it’s a lot easier if you move there.
Ivica Kostelic said it best to me on a T bar ride in Hintertux, Austria a few years ago, “If you want to be a skier,” he said, “you have to move to the mountains.”