“The House that Jesse Built” was the title of a 2005 ESPN article that highlighted the development of the U.S. Ski Team’s youngsters from a rag-tag bunch of talented nobodies into the strongest team the Stars and Stripes has ever fielded at the World Cup level under the tutelage of then Alpine Director Jesse Hunt. During Hunt’s tenure as Alpine Director from 2002-09, the U.S. Ski Team blossomed with depth and talent in no short supply and saw the likes of Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn (then Lindsey Kildow), Daron Rahlves, Julia Mancuso, and Ted Ligety emerge as powerhouse names at the top of the sport.
“Winning at every level” became the mantra associated with Hunt as NorAm titles, World Junior Championships, Olympic and World Championship medals, and World Cup globes were all secured while he was at the helm of the program. Hunt eventually left the national team in 2009 to become the program director and general manager of Park City Ski & Snowboard but has since returned to his former job following the resignation of his successor, Patrick Riml, earlier this spring.
“Jesse’s had a lot of success in the past and that made him the lead candidate for the position,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard CEO, Tiger Shaw. “That success and those attributes of Jesse – his work ethic and how he is able to get people to align behind him – that makes it so attractive for him to be leading our alpine teams. We’re thrilled to have him back.”
It is Shaw’s hope that Hunt’s return to the U.S. Ski Team will re-ignite some of the flames that propelled the team to greatness during the 2000s.
“I think one of the beauties at that point was that there were no expectations,” Hunt says of his early years heading up the program. “I think we played that to our advantage. We did all those critical things it took to succeed in terms of working hard. We had great athletes in the system and I think that some of the things that we did and we changed during that period was that we really did commit to the athletes that were selected.”
Hunt grew up in Vermont and attended Burke Mountain Academy before spending three years as an athlete on the U.S. Ski Team during the 1980s. After his stint on the national team, Hunt attended the University of Vermont and after graduation headed West in 1990 to pursue a coaching career in Park City. Rejoining the national team as a men’s Europa Cup coach in 1993, Hunt worked his way up to the World Cup staff and eventually took over as Alpine Director after the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics.
Building a world-class program essentially from scratch was no easy task, but Hunt recognizes that the unique circumstances of the national team in the mid to late 1990s fostered an incredibly strong development environment and one that he hopes to help the program return to now.
“One of the key things was there weren’t any stars at that point,” he says. “There weren’t any superstars taking the limelight; we had a great team dynamic and I think that was due to the fact that we understood that to be successful in a European sport, we really had to work together both as a staff and athletes to have success. We had a genuine effort to build that out and help each other succeed and that attitude ultimately brought those athletes to the top. As they say, all ships rise with a rising tide, and that really did happen.”
As Alpine Director, Hunt’s responsibilities include overseeing the team’s yearly operating budget and all aspects of the development pipeline from the grassroots to World Cup levels. Over the next several years, Hunt will work closely with Alpine Development Director, Chip Knight, on the implementation of U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s ambitious development initiative, Project 26.
Hunt’s career path uniquely positions him in a way that just might allow U.S. Ski & Snowboard to pull off their lofty and at times criticized new direction. An administrator who has extensive experience with and thoroughly understands the nuances of how things work at both the club and national team levels could be a great asset for Shaw and U.S. Ski & Snowboard in the coming years — years that are the most crucial if Project 26 is to be a success.
“The perspective that I gained from being at the club level for nine years was really what the whole system looked like underneath the national team and underneath national level projects,” says Hunt. “I really got an opportunity to understand that intimately and I think that gives me good perspective coming back to this level because now I really understand some of the challenges that exist at the club level. … I’ve always felt like I champion the athlete perspective on things, which I’ve continued to do throughout my career as a coach and then moving into administration and directing.”
One of the pillars of Project 26 is the refocusing of resources to the lower levels of the sport in order to foster a more inclusive development environment for young athletes moving up the pipeline, who have dreams of success at the sport’s highest levels. Hunt feels this direction was lost somewhere in the last 10 to 15 years and that it is high time to re-establish that way of thinking.
“One of our efforts is to support development the way it needs to be supported because it hasn’t been supported to the level it needs to be supported. I think that’s something that I’ve identified and the organization has identified and I think the country as a whole has identified,” Hunt explains. “The question now is how do we move forward with a sustainable approach to development and support it financially the way it needs to be supported and still take care of athletes that are further up in the system.”
Therein lies the catch-22 of a successful national team program in the United States. As was the case in the 2000s, an increasing number of American ski racing superstars required more and more resources allocated to their programs — resources that had been used at the development levels in the past. Fewer development resources meant fewer athletes moving up through the system ready to fill the shoes of today’s top Americans, something Hunt sees in the problems today’s U.S. Ski Team is faced with.
“As more athletes advanced up through the system, we tried to take care of those athletes so we started taking care of athletes instead of from ages 17 to 24, we started taking care of them from 17 to 34,” says Hunt. “Because of the longer length of careers for each individual athlete, obviously it required more resources. Those resources started to be stretched through the system and our development effort eroded. That was probably between 10 and 15 years ago and I think we’re seeing the result of that.”
The past several months have been a colorful time in the world of U.S. ski racing with numerous fans and influencers of the sport voicing their opinions on what needs to change in order for the U.S. Ski Team to recapture some of it’s former prestige on the world stage. All of that chatter has not been ignored by Hunt as he sees himself in a position where he can affect change that so many people are desperate to see at the national team level.
“It’s a tough time but there’s also great opportunity,” says Hunt. “That’s really what compelled me to get back involved. I feel like I can make a difference and I feel like I have enough experience to understand where the resources need to go and how they need to be deployed and how we can affect some change and move the program.”
Beyond that, Hunt also wants to ensure he helps establish a healthy system to develop athletes in, including building a strong sense of team and that addresses athlete funding issues.
“When I say ‘healthy,’ there’s a healthy attitude throughout the system that people want to be a part of and are excited to be a part of,” he says. “I think that’s not going to go without criticism, there’s no question about that, but my goal is really to do a good job in the face of our challenges with regards to athlete funding, being realistic about winning at every level and show that we can deploy resources in a way where we can show that the program and not necessarily one individual can succeed at each level of the sport and be competitive at each peer group. Ultimately, that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”