The idea of creating a hybrid ski team at Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) started as one coach’s mission to break down the barriers that separated the ski community into silos. After a few seasons with the club, Will Brandenburg, a retired alpine Olympian and current alpine program director at SVSEF, had begun to notice a problem in his program, a problem not uncommon across the sport of alpine ski racing in the United States – early-onset athlete burnout. Kids competing in his program were beginning to struggle with their relationship with ski racing as they began to reach the FIS age, threatening to leave the sport altogether. After years and years of training gates and putting everything they had into ski racing, the joy seemed to be fading for a handful of his kids. 

Even if a racer was coming off of an injury, or looking to be a collegiate athlete in another sport, Brandenburg was not ready to give up on them just yet. He wanted to help foster a love for the sport by helping his athletes answer the question, “Why am I even doing this?.” A hybrid team, aka team Alpine X, allowed Brandenburg to switch up the program by allowing his athletes to explore more elements of skiing than just bashing gates and running drills.

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Through the development of Alpine X, Brandenburg began to see in real-time the benefits of breaking down walls between alpine, park & pipe, freeskiing, and big mountain skiing, and his athletes found a new sense of love for the sport in its entirety. 

As the kids began to develop stronger skill sets in big mountain skiing, building upon their strong foundation in gates, Brandenburg began to wonder if it would be worth putting them in a ski cross course to see how they reacted. He started teaching skiing in a way that leaned towards manipulating the body over terrain and features, building upon their alpine skills, and started realizing how fast they were progressing. Eventually, the team went to a USASA race (the current host of ski cross races in the United States) in New York. Within three days, his guys got 30 runs in on a 40-second track, and he saw massive improvement in the core skills he had been trying to develop with the guys. 

That’s when the lightbulb went off in his head.

“I was blown away by it,” said Brandenburg. “I thought, we’re missing the boat here. I wanted to yell to everyone in the alpine community, ‘Guys, come check this out! There’s something here that can be developed and utilized more within our sport.’”

According to reports made to the development committee earlier this week, the ski team has begun to notice a deficit in speed skiers coming through the pipeline. Development coaches Sasha Rearick and Marjan Cernigoj often complain to development leadership that the athletes coming to them from clubs lack strong fundamentals. Young athletes struggle with the ability to manipulate terrain in slalom, giant slalom, super G, and downhill. 

Overall, there is not much variety in training. Brandenburg’s pursuit of holistic education unintentionally led him to discover that the alpine community was missing out on something big, he says, something that could help them address these issues, in addition to the burnout problem he had initially set out to solve.

With the help of current ski cross World Cup racer Whitney Gardner, Brandenburg got to work creating a proposal to present to the western region that would bridge the gap between ski cross and alpine skiing. 

In addition to being an active athlete, Gardner is a FIS alpine coach for the Squaw Valley Ski team and an ex-alpine racer herself. Personally, she has lived the story Brandenburg saw play out in Sun Valley. As a young alpine racer rising through the ranks, she began to feel a sense of exhaustion surrounding alpine skiing due to a lack of variety in training and routine. She began incorporating ski cross into her racing schedule to shake things up and eventually fell in love with the discipline. Now, she is active in the ski racing community as an athlete and close affiliate of the NGB and FIS. In her eyes, the proposal to adopt ski cross under alpine is a win for both disciplines. 

“Ski cross inherently demands diverse and versatile skills from slopestyle (jump technique and agility on rails), halfpipe (acceleration through transitions and edge control), and alpine (turning fundamentals and speed awareness),” Gardner and the ski cross task force wrote in their recommendation to support this movement. “There is an evident skill crossover from ski cross that would benefit the development of alpine ski racers in overall skiing agility, mobility, coordination, managing adversity, as well as speed development through experiential terrain-based learning.” 

Officially, the proposal would support the transition of ski cross from FIS freestyle to FIS alpine and start the conversation of how to implement the sport and its programs into youth alpine development. 

After much deliberation, the proposal made its way out of the Western region and to U.S. Ski & Snowboard during this week’s Congress. First it was brought before the U14-and-younger, U16-and-older, and Ski Cross working groups, all which were in support of the effort. It later kicked up to the Alpine Development Committee on Thursday. 

Over the course of the past few weeks, Brandenburg had come to see just how detailed his proposal would need to be in order to make it all the way through the congressional process. Coming into the committee meeting that morning, the best he was hoping for was some kind of task force that would be formed to explore the issue and begin hammering out the details. 

As expected, there were some hiccups.

Leadership on the Alpine Development Committee, while generally supportive of the concept, questioned the logistics of taking on ski cross as a discipline, the ramifications for alpine financially and the question of Olympic starts. USSS Development Director Chip Knight jumped in to say that he was under the impression that at the FIS level, alpine skiing was not in support of the transition, and that freestyle was simply looking to offload the discipline.

From Tyler “TJ” Wallasch’s perspective, as a FIS athlete representative in the ski cross community, that is not the case. According to Wallasch, a meeting had been scheduled for April 4 (and postponed due to COVID-19) that would have discussed implementing ski cross and alpine at the FIS level, as multiple countries have shown interest in a hybrid program. 

Canada, Sweden, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy already have these systems in place and support the shift at the FIS level, Wallasch says. A task force has already been created among these nations, with representatives from both ski cross and alpine to figure out how to best integrate the two disciplines.

“The U.S. is one of the last ones to make this integration,” said Wallasch. “Ski cross is the economic backbone to FIS freestyle. We bring in the most money for freestyle World Cup events, and we run pretty much independently of other freestyle events. We have our own staff, our own sponsors, and kind of function as our own thing. If it moves over to alpine, it would continue in its first few years running as its own, just under a different banner.”

Ski cross was deemed an official FIS sport back in 2004. In its early years as an official discipline, ski cross was supported by U.S. Ski & Snowboard until after its debut in the Vancouver Olympic Games. Since 2010, most American ski cross athletes competing on the World Cup and Olympic level operate independently. Ski cross in the U.S. operates under the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association (USASA). As an organization, USASA has hosted over 500 events each year, 110 of those events being regional ski cross races. According to the Ski Cross Task Force, there are over 100 current host venues that are fully homologated and up to the organization’s safety standards. 

David Pym, the man behind the ski cross integration within the Canadian national team, was firing away in the comments section of the virtual development committee meeting, tossing in his support and attempting to emphasize that homologations and safety systems were already in place for ski cross under USASA.

There are gold medals to be won here in ski cross, and I think it’s been pushed in a corner, and I think we gotta look in that corner because there’s a lot more that it can offer us as an alpine community.

WILL BRANDENBURG

Team Summit’s Aldo Radamus, also threw his hat into the ring, saying he fully believed ski cross belonged under the alpine umbrella and not freeski’s due to the nature of the event. 

Multiple athletes on the World Cup level have utilized ski cross to benefit their speed training, including Tina Weirather, Peter Fill, Daron Rahlves, and Sam Morse.

“There are gold medals to be won here in ski cross, and I think it’s been pushed in a corner, and I think we gotta look in that corner because there’s a lot more that it can offer us as an alpine community,” Brandenburg explained to the development committee. “Once we get into the details there’s a lot to work through and I understand that. But I think if we can look past some of that and see the good in what we can build together here, there’s another way to teach skiing.”

Although he thought the proposal has merit, Knight continued to push that he has reservations about implementations into regional championships and structured competitions. He cautioned the committee against biting off more than they could chew. 

For this reason, he motioned that the proposal be passed off to the U14-and-younger Working Group, so the discussion would center around development at the age group where dropoff begins to occur.

“Structurally, I think there are challenges and we should just focus it in an area where skill development is critical as Will has been highlighting,” said Knight, “as well as an area where we feel like we can have some discussion and a good feedback loop coming back. I think this is another example of a proposal that has a lot of merit but needs to focus the implementation on it and move in a piecemeal fashion.”

Brandenburg, who had spent the past season developing this idea around FIS-aged and younger athletes, thought that pushing the proposal to the U14-and-younger Working Group was a good starting point, but he’s concerned it does not fully acknowledge the health of sport side of the proposal – the side that gave FIS-aged kids, like those on team Alpine X, a shot at falling back in love with skiing.

Despite his repeated requests for a task force to be created to specifically address the integration of ski cross into alpine, the proposal was pushed to the U14-and-younger Working Group to review over the summer. It may not have been the exact outcome Brandenburg and Gardner had been hoping for, but the idea is still on the table, and support from many members of the alpine community seem to be there. 

“For me the proposal did its job,” said Brandenburg. “It started the conversation and now if done properly, that committee can move forward next year with a proposal with detail and a proposal with meaning, because mine was just a conversation starter, and that’s a huge win.”

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8 COMMENTS

  1. An interesting article.
    I would note that the Canadian Snowsports Association (CSA) took on the task in January of 2007 of creating a Canadian Ski Cross Team when i was assigned the task of FIS TD at what was an inaugural FIS SX event – Honda Ski Tour – created by Kipp Nelson and a partner in Sun Valley Idaho.
    I was blown away by the event, the enthusiasm – over 5,000 spectators on Dollar – prize money of $125,000 and quality of the competitors, a few who were or had Canadian connections that I ultimately recruited when I formed the team.
    SX, under FIS Rules is as safe as any other of our Snowsports and is a tremendous program offering real opportunities to Alpine Athletes.
    Canada is supportive of the objective within some of the FIS family to move the discipline from Freestyle to Alpine. For us, having it within our Alpine Program is logical and fits our model – each NSO within the FIS family needs to look within its own structure and set-up as to where it belongs, where it creates best opportunities for athletes and where it can be self sustainable without detrimental impacting other programs. it has clearly been a benefit to our Alpine program in Canada

  2. I can’t speak to the logistical challenges of bringing SX into the alpine fold, but, as Will B. suggests, it seems like a natural fit in terms of the physical, technical, tactical, and mental demands. Plus, just looking at it, SX looks like alpine ski racing, not freestyle. It could certainly widen the appeal of alpine. Though, I have to admit that it is one scary (and exciting) sport to watch!

  3. While liking the idea of more variety in the Alpine category for skill development and athlete engagement, I thought that it was kept under the USASA umbrella, particularly at the younger levels, because Boarder Cross and Skier Cross competitions could be combined. That way the venue would only need to be prepared once. It takes a tremendous amount of snow and cat time to make a good track. If SX went under Alpine, would USSA and USASA be able to coordinate successfully to keep costs down. The upside of skier cross for speed athletes IS huge. At Sugarloaf, my son Sam would ski his alpine training course, and then he and his buddies would go down through the boarder cross course which is right below the Alpine training slope. They got comfortable in the air, had some fun competition and it definitely kept smiles on their faces.

    • Just because Ski Cross will be listed as an alpine event, doesn’t mean the end of cooperation or shared venues with SBX.

      The idea is to put ski cross under the Alpine umbrella, and have the sport continue as is. This move is going to be more of a mental change then a physical one. The added benefit of moving the sport under alpine is that Alpine skiers will become more open to terrain based learning that Ski Cross provides. We want the downhill and SG skiers to see terrain in a new light, to help them improve. And we want the kids that are dropping out of the alpine discipline to have ski cross as an alternative, rather then leaving the ski racing world. Think how many more athletes would have stayed involved in a ski club longer if SX was an option. It is a win win situation for everyone.

    • See the Recommendation document for details on how we intend on keeping the youth pipeline the same through USASA, while encouraging Alpine athletes to participate as well. Utilizing the systems that are already in place here in the U.S. rather than reinventing the wheel.

  4. From: Peter Topalovic
    Date: May 8, 2020 at 8:00:48 PM MDT
    To: Subject: RE: Freestyle mogul Training in Perisher- Australia 2020 – UPDATE

    Dear Mogul Coaches,

    I trust this email find you all well and safe.

    Please find below an update for those teams considering mogul training this Australian winter in Perisher ski resort.

    Firstly, Australia and New Zealand will begin to loosen lockdown restrictions this coming week, we have been very fortunate to control the Corona virus, but these restrictions will happen in stages and could take months…..it’s still early days.
    The Australian government has still not made any decision to reopen the international borders to allows Australians out, and international visitors in. However, the Australian Prime Minister has indicated the likelihood of the Australian boarders being reopen will not happen until at least January 2021, and we are also reading in the newspapers they will not reopen the international boarders until a vaccine has been found.

    The only indication of international travel will happen between Australian and New Zealand as a “travel bubble” between the 2 countries and no other countries, we do not know when that will happen.

    It is also still unknown when the government will allow the ski resorts in Australia to reopen, the indication is possibly July 2020, but not confirmed still, as well the likelihood of the mogul course being open for training this Australian winter is unlikely.

    It is with deep sadness that I must inform you to strongly reconsider your mogul training options and cancel any plans to come to Australia this winter, and remain in the norther hemisphere for summer.

    I am terribly sorry for this news.

    Wishing you all the very best of luck and hope you all stay well and safe, and maybe you will see the Australian mogul team on the world cup next winter…. and maybe not.

    If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me anytime.

    Best Wishes to you all,

    Toppa

    Peter Topalovic

    Winter Sports Coordinator

    NSW Institute of Sport

    207 Barry Way , Jindabyne , NSW , 2627

    T +61 2 9763 0380 X380

    E [email protected]

    M +61 414 287 463

    Earls comment is appropriator. This is why at the FIS Level we have been harmonizing the Rules on Course Design and Build between SX and SBX.
    But these are for Course Construction – normally left to Ski Resorts following our guidelines.
    Athlete development is totally different. No comparison between SX and SBX. And no comparison between most Free Ride (Big Mountain excluded)
    The best SX athletes in the world were all dam fine Alpine Racers – many who didnt quite make selection to their Nations Alpine Teams but became stars in the SX World – and by the way many stars in the Alpine world who didnt quite make it in the SX World.
    The objective is to be able to provide opportunities for alpine skiers of all abilities and to have a vehicle to succeed with alpine retention – a challenge in virtually every nation. For many of the FIS National Associations SX fits well within their Alpine programs – even within the Multiple disciplines clubs such as Sun Valley – strong in Alpine, Nordic and recognizing the benefits of SX.

  5. As an SX athlete I couldn’t be happier about this development. I am looking forward to hearing more about Brandenburg‘s proposal moving forward within USSS.

  6. Will is spot on. When we ran the Boyne Highlands Flyers program in Michigan back in 2010-2014, we implemented a European training platform for developing U12 and U14 skiers. Our number one priority was fun and number two was developing technical skills. It started with Boyne graciously building us a number of training features including multiple jumps for flight training, dedicating a slope for Kombi courses, and an SX course – which became a favorite of every skier (and coach). It was utilized in nearly every training session. Every young ski racer running that SX course throughout the season showed dramatic improvement in so many areas – focus, mental toughness, technique, and confidence. I’m a firm believer in SX being a part of alpine as the skills are transferrable to the other disciplines. As in anything, it’s an evolution. Just as the number of WC night slalom events has increased over the past decade, SX is just another entertaining way to maintain a continued interest in our sport. For sure, it will begin with its own set of athletes, but eventually, there will be some crossover with other alpine speed athletes.

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