I’ve been involved in U.S. ski racing for—yikes!—more than 50 years. I started as a “Chipmunk” at Mad River Glen in Vermont and then moved on to the Valley Junior Racing Club (at then Glen Ellen, pre-GMVS), Burke Mountain Academy, Middlebury College, the University of Colorado, and even two seasons on the old pro tour. Since then, I’ve been actively involved in our sport as a sport psychologist. In these capacities, it seems as if I’ve seen it all, from the medal feasts to the medal famines, programmatic successes to abysmal failures, phenoms to late bloomers, with healthy doses of politics, ego, turf, and stagnation, as well as inspiration, cooperation, and collaboration.
Every decade or so, there are calls for change, some whispered and some yelled. We hear that the system isn’t working, it’s not producing athletes, we’re wasting money, our sport is dying. Such a call came again earlier this year from Dan Leever in a post titled “What’s Wrong with U.S. Ski Racing?” Dan certainly has some valid points. And we need voices to challenge the status quo and to spur change. There’s no doubt that U.S. Ski & Snowboard has a lot of work to do to develop programs that result in consistent and broad-based success at the international level. It also needs to do more to support its athletes as they climb the competitive ladder.
But, with the 2018-19 season under way and the U.S. having some great results on the World Cup circuit from a large number of athletes on both the men’s and women’s side, I’m not writing this article to pile on the criticism. To the contrary, though I also have concerns about the present state of U.S. ski racing (e.g., nomination criteria, athlete funding, family cost, athlete attrition), I do believe in approaching challenges in a positive light. I also like to provide balance to the divergent perspectives that are expressed. All with the goals of bringing people together, finding a shared vision, and catalyzing a coordinated effort to solve the decidedly first-world problems that our sport, which we all love so deeply, faces.
So, today I would like to talk about what’s right about U.S. ski racing in the hope that the positive tone of my article ensures that all those in our sport with divergent perspectives and opinions can join hands, sing Kumbaya, and work as one to build U.S. ski racing up, keep doing what is working, fix what is broken, and, ultimately, help our athletes become the best in the world. Okay, maybe there won’t be any Kumbaya, but you know what I mean.
As I work with racers and families, speak at ski clubs, and attend races, I see tremendous passion for our sport. Everyone has been predicting the demise of alpine ski racing for decades, yet it seems to be not only surviving, but actually thriving in many parts of the country. I see race fields of more than 200 boys and girls at the U10 and U12 levels and then strong numbers into FIS.
I see kids who are out there for “grins and giggles” and others shooting for the impossible dream. I see those same kids training “full strip” in subzero temperatures, doing endless drills, running innumerable gates, skiing out and falling down and then sliding right back into the starting gate until they get it right. All for what? Not results, but for the joy of being on the mountain, the thrill of skiing fast, the satisfaction of mastering new skills, and the just plain fun of bombing around with their buddies.
I see USST athletes with endless drive and determination striving to be their best despite the financial and physical challenges they face. Steve, Ted, Lindsey, and Mikaela, as well as Nina, Bryce, Tommy, and those still climbing the competitive ladder, deserve our admiration and support.
I see parents who are willing to shoulder the expense of ski racing and drive their kids to the mountains every weekend (the Mammoth parents who live in Southern California get the award for driving!). Parents who see the value in ski racing, not in the results, but in the life lessons their kids learn as they hurtle down the mountain. Parents who volunteer their time to manage ski clubs, run races, raise money, and build community.
I see so many coaches, from those still coaching from back in my day to young coaches who want to make ski coaching their life’s work. Being a ski coach is really hard work, between the long hours and days, the cold weather, carrying gates, setting courses, organizing training and races, the list goes on (and they aren’t paid very well either). Their commitment, passion for our sport, and dedication for their kids is so worthy of respect and admiration.
I see the people who work for U.S. Ski & Snowboard doing the best they can with what they have. I’ve visited the COE and have seen the coaches and trainers working with the athletes, the blood, sweat, and tears of extreme exertion, all in the name of their search for that elusive goal that we call excellence. I see the administrators who are essential cogs in the wheels of the U.S. ski racing machine doing their part to support the athletes. And, I see the leaders, however maligned they may be sometimes, trying to find certainty in the uncertain businesses of athlete development and running an Olympic sport.
And, I see a lot of very smart people all over the country who are dedicated to making our sport better. Some are seasoned professionals who bring decades of experience and “institutional wisdom” to table. Others are newer to the game, but bring knowledge and experiences from other domains that can help challenge the status quo and bring fresh ideas to the fore. What I know for sure is that when you combine smart and passionate people with a shared vision, an openness to change, a culture of innovation, and a spirit of collaboration, good things will happen.
Finally, thanks to all those who read and comment on my posts on skiracing.com. It has been a joy and privilege to be a part of our ski racing community and to have the opportunity to share my own personal passion and dedication to making our sport better.
Happy holidays to everyone and we’ll talk next year!