Whenever Squaw Valley Ski Team’s long-time, beloved program director, the late Mark Sullivan — AKA Sully — was asked what made Squaw Valley skiers so good, he always had the same answer: “That’s the best head coach right there,” he’d say, gesturing out the window behind his office chair. He was referring to KT-22 — the nearly 2,000 vertical-foot iconic hunk of rock that rises straight from the base area and serves up enough terrain to satisfy the most extreme appetites. That is certainly one imposing and conspicuous explanation for why the Tahoe area in general, and Squaw Valley in particular, seems to pump out an eternal supply of U.S. Ski Team, Olympic, and NCAA athletes.
Indeed, the 1960 Winter Olympics, hosted at the then-unknown Squaw Valley, were the last Winter Games to date where a Squaw skier did not compete. In the very next Winter Games in 1964, Jimmie Heuga won a bronze medal. Some years there have been as many as six Squaw skiers on the Olympic team. Beyond and between Olympics, skiers hailing Squaw Valley and the Tahoe area — from to Sugar Bowl in the north to Heavenly in the south — have accounted for a seemingly disproportionate number of skiers on the U.S. Ski Team. At least 54 Squaw Valley Mighty Mites have gone on to the U.S. Ski Team, and twenty of those also competed in the Olympics. Sully’s endearing and unique ability to simplify the sport notwithstanding, the secret to Tahoe’s ski success resides deeper, and in many more places, than on just one mountain.
Living With Legacies:
When Julia Mancuso took to Facebook before her third and final Olympics (she medaled in each one), she referenced the deep impression that merely growing up in Squaw had on her: “…the Olympics were my childhood dream. I wrote ‘Olympic Valley’ on my letters, I passed the Olympic rings and the torch every day on my way to school. The peaks of Squaw Valley made me the skier I am today….”
It is impossible to calibrate how much that immersion means to a developing athlete and person, but clearly the 1960 Olympics set stakes for this garden, while also seeding Squaw Valley instantly with an international set of World Class skiers. From there, it grew organically, those athletes becoming coaches, then building and attracting families of more ski racers and coaches. All of them knew how to utilize and support the natural and man-made resources Squaw offered, including, and perhaps most importantly, each other.
Sixteen-year USST alum and four-time Olympian Marco Sullivan is Sully’s nephew. From the time his uncle took him to watch the World Cup in Heavenly Valley at age five, Marco was hooked on ski racing and Squaw fostered his biggest dreams.
“Coming up through the ranks I never felt like it was weird to want to be on U.S. Ski Team or in the Olympics, because there were so many people around who had done it,” Sullivan reflects.
These champions, from Jimmie Heuga to Tamara McKinney to Daron Rahlves to Julia Mancuso have always come back to touch home base, showing their medals, and, more importantly, their humanity. For athletes exhausted from months on the road, and kids excited to share a lift ride or a cookie with an idol, the energizing exchange of support works both ways.
KT is rightly hallowed ground. One chair from the base delivers skiers to epic chutes, bowls, cliffs, trees, moguls and groomers that satisfy the most extreme among us. Current Squaw Valley Ski Team Program Director, Bill Hudson (himself a Squaw kid and Olympian), adds that “KT makes it easier for a coach to keep it fun and different and exciting. You can have an amazing morning of training and then go out for some epic freesking.”
And then, there is straight up training ON KT, as when Jonny Moseley’s coach Ray DeVre would build a jump on the steepest section of the imposing West Face, and make Moseley hit it and hike back up over and over again. The steepest, gnarliest courses became Moseley’s forte.
But KT is just one of Squaw’s five peaks that between them offer virtually every type of terrain an inbounds skier will ever encounter. Red Dog may be the most in-your-face giant slalom the women ever encountered on the World Cup, but learning to build and maintain speed on the upper mountain’s more mellow and flowing Mott’s Madness is equally important. Skiing on a variety of terrain in all conditions is key to developing versatility, and this relies on…
Rock Star Access:
Just having challenging terrain isn’t enough. Skiers need access to the riches, and that relies on cooperation with mountain management. Between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, there are a head-turning 16 different venues where the ski team can train. These sites run the gamut from early season training on Alpine’s Kangaroo, which sits at a higher elevation, to late season at Squaw’s Shirley Lake, where the team trained through June this year.
Jimmy King started working at Squaw in the Seventies and has been Squaw’s Mountain Manager since 1997. All along the way he’s spent many mornings opening the lifts early, and staffing the Mountain Run for top athletes to get full-length speed runs in before the public shows up. After getting it set up and safe for these sessions, King quietly moves along to get the mountain open for the public. He shrugs off the difficulty of balancing the needs of the public with the needs of the racers. “It just works out. There is no question about supporting racing,” says King. “To me it’s just the culture of the mountain.”
Not So Corporate Culture:
At many ski areas, the missions of the ski team and of the corporation do not align, and conflict ensues. At Squaw, management does not look at racing entirely from a cost perspective. Throughout many eras, and especially now, Squaw’s top brass has reinforced that culture IS the bottom line.
Creating Olympians is a key part of that culture, a point further emphasized in the Squaw Valley Ski Team’s unapologetic vision: “To be the number one supplier of athletes to the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Team and Freeride World.”
When Hudson stated this during a session at U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress “it drew some gasps,” he says. And yet, as Hudson explains, “Ask just about any coach about what they would like to do and ‘put kids on the USST’ is at the top of the list.”
Despite the high bar, Squaw’s day-to-day mission, which includes “instilling passion for snow sports and appreciation for our Olympic history, legacy and legendary mountains,” focuses on creating happy skiers, of all abilities. Suffice to say, they have plenty to work with, which leads us to…
With its proximity to the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Northern California’s Interstate-80 corridor, Tahoe ski areas can draw on a large and affluent population base. The Mighty Mite program is fueled by Weekend Warriors, some of whom (Jonny Moseley and Daron Rahlves among them) go on to make it big themselves. Those large numbers support programming for all levels and ages of junior skiers, while also giving local kids who ski five to six days a week access to a stable of coaches and facilities that might not otherwise be possible.
Having 1,700 kids makes it a little easier to give you the program your kid needs and makes the most sense,” says Hudson. That varies from a full-on year-round competition team to a more recreational weekend club team, with everything in between.
Hitting the Fun Meter, Hard:
Fun, and an excitement for all kinds of skiing, is a key motivator, and it spreads virally. Every generation of Squaw skier, it seems, has early memories of the coach (or coaches) who could leave everyone in the dust, and of that moment when the fear of being dropped exceeded the fear of anything else. These stories of unwittingly exceeding limitations do not include someone swooping in to wipe your nose and get you a hot cocoa, but they do involve an earned sense of pride. The youngest skiers are exposed to high-level, high-energy coaches. Marco Sullivan recalls his coach Trevor Wagner taking them freeskiing “super fast! There was some unspoken, unwritten agreement that we were going to get strong by freeskiing.” The value of freeskiing — hard and fast and everywhere — cannot not be overstated.
Sullivan describes how competition within his peer group prepared him for the jump to the big time. “When we hit FIS age, it was natural to be fast,” he says. “I never felt like there was a ton of pressure. We just came in with what we had and that was good enough.”
When you are surrounded by peers and idols making it on the world stage in their various disciplines and events, it’s hard NOT to be inspired. Consider the path of U.S. Ski Team veteran downhiller Travis Ganong. He grew up in the slipstream of U.S. Ski Teamers Sullivan, Rahlves and his own sister Megan, while also idolizing freeskiing legend Shane McConkey, who gave Travis props the first time he skied KT’s hair-raising Fingers, at age 10. Throughout his development, as he pushed his limits in both racing and big mountain freeskiing, his coach, Olympic medalist Greg Jones, helped him on the mental aspects of the sport. Ganong notes that his many mentors, “are also there to remind you that this doesn’t last forever, so you need to hit it hard, have fun and enjoy the ride.”
When a great mountain is mixed with high-octane peers and enthusiastic coaches, that’s when the magic happens. Says Squaw’s head U-16 coach Lindsay Dowd, “When you train all week with your coaches and then run into them skiing KT on their day ‘off’, that’s pretty cool.”
You rarely see Squaw coaches giving lengthy explanations to bored kids. Marjan Cernigoj, U.S. Ski Team Head Women’s Development coach calls Squaw coaches, “really good, but mellow,” and fondly recalls the golden era when he coached the USST alongside Squaw staples Ernst Hager and Andreas Rickenbach.
“We barely talked,” he remembers. “We just knew what had to be done and what everyone needed.”
Rickenbach and his wife, former USST downhill star Kirsten Clark, now coach the junior program, as does Overall World Cup Champion Tamara McKinney, USST alum and NCAA Champion Toni Standteiner, and long-time Canadian World Cup racer Anna Sullivan (nee Goodman), Marco’s wife. John Cashman is in charge of Squaw’s highest performance athletes when he’s not watching daughter Keely race in Europe with the national team. When it comes to experience, plenty of Squaw coaches have “been there, done that,” but are more eager to keep it fresh than to pull rank.
“It’s a work ethic but also a fun ethic,” says McKinney. For her, the most important thing a coach can do is create an ambience where everyone is comfortable to contribute. “You can be the best in the world and be humble enough to try hard and try something new.”
For ski racers, managing a high school education is a major, and often expensive issue. Skiers from the Tahoe area enjoy a surprising variety of options for school. U.S. Ski Team alums and Olympians have attended Sugar Bowl Academy as well as public schools like North Tahoe High School — where students can get out midday and train in the afternoon — and independent study curriculum at the Forest Charter School.
The Swagger Factor:
All of the above feeds into a natural confidence that Tahoe-bred skiers seem to carry, an assumption that they want to go for it. How, or if, they build on that gift is up to them. Swagger alone — even with great talent — is not enough to succeed. It takes will and discipline, traits less heralded amongst the Tahoe crowd.
“Having the mental attitude and being low-key was my approach,” says Rahlves, who notes that he is a “mixed breed,” having built his raw technical skills in Tahoe, but then leaving the West to attend Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont. He went from being top three in practically every race in the Far West to not making the top 20 his first year at GMVS. “There isn’t a training hill back East that is better than what we have in Tahoe,” he says, “but the approach was different in the East and it demanded me to be physically strong and tough in the head. It’s been my secret sauce developed over time back East and in the West.”
Rahlves (whose parents were once assured he had no future as a ski racer), went on to become the United States’ most decorated male downhiller, winning the fabled Hahnenkamm downhill, the 2001 Super-G World Championship title, and a World Championship bronze in GS.
Built For Speed and Built to Last:
Rahlves, like many other Squaw and Tahoe-bred athletes whose years on the national team reach double digits, has complex, versatile skill sets that may take time to emerge, but then go the distance. These skills are, in part, the consequence of a high-energy, low-pressure environment that prioritizes creating proficient skiers who simply love the sport. This slow building, all-mountain foundation is ideal for speed skiers who must be adept at a variety of terrain and conditions. Not surprisingly, Squaw has traditionally produced a lot of speed skiers.
“Skiing fast over the terrain in Tahoe makes you adapt every turn and look ahead,” says Rahlves. Freeskiing at home in Tahoe also offered a mental break from racing that Rahlves and others have used to recharge throughout their lengthy World Cup careers.
Free-thinking, big-haired skiing icon Glen Plake has his own theory on what gives Tahoe skiers their special sauce. Plake got his start ski racing at Heavenly Valley on the Blue Angels. Beneath his rogue streak lies the strict technical discipline instilled by Austrian coaches. Plake suggests that Tahoe’s skier success may have to do with what the area does not have—namely rigidity.
“Without a doubt there is more individualism because we do not have these mega systems and infrastructure,” says Plake. “That just doesn’t fit in the West.”
When Tahoe athletes get to the world stage, “they are used to chaos,” Plake suggests. That flexibility, balanced with a “life’s tough in the mountains” sensibility borne of digging out from 15-foot snowstorms, and an insatiable appetite for fun, becomes a superpower. When Julia Mancuso won her breakout gold medal in 2006, it wasn’t on a perfectly groomed hill on an ideal day. It was in a full blizzard with no visibility and wildly variable conditions. Being ready for chaos — even greeting it cheerfully — is something she’d spent a lifetime learning.
Keeping it Going:
Hudson, who took the helm of the Squaw Valley Ski Team last December, is diligent about maintaining and building on Squaw’s legacy. He spends a significant amount of time reaching out to Squaw’s local legends, whether or not they are currently involved in the program, reminding them they are part of the family. “That was something that Sully did really well,” notes Hudson. Keeping the connection alive — with a joke, a ready smile, and always an open invitation — was Sully’s quiet gift. It said that no matter how far you go, or where you end up, Squaw is always home.
So, your mountain does not look like KT, and you don’t get 15 feet of snow at a pop or even in a year. Fret-not because here’s some Tahoe sense you can bring to any mountain:
- Get the strongest skiers with the youngest kids, and ski a lot.
- Match hard work and hard skiing with a laid-back attitude.
- Go big on enthusiasm and fun.
- Leave your egos in the parking lot — that goes for coaches and athletes.
- Figure out the challenges your area offers and slay them.
- Did we mention freesking? Make time in the day to go for it.
- Maintain the “family” connection to grow your club’s legacy.
- Have patience — building great skiers takes time.
Is there something in the water? Maybe, but there’s no doubt that what makes ski racing in Tahoe so successful can be replicated elsewhere, it just takes a little effort and some imagination.