America's top coach takes a mid-season look at U.S. Ski Team


America’s top coach takes a mid-season look at U.S. Ski Team{mosimage}Jesse Hunt is America’s top ski coach. A former U.S. Ski Team athlete, Hunt turned to coaching after graduating from the University of Vermont, and rose through the ranks to become the men’s head coach by the time the 2002 Winter Olympic Games rolled through Salt Lake City.

After that, Hunt became the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine director, in charge of not only the men’s and women’s squads of the U.S. Ski Team, but also of athlete development and the structuring of USSA-sanctioned racing nationwide.

Hunt still goes on the road occasionally, evaluating programs and keeping up with the sport. He arrived in Wengen, Switzerland, the day before the first scheduled downhill training run. But bad weather knocked out that training, and then the first of two Wengen downhills, so Hunt spent the first few days of a month-long European tour in the ski team’s Wengen hotel, meeting with the athletes and staff of the U.S. Ski Team.

Between one of those meetings and a pick-up game of hockey on the afternoon of January 15, Hunt took off half an hour to talk with Ski Racing about the current season. The interview took place in the lobby of the hotel that was used, in 1969, for several scenes from Downhill Racer, the classic ski racing film in which Gene Hackman portrayed a hard-nosed ski coach for the U.S. Ski Team.

Ski Racing: It’s the middle of the season. What’s on your mind and how are the teams doing? How do you feel about the direction things are going?
Jesse Hunt: At this point we had some wins that were really historic, in Beaver Creek and Park City. Some great results there got us off the ground. When we came back to Europe, I think we lost a little momentum. … I think overall what I’m really excited about is that while we have a few individual highlights, if you look at us as a team across the board, and when you look at men’s and women’s teams, we’ve gotten in the top five in every event. My goal is to see that we can actually achieve a podium in every event, because that tells us that we have that potential. If we can do it in a World Cup, then we can certainly do it in a world championship or an Olympic race. … We have athletes going for the overall, for discipline titles, but I want to see all athletes going for their personal best. … I think we’re going in the right direction.

SR: You hear a lot these days about the women’s World Cup being in trouble. Do you agree with that? Are you concerned about the health of that circuit?
JH: I think that the FIS needs to build a really strong business plan for World Cup. I think we’re in a bit of transition period right now. My feeling is that when FIS drives a strong business plan, things are going to clean themselves up and we’ll get on a stable calendar. As long as it’s difficult for race organizers to put on races, we’re going to go through what we’re going through.

SR: What do you think of this idea of structuring the World Cup into a block system, where men and women are in the same place for multiple disciplines? Where TV can get set up and not get shut out by bad weather — because they have a lot of races to fall back on — and where women’s races can get a boost from the fan base the men’s races have. We’ve heard that you’re behind that idea.
JH: The important thing from my point of view is that there’s a good business model so that it makes financial sense for the organizer, so they can put on a great race. My feeling is that that model exists at the world championships now, so certainly there’s a living example, so there’s potential and it’s something to take a look at.

SR: Would you suggest it to FIS?
JH: My side is the athletic end of it, so I’m not driving a business model. I’m looking at how it affects the athletes, and I want to make sure that whatever does happen on the business side, it works for the athletes as well. For the American athletes, less traveling time is important. Right now the travel and the strain of running four disciplines on the World Cup is incredibly difficult. I’d like to see a World Cup where we can have more multi-discipline athletes, because I think it’s important for the name-recognition of the athletes and for the sport. I’d like to see a schedule that takes into account the athlete’s needs when they’re running multiple disciplines.

SR: Are there other pros and cons of that model, athletically speaking?
JH: There’s many. We have a lot of different things to look at. We have a lot of specialists, and they’re the other end of the spectrum. There’s also venue-quality; as you start to lump events together, you’ll risk losing classic hills and classic events. You’re going to risk quality. There are downsides to everything and there are positives to everything. Again, I think that right now the most important thing is to set up a system that works athletically but is also financially feasible. Striking that balance is important.

SR: Park City pulled out of hosting the early season World Cups. Is that set in stone?
JH: Park City’s told us they’re no longer going to be putting on America’s Opening. That’s a disappointment. They’ve done a great job. They’ve been a great partner in delivering World Cup events. It’s too bad that they’ve decided not to continue to be our partner on that. But on the other side, it gives us an opportunity to look at things in a different light, and hopefully to create some new relationships and put on better events in the future. I think they did an incredible job, but I respect the fact that they wanted to go in a new direction. It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that we look forward to.

SR: When you say new relationships, are you thinking at all of running events at a different place, even at a different time of year?
JH: Right now the calendar is the way it is, and it’s difficult to make adjustments in the near future. We can change the sites, and that’s what we’re going to need to do. If we did change the calendar, we’d have to change a few years ahead, so it’s not something in the near future.

SR: Can you tell us spots that you’re looking at for World Cups in November?
JH: One thing you want to look at is the resorts that historically can deliver the event in November. That’s the key for the athletes. To have an organizer who they can count on. That cuts down the options pretty quick. I think we’re going to talk to the organizers that have been able to deliver in the past, and we’ll see how it goes. It’ll be our Events department having those discussions.

SR: When will you know?
JH: Hopefully sooner rather than later. From my standpoint, I’d like to know very soon. It helps us out for our preparation period, and also for building a calendar below World Cup. We want to build a good NorAm calendar that works in conjunction with the World Cup, so the sooner the better, for all departments.

SR: Bode Miller wants a World Cup in the East, and he recognizes that might be a pipe dream in November, when the East is not historically snowy. But then he said he really hates to see early season races cancelled. What makes it worse than canceling, say, the downhill in Bormio, Italy, in December?
JH: The early season is particularly tough for a cancellation. The athletes are really geared up to have that opener, and it’s a huge disappointment to have that race cancelled. Bode can use a mid-season cancellation to rest or train, so it can be a blessing in disguise. In the early season, it’s important that the site can deliver. It’s important for the athletes, the organizer and for FIS.

SR: We’re in the middle of the Olympic cycle now, mid-way between Salt Lake and Turin. This is the time where things shift around financially, right? Are you starting to see some more money coming into the ski team?
JH: Sponsors are generally more interested midway through the cycle.
Historically now is when they really start to get onboard. Our marketing department has done a good job of staggering our contracts in a way that provides some security during the post-Olympics, which is traditionally a tough time for us. They’ve done a really good job with that, which has kept things rolling through the last couple of years. We have had some shrinkage in the programs financially. It’s been company-wide. At this point I think we hope to maintain, and grow from here through the Olympics. But that’s dependent on the economy and on our Foundation æ our major fundraising body æ and their efforts. I’m anticipating we’ll at least be able to hold where we are.

SR: With all the athletic success, doesn’t that get the ball rolling?
JH: I think the results and the ability to market our team have improved, but that’s in an economy that’s been struggling. So relatively speaking, I’d say we’ve had to shrink less because of the success. Shrinking is no fun, but in reality we’d have had to shrink more than we did if we hadn’t had the success we’ve had in these last couple years. I do think people are recognizing the value of our team, and our success, so I think it’s contributing to the health of our program.

SR: When do you get that feeling exactly?
JH: Our USSA membership is growing in alpine. I correlate that to the success the team is having. People are excited about ski racing. They’re excited about the success the team has had. It’s showing itself in membership. We’re not shrinking as we may have if we hadn’t had success. There are a lot of companies that are struggling now, but USSA is holding its own, better than most companies of its size. And I’m excited to see that we have a European sponsor. Kelly’s. That says a lot about the extent of our success, as well as the efforts of our marketing department.

SR: You’re over here for Wengen and Haus and a bunch of World Cups. Are you going to world juniors?
JH: Yeah. We’ll have a great team this year, for both men and women. We’ll be looking for some podiums, and hopefully we’ll win back the Marc Hodler trophy [which goes to the top national team]. That’s our goal.

SR: Have any of the U.S. Ski Team’s successes this year stood out to you as a surprise?
JH: One was seeing Kirsten Clark get on the podium in GS for the first time in her career. That really jumped out at me. She’s been successful in super G in downhill, and has skied well in giant slalom, but for her to step up onto the podium was a pleasant surprise. Of the younger group, it’s been really tough on the Europa Cup because of the lack of snow. A lot of cancellations and a lot of races that were stacked with World Cup athletes because of cancellations. It’s been a really hard battle there. We don’t have a lot of results to show there. We have a podium by Bryna [McCarty, at Tignes] and on the men’s side we have some top fives. Certainly we’ve shown some results there, but not with the consistency and depth, and certainly there are some reasons for that, which I just mentioned. But I’d like to see some more success.

At the NorAm level on the women’s side we’ve done very well. On the men’s side we’ve had some good individual performances. Ted Ligety has really used that tour as a stepping-stone, lowering his rankings. There are definitely bright spots there. The critical places to succeed are NorAms and the World Cup. The Europa Cup is a tour that’s really difficult, and I want our athletes to succeed there, but it’s a moving target, so it’s harder to plan for and to create results. We’re going to continue to eat away at that tour and continue to get success at that level. It’s an important level. Athletes move straight from there to World Cup success. That’s been proven time and again. In terms of our chances with the juniors, we have a great team. We have athletes that have been on the team for a while, racing in Europe for a while, and I really like our chances going into world juniors.

SR: Do you miss being a World Cup coach?
JH: Oh yeah. I do. I miss it. Traveling’s difficult though. My hat is off to the coaches who are traveling so much. They’re doing it because they really love it, or they wouldn’t be sacrificing as much as they are. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. A lot of different aspects that need to be done well in order to succeed. A lot of moving parts. Getting it all to work together and work well is a trick.

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