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OPINION: Elitist attitudes threaten junior ski racing’s sustainability

Declining membership calls the sustainability of junior ski racing into question. C.J. Feehan

Rapidly declining membership calls the sustainability of junior ski racing into question. C.J. Feehan

Todd Jones’ letter to the editor, “Dollars and Sense,” in Issue 11 of Ski Racing Magazine resonated with me as a lifelong member of the ski racing community. He brings to focus one of the major problems facing our sport: the cost for young ski racers to follow their dreams as they progress to higher levels of competition. Like Todd, I love the sport of alpine ski racing. It has been my lifelong career and passion, and I am very concerned about its future.

Our sport faces several challenges, including cost, opportunity and a rapidly shrinking number of Junior athletes, and I’m saddened that USSA seems to ignore these problems, and in fact, often contributes to them.

The limiting financial cost of ski racing may reflect a more fundamental problem resulting from USSA’s emphasis and focus on just the elite few. Only a very small fraction of a percent of our nation’s racers will compete on the national team in any given year, yet every year thousands of young skiers work very hard to achieve their goals and dreams.

We are all very proud of our national team and are thrilled by the individual medals and globes. We all want to be “Best in the World,” but maybe this slogan can be measured by more than just Olympic podiums.

Here’s an example of the swelling elitist attitude and growing exclusiveness –

Early last fall USSA realized, albeit late, that the 2013-14 season would finally advance young racers to the next age class for the first time since the recent change, and there was no mechanism in place to identify the top 13 year olds who would be U16s the following year. So they decided to add a select group of second-year U14s to the 2014 National U16 Championships. This decision was made in the fall of 2013 after every state, division and region had already set its calendar and schedule in place.

I believe USSA made this decision for two reasons. First, the newly created National Training Group (NTG) recognizes the U16 age group. USSA likely wanted to identify top second-year U14s to name to the NTG next season. Second, the USSA TEAM Academy admits U16 athletes and has an impetus to recruit second-year U14s for the following year as well.

To facilitate the selection for next year’s NTG and to identify a list of new recruits for the Academy, a quota was created for second-year U14s (13 year olds) to a national championship event. Five spots for girls and five spots for boys were allotted to each of the three USSA regions: East, Rocky/Central and West. The Western Region had no space in its calendar to add a special selection event to determine its participants this past season. Therefore, each of the five divisions in the West were given a quota of one male and one female and asked to use their existing race calendars to identify their top 13-year-old girl and boy.

The Pacific Northwest (PNSA) discussed these single quota spots at several levels, including the Alpine Competition Committee and board of directors. In the end, PNSA decided not to fill its quota spots and not send any U14 athletes to the U16 National Championship.

PNSA’s decision was based on a few principles. First, this age is too young to send to a national championship; they haven’t even competed at a regional championship at this point. The risk of giving the wrong impression to one single girl and one single boy was not worth the benefit. (This principle was supported nationally a few years ago when USSA decided to stop sending teams of young racers to Topolino and Whistler Cup.)

Second, PNSA believed that selecting a single athlete of this age from a single weekend of qualification racing was inherently flawed. For every winner on a certain day, there are several other young racers who could have won. PNSA would be sending the wrong message to all those young U14 racers who did not receive the single selection spot to the U16 National Championship. Let’s keep kids in the sport!

The first response from USSA, once hearing of the PNSA decision, was not to phone PNSA leadership to discuss what might be best for the athletes, or to ask how USSA could help with the selection and still address PNSA’s concerns. No, the national governing body’s response can be summarized by the following remarks from a member of the USSA leadership directed at our divisional president:

“We (USSA) will pick your athlete for you.”

“We (USSA) are responsible for athlete development and know what is best.”

In the end, after some stalemate, the USSA Western Region agreed to honor PNSA’s decision. Unfortunately, this agreement was not born from mutual understanding, but from other political pressures. PNSA did send several U16 athletes to the championship, and as suspected the parents of one standout PNSA female were encouraged by USSA staff to consider enrolling their daughter in the TEAM Academy for next year.

USSA wants to know who is fastest at every age, identifying those young athletes and inviting the elite few to “special” projects and opportunities. This is exclusive and expensive, and when the selection process is perceived to be unfair, sends a damaging message to many other talented young racers. Why would we limit our choices to such a small pool of talent? With this system in place, even Ted Ligety, who to this day talks about being a late bloomer in the sport, may never have been identified for his now obvious abilities.

USSA already struggles with a declining membership base, and selections like these further alienate young athletes from the sport by picking and choosing the so-called very best and offering them access to elite track opportunities at the U14 level. If you haven’t been selected to a USSA project by the time you’re 14, why even continue to ski race? Why should mom and dad keep paying for the expensive sport?

Today, the number of FIS-age Juniors has dropped dramatically, and our race field sizes have shrunk so much that some events are being canceled. We’re not alone. In Canada, British Columbia and Alberta have fewer than 200 FIS athletes between both provinces. Youth sport participation in the U.S. is on the decline in all major team sports including basketball, baseball, football, and soccer, though none are dropping as drastically as USSA memberships.

Since 2012, the final season of the JO age classes, the number of active FIS-age Juniors has dropped by nearly 30%. But even more startling and disturbing is the drop in active participation from the 2012 number of J3 athletes to the number of U16 athletes this year: roughly 28%! (See graphs below)

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Even before the first season of the shift in age classes, USSA realized they were losing Competitor License revenue from the 13-year-old age group. U14 athletes (J4 athletes one year older) up to this point had only purchased a Youth License. USSA decided to offer this age group the Competitor License, and some parents, feeling obliged, purchased the license for their 12- or 13-year-old racer. Almost 600 Competitor Licenses were sold to U14s in 2014, and if history plays out, this number will grow.

Now, even younger racers are entering USSA-scored events. Several divisions in the West placed restrictions on the U14 age group, limiting the number of starts, hoping to discourage point chasing while continuing to promote local racing and skill development. I argued with the USSA Western Region many times that the age change would hurt our sport. But like everyone else, I was told the age change would be good for the sport because it would slow down the desire to quickly advance young kids to higher competitive levels, leaving more time for them to stay local and develop their skiing and racing skills. I wanted to believe, but the evidence is already pointing to the contrary.

A lot has been written and discussed in recent months about USSA and where it appears to be heading. I encourage coaches, athletes, parents, and industry members to share their constructive thoughts. If fundamental change is needed, now is the time. USSA has new leadership at the top.

Here is some food for thought. Can anyone answer these questions?

  • How can our sport offer other goals and dreams to young athletes beside the Olympic and World Cup dream?
  • What are the fundamental reasons young athletes leave our sport: cost, limited opportunity, lack of fun, etc.?
  • Why is NCAA racing not recognized as an official channel of the USSA development pipeline?
  • Why is the USCSA collegiate circuit independent of USSA when so many USSA athletes could have the opportunity to attend college and continue enjoying our sport on the club level?
  • Can USSA offer a convincing reason for existing high school leagues nationwide to join in order to increase membership and participation outside of the most elite track?

Share your thoughts, concerns, ideas and solutions.

Bill Gunesch is the current PNSA Vice President and has been director of the Mt. Hood Ski Education Foundation for the past 25 years. A FIS technical delegate, he is a former U.S. Ski Team World Cup and Olympic Coach (1986-88) and also a former chairman of the USSA Western Region Alpine Competition Committee.

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*The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors of our ‘Opinion’ pieces are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Ski Racing International, LLC.

SR Staff

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