Word got out last week that the U.S. Ski Team will be “cutting” the men’s World Cup slalom team for the 2018-19 season and backlash was swift and scathing in the comment sections of various corners of the internet.
People were left scratching their heads (some quite furiously) as to how the national team could abandon support for an entire discipline at the World Cup level.
2018 Olympian Mark Engel took to Facebook to give his take on the situation and announce his plans for the upcoming season. Engel was rational and attentive in realizing that although he enjoyed the best year of his career, he did not make U.S. Ski Team criteria for next season. For Engel to outright qualify for the national team at the age of 26, he needed to finish the season ranked inside of the top 25 in World Cup slalom, Engel’s current world rank is 31.
According to U.S. Ski & Snowboard Alpine Director Jesse Hunt, this situation is a matter of fact; male slalom athletes did not make objective U.S. Ski Team nomination criteria. Hunt would argue that therefore the situation is not one of cutting a program at all. For perspective, 19 alpine athletes were cut from the national team following the 2014 Olympic season, including three Sochi Olympians.
“I was definitely shocked,” said Engel’s World Cup teammate, AJ Ginnis. “I wasn’t necessarily bummed or upset, I was just basically shocked when I heard it. I’m still only 23 years old and this past year was only my second full year on the World Cup. Even though it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, obviously, I had a lot of promise in training and a lot of good splits and a couple good runs with a couple mistakes here and there, throwing that all away was kind of a shocker to me.”
“Right now, we have one tech team,” explained Hunt. “I think from my standpoint, one of the things that is important to communicate is that we are looking at a long-term perspective right now in terms of development and we are shifting resources lower into the system towards development. We’re making a serious effort to invest for future results.”
Hunt also added that the notion that there will be no support for U.S. slalom skiers like Engel, who has a dedicated 2018-19 World Cup slalom start spot to his name by way of winning last season’s NorAm slalom title, at World Cups this coming season is simply untrue.
“We’re going to have a coach at the World Cups for any athlete that decides to come whether they are a nominated national team athlete or not,” he said. “In Mark’s case, through NorAm access, we’re going to honor that and we’ll have a coach there and we’ll manage that.”
There’s no denying that being left off the national team roster stings, but Engel and his teammates have taken this situation in stride and are already looking towards next season and the opportunities that lie ahead of them.
“About a month ago I found out,” Engel said. “Even before going into their meetings, (head technical coach Forest Carrey) called us and said that it wasn’t looking good. When I first heard it, I didn’t take it bad at all. I immediately saw it as an opportunity. I was never upset or bummed about it.”
Both Engel and Ginnis will be joining the NCAA circuit this coming season for the University of Utah and Dartmouth College, respectively, as well as dueling it out on the World Pro Ski Tour.
“There are a lot more opportunities out there,” Ginnis said. “I ski because I love it. I don’t do it because it’s financially lucrative or because I want to race World Cup, so I have options and I’m going to explore them.”
Engel previously attended Utah for the 2014 season and was NCAA GS Champion before re-making the national team that spring and has one remaining year of NCAA eligibility. Ginnis has two years of eligibility remaining and plans on making the most of his debut year in the college ranks.
“I’m going to take the fall off and (Dartmouth men’s coach) Peter Dodge has been very helpful and open-minded and helping me really move back-and-forth between Europe and college and catering to what I need,” said Ginnis. “I’m really stoked to work with them this year. I have two years of eligibility and I definitely want to explore one of them and see what happens. I know from training and racing that I have the speed, why it’s not more consistent is something we’re going to work on.”
Racing the World Pro Ski Tour as active NCAA athletes also provides a unique opportunity for the duo as NCAA rules restrict athletes profiting from their sport outside of covering travel and living costs at events.
“Since I’m racing NCAA next year, my entire vibe changed with the Pro Tour,” explained Engel. “NCAA rules state that you can accept money at a race as long as it doesn’t go above your expenses for that event and you’re allowed to donate that extra money. I’m going to race the Pro Tour for the Alzheimer’s Association of Utah and donate whatever I make above travel expenses to them.”
Ginnis is also exploring this option and will be talking with several organizations, among them his long-time supporter, the T2 Foundation, over the summer to decide on an option that works best for him.
The realities of scarce resources following an Olympic season, where sponsorship dollars are hard to come by, are not lost on Hunt. He said tough decisions had to be made in order to best serve the team going forward.
“A lot of research has been done with nomination criteria for other national teams and results relative to age groups and a lot of that is wrapped up into Project 26,” concluded Hunt. “An enormous amount of research was done in that area before we landed on what our nomination criteria would be. Our efforts right now are to put some energy and resources into development for future results. I can’t put it any more clearly than that.”
“That’s another reason why I wasn’t that mad,” Engel added. “I mean, the slalom team did the worst at the Olympics and we need to start looking towards the future, which was sort of what was behind my Facebook post. It sucks, but I think they are trying to do what’s best, but it is pretty funky though.”
Official U.S. Ski Team nominations for the 2018-19 season will be released on Friday, May 25.
Editor’s note: A previous version incorrectly stated that Engel’s criteria was top 15 in the world. It has been changed to the correct top 25 in the world.