An agreeable 2021 U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress culminated this week with final votes cast in the Alpine Sport Committee to enact a few new initiatives for the 2021-22 season. In stark contrast with the 2020 iteration of Congress, which hosted a litany of more contentious debates — from collegiate pathways to limiting FIS starts — committee members, sport-leaders, and NGB staff offered a mostly copacetic tone with no shortage of virtual pats on the back for pulling off an extraordinarily difficult season.
Amid COVID, casualties acknowledged by the NGB and committee members include the lack of a 2020-21 NorAm Cup, the absence of junior national championships, and a constrained NCAA season with many eastern schools unable to participate. On snow, however, results at the top levels are tracking in the right direction, according to staff and most observers.
“We had a successful season athletically,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard Alpine Director Jesse Hunt. “Certainly, we hit some of our markers at world champs and at the World Cup. … We had a lot of athletes stepping up in different areas, in different events, stepping up from Europa Cup to the World Cup and gaining success there, having success on the Europa Cup, which is something we haven’t done broadly in a number of years.”
In the absence of NorAms, U.S. Ski & Snowboard did not advance any athletes to the alpine C Team this spring.
“Certainly, we missed the NorAms,” Hunt admitted. “That’s been a stepping stone for us, but I think some of those athletes who were at that level had more European experience, which was also a benefit.”
Alpine Development Director Chip Knight, in his report to the influential Alpine Development Subcommittee, acknowledged significant national shortcomings in three key areas: head-to-head competition during pandemic, inadequate equipment service for junior athletes (an ongoing problem), and the emerging lack of speed participation and speed-skill development. (The latter was also highlighted by veteran coach Johno McBride in a recent Ski Racing Media editorial.)
“Our speed venues are dwindling. Participation is down. Access to the venues … feels like it’s (getting) harder and harder,” said Knight. “We were excited about the downhill program at nationals in the spring in Aspen … but the participation wasn’t that awesome. Field sizes were down. People elected to go to a local FIS race over gaining some valuable exposure against the U.S. Ski Team.
“It’s a sad state of affairs, and it bleeds in the wrong direction over time,” said Knight.
While the lack of head-to-head competition during the 2020-21 season is a concern, many sport-leaders, including Knight, are hoping to find silver linings in the increased localization of ski racing amid COVID. Many took advantage of the “COVID opportunity” to rethink and reimagine the systems and programs they oversee. (Several of these critical takeaways were outlined by Team Summit’s Aldo Radamus in an article published by Ski Racing Media during Congress.)
As decision-makers caught their breath and assessed the unusual season now in the rearview mirror, a handful of COVID-related initiatives percolated up through the alpine working groups and subcommittees, ultimately passed by the Alpine Sport Committee to go into effect next season. Among them were proposals to establish a tiered series of FIS competition (divisional and regional), the reinstatement of U18 national championships, retaining virtual team captains meetings and digital forms communication on race day, as well as other initiatives, outlined below:
Perhaps the gorilla in the room and certainly the most hot-button issue of Congress 2020 was the use of the collegiate system as a development pathway to the U.S. Ski Team and World Cup.
In the opening half-hour of the Alpine Sport Committee, its chair, Darryl Landstrom, graciously teed up the issue for U.S. Ski & Snowboard staff, inviting them to discuss “outreach to the collegiate programs this year because that was … a real positive step,” Landstrom queried.
Knight responded, saying the NGB spent significant time reaching out to individual collegiate programs over the summer and benefited greatly from improved dialog.
“It was tremendous to build a connection and gain feedback we hadn’t heard,” said Knight. “There have been a few key learning items from that process, one of which is that we need to communicate more and better. … We are working in specific ways on things like criteria and access throughout the pipeline, whether it’s at the development level, the Europa Cup level, or the World Cup level.”
Read more about collegiate developments at 2021 Congress in Ski Racing Media’s extended coverage.
Tiered FIS competition
Among the more positive takeaways from the COVID season, according to proponents, is a new rule that establishes tiered levels of FIS racing within the regions. Authored by U.S. Ski & Snowboard staff, led by Knight, the new rule is also in line with Health of Sport recommendations.
“This is a proposal to better define two tiers of FIS competition in each region,” said Knight in his pitch to the U16-and-older Working Group. “It stems from a lot of what we learned this year (during COVID) and the efficacy of our development or divisional FIS racing that was going on around the country. All the adaptations that were being made were really effective at allowing young athletes to come in and establish a FIS point profile and a decent ranking by the end of the year.”
The initiative is intended to allow developing athletes to experience more success at the divisional level and provide an objective for moving up to the “elite” level; it also intends to reduce travel with more racing at the divisional or “zonal” level, as they call it out west.
At the elite level, there will be a finite number of starts, up to 22, which could be considered a backdoor effort at limiting total FIS starts. (The East, for one, had 25 Eastern Cups calendared for next season. They’ll have to make an adjustment.) There’s more flexibility to schedule races at the divisional level, but there would likely be less points to chase at those events, at least by design.
“The effort here is to construct a regional elite tier of competition that makes sense across the country,” said Knight. “That’s part of the issue we’ve been trying to address as a community: What’s the appropriate number of starts at the right level?”
The elite tier will include at least two races in each major discipline: slalom, GS, super G, and downhill. The carefully crafted language allows for “up to 22 starts” and provides flexibility to the regions if they can’t pull off all 22. However, at least two races per discipline will be mandated — most notably in speed, which has become more and more elusive in the U.S.
“We do feel that is important to define because, for example, in the East this year, there were no downhills, and the only super G races were at Whiteface,” said Knight. “As we’ve discussed over many years now, speed participation is a huge problem.”
According to the new rule, racing blocks will be planned during national spring meetings with the other two regions and calendared to be contested at similar times. The regions will establish quotas and procedures for qualification from the divisional series into the elite series.
U18 nationals are back
As a result of dual proposals from Rocky/Central and the West, U18 nationals are set to make their return with four events, notably downhill, for the first time since 2015. Along with the added championship, U.S. Ski & Snowboard will return to a U18 designation, instead of U19.
“This is a healthy progression as athletes are moving out of U16s into their FIS years,” said Bill Gunesch, representing the Western Region. “It continues to give first- and second-year FIS athletes a national championship to shoot for. Keeping championship racing is important for these kids as they’re developing to bring their A-game to a one-time-only performance.”
Warner Nickerson, who sits on the Alpine Development Subcommittee but also represents the Athletes’ Council, said the move back to a U18 championship makes a lot of sense, although Breezy Johnson chimed in with some concerns.
“I know we spoke about this when we got rid of (U18) national championships, and I think there are arguments on both sides,” said Johnson. “The cost was really prohibitive for clubs and athletes, and I think scheduling has been really hard, especially with the U.S. Ski Team wanting all the good athletes going to all the NorAms.”
Johnson also reminded the group that some athletes in this age category struggled to “behave themselves” at the event.
After a lengthy discussion about quotas — many saying a field size of roughly 80 athletes per gender is too big for a variety of reasons — the proposal passed with only one objection, Todd Brickson, who was opposed to the quota but not the championship itself.
U14 news: no more racing up
From the U14-and-younger Working Group, two significant proposals: one that sailed through and another that got shot down.
A new rule from Chip Knight prohibits U14 athletes from “racing up” to U16 national championships, at least objectively. The rule does allow for special discretionary circumstances, but Knight said, “It’s basically not going to happen. … I cannot think of a U14 I would support.
“It’s a fun experience, and it’s a great exposure opportunity,” said Knight, “but is it particularly instrumental? I don’t think so.”
The subcommittee agreed, and passed the proposal without objection.
Additionally, a proposal from Alaska to allow an option for race organizers to use 72-inch slalom gates at the U14 level (instead of the usual 60-inch) was voted down in the Alpine Development Subcommittee.
Single-gate SG? Not so fast
In a rare move by the Alpine Sport Committee, which often serves as a rubber stamp to the lower subcommittees, members overturned an initiative to allow single-gate super G.
“When you read through this rule, it seems like they’re trying to make it really easy to have single-gate super G,” said Warner Nickerson, representing the athletes. “We think, as an athlete group, that the outside panels are crucial in many spots, for terrain, knowing where you need to line up coming into certain gates. … From a safety sense, we don’t feel that comfortable with this.”
Nickerson suggested, instead, that all the outside panels should be set, and the jury could then come down and remove any that were deemed unsafe — but that appears to already be the rule, he said.
Knight, who also spoke on behalf of Jesse Hunt and staff, said he could not support the proposal: “Super G is fundamentally different from a technical event — slalom and GS — where we race most often now with the single poles. … Outside gates are an integral and necessary component of a speed event and super G in particular.”
In what Aldo Radamus referred to as low-hanging fruit in his SRM editorial, there was little or no pushback for allowing virtual team captains meetings and digital forms of race-day communication, such as WhatsApp, to continue into the post-pandemic era.
These measures were adopted last season to support social distancing, but the community determined they should be made permanent. The proposals came out of the Rules Working Group and were unopposed in the Alpine Sport Committee.
Also from the Rules Working Group and a COVID byproduct was a proposal to ease requirements for use of gate judges:
“The jury along with support of the organizing committee may opt to not use gate judges in downhill, downhill training, super G, super G training, and GS, provided they take measures to cover the entire course with sufficient jury members, jury advisors, eyes of the jury, and connection coaches.”
Slalom would still require gate judges. With strong support from the officials community, the measure passed.
Health of Sport
Finally, there was a brief update from the Health of Sport task force, which was “created in the spring of 2019 and has been working to understand and identify areas where the sport can be improved,” particularly as it pertains to issues of cost, accessibility, and retention.
“We’ve been talking a lot about these things (during Congress),” said Health of Sport task force chair Karen Ghent in her report to the Alpine Development Subcommittee. “We recognize that the various working groups are best equipped to find solutions to these issues.”
The task force, which in 2020 proposed the ultimately unpopular measure of limiting the number of FIS starts an athlete could make in a given season, is now delegating out to the working groups to develop new proposals in their respective areas of expertise with the following criteria in mind: impact on access and retention, cost and benefit, and potential effect on development and performance.
“The Health of Sport task force hopes that when we do make proposals and consider proposals that come our way … that we consider these things when we make these decisions,” said Ghent. “How do (these decisions) impede access to our sport? What effect does it have on the retention of our athletes? How much does it cost to do these things? Is there a way to do it without being so expensive? And how does it effect performance?”
After a relatively quiet COVID season, in which big-picture concerns were not necessarily the top priority, the task force and working groups appear ready to start addressing some of these issues again. Stay tuned.