Editor’s note: This second story in a two-part series focuses on what helped athletes make their leap into the big leagues. See Part 1 for a list of contributors and more on development at the regional level that brought athletes up to the national team.
Access: creating the push and pull
“Access to the greatest skiers to follow, watch and learn from, was the key in my mind,” says Deb Armstrong. “As a junior I had participated in two USST sponsored camps as a development athlete and one trip to Europe through a team sponsored/led trip. The next fall I was asked to go to Soelden with the entire USST women’s team, A Team through development. There, I had access to the best team and skiers in the world, and my development went through the stratosphere. With access, those with potential will take it from there. It’s not too complicated.”
Hilary Lindh had a similar formative “eye-opening” early experience at her first USST camp, at age 15, with the entire women’s team.
When Jonna Mendes and Kirsten Clark were coming on to the World Cup, Lindh and Picabo Street were shuffling out, but not before passing on their experience. For Mendes, Street made a huge impact. “Picabo was great with me. We were very different which probably allowed that to happen.” Mendes recalls, as a teenager at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, riding the chairlift with Street on her way up to win the Olympic super G gold. Mendes and her young peers had no expectations for themselves but she felt Street’s energy and confidence before the run. “That definitely impacted me. I thought, ‘Holy cow this is cool!’” Later, the two often inspected together, and shared insights on tactics.
Clark related more closely with Lindh. “For me Hilary was definitely someone I related to. She was that athlete who crossed the Ts and dotted the I’s. That’s what I had to do to have confidence and know I was prepared.”
Daron Rahlves credits his rise through the ranks to intensity in all aspects of his training — physical, mental and tactical — as well as chasing “the Big Three,” AJ Kitt, Kyle Rasmussen and Tommy Moe. “I won a few runs against those guys and that built my confidence,” says Rahlves. When they retired, so did that daily benchmark (the pull), until Bode Miller came in and cranked the intensity back up (the push).
On the flipside of access are the veterans who must balance their own needs with stoking the younger generation. “As you get older you want more independence and not to go to every camp,” explains Christin Cooper. “We all felt we had a responsibility to the team. That’s where the give and take comes in, and I knew I could have those conversations with my coaches.”
Exposure, in the right dose
In ski racing, there’s nothing like exposure to the sport’s heartland, in Europe, and not only the intensity but also the volume of the competition. The recalibration is immediate.
His first year on the US Ski Team, at age 15, Phil Mahre recalls meeting Greg Jones, then our top ranked GS skier, and thinking, “I need to beat Greg Jones.” The first year he traveled to Europe to compete on the World Cup his focus quickly changed from Jones to Gustavo Thoeni, Piero Gros, Hansi Hinterseer, Ingemar Stenmark. “Those were the people I needed to beat.”
Lindh called her full year of racing Europa Cup with a fully supported team of around eight girls, “an awesome learning experience…how to wash your clothes in your hotel room; how to order juice or whatever in French and German and Italian; how to get along with a bunch of competitive women; what downhills in Europe are like, etc.”
Too much too soon, however, can be a setback. With less fondness Lindh remembers graduating to a full World Cup schedule the following year. “That was not good,” she recalls.
The tight/loose balance
Just as a technical base is important to speed, and speed brings technique together to make it flow, each athlete needs to find the right balance of discipline and freedom. Daron Rahlves, when describing the US Men’s DH team, called it “Tight/Loose — they got the work done and had fun.” Rahlves grew up big mountain skiing at Squaw Valley, then moved east to attend GMVS for high school. While building the mental and physical toughness bred in eastern gnarl, and throughout his World Cup career, he reset and recharged on his trips home to Squaw by making SG turns all over the mountain. “It was a combo that worked for me. The seed was planted for me in Tahoe and polished in the east.”
Many athletes credit their longevity and love for the sport to the release of getting away from structured training. Cooper remembered hearing that Jean Claude Killy would go home to Val d’Isere and ski bumps to recalibrate his balance. She did the same thing when she came home to Sun Valley during breaks. “You need to have the courage not to train all the time—to see other things as training.”
This can be a battle with parents who are smitten with the promised payoff of deliberate practice, but the skills gained by hell-bent free skiing are immeasurable. “When you get to Europe and are running in the sticks and its rough, you need that toughness and cat-like ability,” says Cooper. “Flexibility adaptability, the ability to think on your feet … you need those things, in life and in skiing, more than you need the perfect turn.”
Rahlves won his first two World Cups, back to back DH wins in Norway, immediately after a break spent tearing up the mountain on two amazing powder days in Tahoe with Shane McConkey and Jonny Moseley. “I took that same fun and flowing feeling into the race course,” says Rahlves.
Speed and tech
It’s broadly acknowledged that great speed skiing starts from a strong technical base but it goes both ways (see Tight/Loose above). Our eras of greatest team success have come when the line between tech and speed is blurred. Such was true of the men’s and women’s teams at the 2003 World Championships when Mendes and Clark shared the Super G podium while Miller and Schlopy shared the GS podium. During that time, fueled by the YOB 1979 wave, the women were multi-event oriented. As an example, Kirsten Clark made the USST in ‘94 as a GS skier then moved into super G to help her GS. To learn the hills for super G she added in DH, and ultimately found her greatest success in that event.
At the same time, Johno McBride was shuttling his guys between the tech and speed groups. Miller gravitated from tech to speed events, while speed-oriented Rahlves dabbled successfully on the GS tour. “It wasn’t a divide,” McBride explains. “They pushed and pulled off each other in healthy ways.” In that time the US went from having the minimum GS spots to having its deepest GS team. In looking back at this group of coaches and athletes McBride notes, “the best teams I was a part of communicated well and held each other accountable.”
As critical as the time in a highly-focused environment, is having a safe haven away from it, and the space to figure out what makes you tick. Armstrong needed those breaks training at home to recharge: “If I wasn’t with the team training, I was in Seattle doing my own thing — working out, playing basketball, recovering, finding my own drive, discovering my mindset,” says Armstrong. I wasn’t being led or being told what to do while at home. I learned to trust myself and become the expert in myself.”
When Erik Schlopy returned to the USST after his years on the Pro Tour he brought team cohesion and also the independent spirit he had gained while on his own. “You have to become adults,” says Schlopy, “not kids riding in a van.”
Even with young phenoms on the development express route, there is no one ideal environment. Mikaela Shiffrin thrived in the structure and highly-disciplined environment of Burke Mountain Academy. Lindsey Vonn, on the other hand, was turned off by the thought of a mandatory morning run. Both would become known for their fitness, training discipline and mental strength, but came to it in different ways
Consistency and continuity
Sustained success also coincides with periods where there is a stable core of athletes and consistent coaching. Such was not the case with the US Ski Team in the ’70s, when many talented but disaffected US men defected to the World Pro Tour, and again after the 1984 Olympics when a number of top athletes and coaches retired en masse. In both cases, development took many years to recover, and indeed in the 1988 Olympics the US won no alpine medals.
With few experienced teammates to provide cover for them, too many young athletes advanced to the World Cup too quickly, and either got injured, stalled out or got disheartened by the slow progress up the international ranks. As Cooper points out, “A 35th place on World Cup can be a huge stepping stone when you’re starting 65th, but only if it’s acknowledged as such, and built upon strategically and methodically.”
By contrast, Clark and Mendes came into the team under the umbrella of veterans on both the speed and tech teams, and spent nearly their entire careers with continuity between a familiar core of athletes and coaches. The move from the C Team to the World Cup was natural. “When I look back, I was really young to be racing World Cup but it didn’t feel incredibly over my head,” says Mendes.
As Lindh says of her keys to success: “To sum it up: early exposure, financial support, and time!” When Lindh won a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics, the 1986 World Junior Champion was already in her sixth year on the World Cup. It was not until the following year, 1993, that she felt like she totally belonged. Fellow Alaskan Tommy Moe, like Lindh a World Junior champion, spent eight years on the World Cup before getting his first top five. Mendes recalls the extraordinary patience it took to bridge the gap between World Junior success and World Cup success, and the years of no teammates finishing in the top 30. She moved ahead by focusing on just one technical goal each summer. One year it was aerodynamics and another pushing her hands forward. That methodical approach takes discipline and patience, from coaches and athletes.
World Junior success can be a great indication of future success, but only if the athletes are allocated enough time to mature. And rest assured juniors, plenty of US skiing’s biggest stars — Rahlves, Miller, Street, Ligety among them — did just fine without any World Junior hardware.
The elephant in the room: RVs
In recent years, US athletes, once they’ve found success, have gravitated to creating their own private teams, epitomized by the custom luxury RV. As athletes gain the financial security and incentives to stay in the sport longer, they know exactly what and who they need around them to maximize performance. Quite simply, living on the road and sharing their lives with a bunch of teammates gets old. This is also the number one flash point of frustration among USST alumni and the sport’s most ardent fans, who know the benefits of access and mentors and a collaborative environment. How can the next generation of great skiers develop without access and exposure to our own best skiers?
Cooper is among the many alumni who see the gravity of the problem, while also fully understanding why it happens. Cooper quit at age 24, when she was “just learning to win consistently,” she says. “Looking back, with how long careers are now, you could say I quit too young, but team life gets so oppressive. I’d been doing it since 16. It felt like a lifetime, 20 lifetimes. We’ve gotten into this period where athletes last longer, but in order to last longer they need an alternative to the ski team life. But that alternative comes at a cost, to the athlete perhaps, who misses out on camaraderie and the gratification of giving back, and to the team, who loses all that experience and leadership.”
Ultimately, our national team has paid a high price for that independence. “I don’t think the USST was prepared for the RV thing, for all the various consequences of it, ” says Cooper, who sees that the real problem is not with any one athlete wanting more independence, but with establishing a workable balance between freedom and responsibility to the next generation.
Walking the talk
Development can seem both incredibly straightforward and vexingly difficult to see through long term, which is why Mark Smith puts it this way: “The biggest secret in this sport is that there is not secret. We need to be really good at fundamentals, be consistent and be patient.”
For athletes, the key factors to achieving their full potential are time, opportunity and a visible target. The value of exposure to higher level athletes, at every level of development, cannot be overstated. If there is a common drumbeat among these coaches about development, it is this:
Keep it simple, keep it inclusive and keep it connected to home. This way, when funding for national development falls away, as it periodically does, the regions still maintain continuity.
“I am a big proponent of leaving kids at home as long as possible,” says Walt Evans. “If we stick with that triangle (of great athletes, coaches, and facilities) and keep the kids home that will lead to sustained excellence.”
Editor’s note: This story is part of our ongoing series on alpine development in North America. Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.