Articles that have come out surrounding this issue all have one thing in common: they have some serious truths. However, I think many points have been read out of context to some extent and have flared opinions in every aspect of the debate surrounding the NCAA and the National Governing Body (USST). My name is Sam DuPratt, and many of you have no idea who I am due to my lack of outstanding results on the world stage. I have had a lot of people ask me my opinion on this issue due to the fact that I have, “done it,” meaning I have skied in college and now the USST has taken a chance on me and named me to the team. Let it be known that I haven’t done s#*t yet, so take everything I say with that in mind.
I have skied at every level available for US skiers with the exception of the Olympics. I was on and off the national team for three years of my career, never being named for two consecutive years. After trying my hand at World Cup GS and getting cut for the second time, I had no choice but to go to college. I was out of money, beat down by the harsh realities of the sport, and had nowhere to go. Luckily, the University of Utah took me in.
In agreement with the article the group of female college skiers wrote, I will forever be an advocate of collegiate skiing. It was the best time of my life to date. College takes skiing from being your one and only stress in life and puts it back to where it belongs; as the release and freedom from other stresses in the world. I have 26 Europa Cup starts to date, and I will tell you, not one of those was ‘fun’. College put the joy back in skiing for me, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to my career.
Pros of College
Ski racing in college is cheap. The expensive part comes with how much you are willing to pay for your education. Aside from tuition, books, room and board, the racing is essentially free. Money had been a huge stress for me in my career and all of a sudden it was gone. I was not on scholarship my first year, but in-state tuition and a well-funded University ski program made my ski season and education for the year cost under $9,000 – which was 1/3 what my previous three ski seasons had cost me. It was glorious to say the least.
Education has always been important to me. I didn’t like the feeling of having all my eggs in one basket when I was on the national team. Skiing is a very difficult sport and accidents can happen that can derail the pursuit of your dreams at any moment. This added a significant amount of anxiety to my mental health during my time on the USST prior to college. College gives you peace of mind that if something happens, you have a safety net underneath you. Which is not to discredit the athletes that bypass the college system; it takes a great amount of confidence and sacrifice to pursue your goals to the fullest, and hats off to those athletes. Maybe I am soft, but I did not enjoy it, and college gave me an out from that anxiety.
When I was dropped from the team for the second time, I was 165 pounds. I was strong(ish), but I certainly did not look like anyone else I was racing against in the 2015 Hinterstoder WC GS. I think I may fall under the category of a ‘late bloomer’, although still hoping to ‘bloom’ some more. That being said, college bought me time to mature physically and mentally. I learned how to manage my time, choose priorities in life and career, converse with people outside of the ski racing world, and most importantly how to win races (a skill often overlooked when using the phrase “fast skiing is fast skiing”).
Cons of College
From direct experience I will tell you one thing is for certain; racing in college is more demanding than being on the US development team. You are (arguably) skiing at the same level (or higher), but have significantly less time to work on your craft. Like it or not, Bryce Bennett’s article nailed it on a few points, and one thing I took away from his opinion is that college skiers are at a competitive disadvantage to national team members. As some hard evidence to his points: I have raced several races on untuned skis due to educational obligations and a lack of time. I have stayed up past 3am writing essays before NorAm races. I drove through the night and slept in the parking lot at a Copper Mountain NorAm speed series because I had a test at 6pm in Salt Lake City that I couldn’t miss. I knew my ramp angle, boot plastic, base bevels, ski model, and had sharp files. However, I did not have the time or the resources to test and find the optimal set-up that Bryce talks about. In college, you make do with what you have, while on the national team you have technicians, ski manufacturers’ support, and all the time you need to dial it in.
Another point Bryce nailed is that college racing is not the same sport as World Cup in regards to terrain, snow surface, and course sets. It is INSANE how different they are. No offense to college racing but it is no NorAm, and already the gap between NorAms and the World Cup is too big. In college you still develop skills in skiing, there is no doubt about that. You are still turning around sticks in the snow on the side of a mountain while trying to do it faster than everyone else. Fore-aft balance, lateral-balance, pressure placement, tactics, and every other aspect of skiing are still well in play. College skiers work on these skills in the same way as World Cup athletes, but again with less time. All of those stated skills can be improved on while in college, but the hard part is applying those skills to World Cup venues. I have learned that this takes a substantial amount of time, effort, and open mindedness. It is the biggest struggle I have in my career at the current moment and again, to agree with Bryce, I am behind the curve due to my time in college. This is the biggest disadvantage to college skiers moving through the pipeline.
Can it be done?
To me, this is not a debate. It can be, it has been, and it is being done. Plenty of great skiers went through college and have left trails to follow. I set out to try and accomplish this in super-g and downhill, in hopes to leave a trail for more athletes to pursue.
I will say this, college is not the ‘optimal’ path. While there are pros to college, the cons definitely leave an uphill battle to the World Cup after the collegiate career, especially in regards to bringing developed skills to World Cup venues. I believe this is why the USST is wary of adding collegiate skiers to their rosters, and to be frank, I do not disagree with them. I genuinely believe that my chances of winning an Olympic medal decreased the day I went to college, but that DOES NOT mean that those chances are gone.
How is it done?
There is no right or wrong answer. Ski racing is a giant blend of talent, hard work, luck, and luck. One major flaw I see in many athletes is their goal setting. If you ask younger athletes what their goals are, you usually hear two things: make the US Ski Team, or ski D1 in college. These are both great accomplishments, but I disagree with both in terms of goals. When I was young, I wanted to make the US Ski Team. I wanted the jacket, and to sign kids helmets just like Daron Rahlves and Marco Sullivan signed mine. However, ‘making’ an organization is not a goal. It is like saying, “I want to get on the boat to sail around the world” instead of, “I want to sail around the world”. The USST is a vessel that can help carry you to your goals. After being dropped for the first time by the team, I took it personally. I had some serious hate for the USST as I had felt they had ripped my dreams from my hands. The next year I found my true goal, win World Cups and do so by any means necessary. To me that is a goal. If your goal is ski D1, revise your goal to something like, “become an All-American at NCAA champs,” and realize that the school you go to is the boat that takes you there. If the organization is the destination, complacency sets in and progress comes to a screeching halt. I have seen it on college teams and national teams alike. If your goal is to win World Cups, the ideal vessel is the US ski team, but it is not the only boat. Recruit some people and build your own boat. You will be better for it, I promise.
Once I pivoted my goal, every opportunity I was granted became a bonus instead of a necessity. I wanted to win World Cups and planned to do everything in my power to accomplish it. Tanner Farrow and I set out and joined GroundSwell Athletics following our collegiate careers. At the time, I was in no place to warrant a national team nomination, so we did it on our own. Was it easy? Absolutely not. It was one of the hardest years of my career, but if it were easy then it wouldn’t be fun or worth it. Were we better for it? Definitely. It felt like a crusade, and it was just me, my best friend, and an awesome coach, Cody Marshall. Let it be known that we had incredible financial support from some donors, great support from our ski company, and Burke Mountain Academy and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation took us in as their own.
That season, I won the super-g NorAm title and was granted a World Cup spot. I had 6 points and was ranked 32nd in the World. The US team called me in the spring to tell me I was not going to be named, but they were going to support me all season. The only restrictions being I couldn’t go to a few prep camps, and had to pay for my expenses. For the first time in my career, I was pumped to be an ‘invitee’ yet again. My goal was to win World Cups, I had my own World Cup spot, I had some support from the national team, and it was all a bonus in my pursuit of my goals. Was I fully on the boat? No, but I was a stowaway and my life got that much easier.
Several people called me following the team nominations that year to ask why I wasn’t named. I had won the NorAm title, had minimum FIS points, and scored World Cup points in my first WC SG in Kitzbühel. While I am immensely proud of these accomplishments, they gave me zero entitlement to a USST nomination, and I understood that. I believe Chad Fleischer left a comment saying, “The USST owes you nothing” and nothing could be truer. I felt fortunate that they gave me the support that they did.
This year I am fortunate enough to be named. I am grateful for this because, again, I do not feel entitled to it. I took a longer path to the World Cup, and as stated above, I am behind the learning curve of my peers in terms of dialing in my equipment setup and learning how to manage World Cup venues. I see it as the USST taking a bold chance on me as an under-developed 26-year-old that shows promise based off a few results and some fast splits. I also recognize the luck involved in the fact that there are not many younger skiers coming through the USST SG/DH pipeline, and the timing for my crusade is impeccable. To say the least I recognize my fortune.
Why did I just tell you all of that? Hopefully you do not see it as an egotistical story. I wanted to lay out how I have ‘done it’ so far. It can be done, has been done, and is being done. It is vital to know that it is not easy and that there are endless road blocks, but they are not impassable. Ski racing is unfair. That’s the nature of the sport. Control what you can (ski fast) and don’t stress the rest. If you do this in your pursuit, bad luck will not get you down and your goals become that much more achievable.
USST Relations with NCAA Athletes
This may be surprising coming from a guy that has been dropped twice from this organization, but I genuinely believe the US Ski Team does its best with what it has. Is the team perfect? Absolutely not, and I hope they are the first to say that. If they had the resources to name and support every athlete that showed any form of promise, I believe they would in a heartbeat. However, this is not a reality.
Each athlete they name or support is a financial investment gamble. Very few of these gambles pay off, so they look at data to try and make the best decisions possible. I am in strong agreement with them that an ex-collegiate or current collegiate athlete is in general (anomalies exist) a riskier pick than a young up and comer who is dedicating 100% of their time to their craft. Therefore, I believe if an athlete chooses or is pushed into a collegiate career, they may need to put a little more on their athletic resume before they warrant a team nomination.
That being said, I believe collegiate athletes are not given enough credit for how hard it is to be in an educational institute and still performing in athletics at a high level. Maybe this calls for more credibility when college athletes are being considered for national team spots. However, these athletes should be able to objectively show their skills on race day at NorAms and other high-level races.
Who is to blame for the gap between collegiate races and World Cup events? How do we make this gap smaller? It is important for people to believe that small changes make a massive difference in this issue. I think this issue falls into the lap of collegiate ski programs. I find it unfair that the USST takes all the blame for not seeing college as a pipeline while college programs are far from perfect and are notorious for stalled development in athletes (a hasty generalization). College teams should coordinate combined training opportunities with the fastest collegiate athletes training together, especially in the summer months. There are NCAA rules to consider, but it has been done in the past and can be done again. It also falls on college organizations to provide training of the same, if not better, caliber than that of the US development team. I know this is challenging with home resorts, but let’s make this one happen. If college teams want to be considered a strong development pipeline, then they should offer training and racing on par with the US D-team and start developing athletes that dominate NorAms at the end of their collegiate career. In debatably the best move of all time, Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington says to his team to, “Leave no doubt” when facing its opponent. I challenge collegiate programs to improve to a point where they ‘leave no doubt’ that college ski racing develops world class skiers.
Should the NCAA and USST work together on scheduling? Yes. I do not see a strong argument against that. However, I think it has been discussed in unfair light. NorAms are hard to put on due to financial reasons and hill space. Also, it is important to note that the EISA races seven weekends in a row mid-winter; that is a fairly hard schedule to work around. The USST is trying to improve the quality of these races to shrink the gap between NorAms and World Cups, which in my opinion, is vital to the success of our sport as a nation. NorAms are undeniably the path to the World Cup. If not for any reason other than the minimum penalty is significantly lower than FIS U. For this reason, they should take a priority over FIS U’s.
That being said, both organizations should do everything in their power to make the most viable schedule for all North American athletes and to approach this issue unbiasedly. Collegiate athletes are already at a disadvantage in NorAms. If there are increased scheduling conflicts, this gap gets larger. If you argue that it’s the fault of the athlete for choosing to go to college, I counter with, don’t you think national team athletes should be able to beat college athletes on a level playing field anyway? To all the people making these decisions, please make it as fair as possible, that is all anyone asks.
Last but not least, Tricia Mangan brought up the USST’s blocking of non-national team athletes to training and World Cup opportunities. I believe it is important that the USST should not exclude athletes from training just because they lack national team status. This does happen. I have seen it and I have been a part of it. This is not necessarily a USST organizational issue, as I have seen similar exclusion tactics from club teams, regional teams, and collegiate teams alike. It appears to be a coach-driven protection mechanism that activates when athletes from an outside group pose a threat to the success of their own athletes. Athletes, too, are guilty of boxing out competitors and excluding rivals from certain training opportunities. I think cultural progress needs to be made within US skiing to where all US ski coaches are proud of and support all US skiers. At the end of the day it is us versus the world, so let’s all help each other. One simple thing we can do is keep domestic competition high on race and training days. I would much rather see the US D-team training with an American collegiate team than the Italian Europa Cup team. This can lift all of US skiing to another level. Again, this goes for ALL coaches and organizations within US skiing.
The collegiate girls’ article was right in saying that college is awesome and provides an amazing community and team culture, positive experiences, a foundation to build a career off of, a high level of athletics, and a path to the World Cup. No one is arguing against those things, not even Bryce’s article. I will forever encourage athletes to ski in college.
The USST gets bashed too often in the debate around collegiate skiing. They are in a tough position and hats off to them for implementing changes that people are calling for. They are fully funding athletes now, and that is one heck of an accomplishment to say the least. I refuse to believe that they close the door to outside opinions and I am hopeful this conversation will lead to new opportunities in US skiing. The missing link to a lot of these debates is that solutions seem to only include the USST. While they do hold a lot of power, accountability seems to be lacking on the athlete, coach, club team, and collegiate levels. I ask everyone to think about what they personally can do to improve US skiing as a whole, not just what the US Ski Team can do. Change starts in communities and bleeds outward. Like I said, it is us against the world.
Bryce claims that college struggles to prepare athletes for World Cup skiing. I feel this at every World Cup I race. His point is that if you want to move up in the world of ski racing, and chose to go to college, then own up to it. It is a path less traveled, which leads to more bumps in the road. I challenge athletes taking this path to face those challenges head on, be a problem solver, and keep your nose on the grindstone. It can be done, so do it. As Bryce said, “you made your bed now lay in it.” That is all good by me. You lay in yours, Bryce, I will lay in mine, and I plan to see you at the top. That is the American way.
— Sam DuPratt
U.S. Ski Team
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