For just a moment, contemplate an alpine development system that identifies top U14s and U16s at the divisional level and continues to identify top regional U16s, U19s, U21s, and even college/university standouts. Now imagine that this pyramid is founded on five key elements: domestic racing, limited championships, high-quality training, strong coaching, and consistent leadership.

At every step in the pyramid, cost would be reduced from its current level in the U.S.

Right now, the sport of ski racing only becomes completely free of cost and a professional opportunity to earn money once an athlete nears the overall ranking of top 25 in the world. What if each step in the development system aimed to substantially reduce cost starting at the age of 13? This makes a lot of sense to me, but I have been around long enough to be stymied by the innumerable reasons why this approach cannot be easily applied.

“Attrition is a very real and powerful factor in this sport.”

I am also mystified that the U.S. has moved away from a pyramid design with the belief that a small sample of selective talent identification at specific young ages is a better approach. There is limited success in predicting future alpine champions among young athletes. When these few individuals are selected at a young age, they have to keep up their early progress in the sport while simultaneously avoiding injury to pass the true test of time. We know that this sport is not a sprint contest but a marathon process to rise to the top. Attrition is a very real and powerful factor in this sport, either through injury, physical development, equipment access, social pressure, educational pressure, travel demands, or financial demands – not to mention the pure fact that it just keeps getting more and more competitive the deeper into the system an athlete progresses.

The only rationale for embracing an early talent identification approach to athlete development is limited resources. Based on our current challenges and limitations, I believe it is time to once again consider the pyramid design and crack the code on how to deploy the concept through a thorough and complete regional and divisional structure.

Our large and diverse geographic situation in America needs to be turned into a strength instead of a weakness. An additional strength lies in our vast number of alpine athletes and high-quality programs spread throughout the country. It is due time to look back and dust off that pyramid model in which more athletes are supported in the system with affordable, quality training and strong coaching. The massive financial challenge of our sport and the economic reality of current times point us toward pooling our resources to build a large national alpine pyramid. A bigger pyramid will take us higher and provide a stronger and deeper block at the top. More athletes in the system plus more athletes at the top should equate performance sustainability over time.

Casey Felgar competes in the 2016 Western Region U16 Championships super-G race at Mammoth Mountain. Credit: Susan Morning

A true regional-based alpine development system embodies the following characteristics:

  1. USSA and national team programming that focuses on World Cup teams (both World Cup-preparatory and competitive World Cup programs), coaches’ education, club excellence and supporting independent regions.
  2. Infrastructure that empowers regions and divisions with the means to provide financial support in conjunction with quality programming that supplements localized efforts within clubs and academies.
  3. Delivery of cost savings as much as pure financial assistance – i.e. reduced cost for top-quality equipment, reduced fees, removing lift ticket cost and race entry cost completely, low-cost access to top national training sites, etc.

This approach would take a monumental effort and shift from how we currently do business. Regions and divisions would need to develop coordinated fundraising and marketing efforts. Clubs and academies would need to be closely integrated in the system. Working collaboratively at the local level as well as drawing on regional and divisional business and philanthropic interests associated with winter sport would be critical. This is a huge undertaking within a sport and business cycle which leaves little time to orchestrate and apply such sweeping change. Nonetheless, it’s something that should be at the center of the conversation for our sport’s future growth and success.

I do not have a grand conclusion – these are simply my thoughts and ideas which I feel have strong merit based on my perceptions built from past experience. I have been involved with past attempts at regional and national development which have been anything but consistent. And I am aware that we have had varying levels of success with these different iterations, hence the success the U.S. Ski Team has had in the past decade on the World Cup.

But it is my belief that a new, comprehensive regional approach should be far more independent of the national governing body and more supportive of local programs than what has been applied in the past. From my vantage point, a broad pyramid-style approach would provide the greatest hope for our future.