In life, we often get our breaks by being in the right place at the right time. We also get them by being with the right people. These are people who can set the stage by making us feel comfortable and worthy of their attention, and then make the effort to share their knowledge. We call them mentors, and in ski racing as in other sports, they make a huge difference not only in individual performance but in creating a sustainable engine for team success.
Mentors are especially important in ski racing, which, at the top level, is largely contested on faraway foreign turf. Mentors pass along not only the technical and tactical nitty gritty of training and competing, but also logistics of travel and life on the road. Add in mental toughness, intimate knowledge of specific venues, recovering from injury, managing all the personal and professional relationships critical to success, etc … and you get a sense of all the opportunities there are to offer guidance from experience.
How, exactly, do mentors help in ski racing, and how does that help inspire athletes to then to pay it forward to the next generation? This is what I asked a group of successful ski racers, and here is what they said.
Mentoring, as seen on TV
The fairy tale version of the mentoring lifecycle is captured in this 2018 Super Bowl commercial featuring Heidi Voelker, then a three-time Olympian, signing a poster with the acronym “ABFTTB” for a young girl, and advising her to Always Be Faster Than The Boys. The little girl grows up to be Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin, who then advises the next generation of little girls to ABFTTB. What we don’t see in that hot minute, are all the important exchanges that happen along a journey from rookie to champ, off-screen.
In the beginning … there is straight-up hero worship — the posters on the wall, the autographs, the imitated moves — as mentors are admired from afar. Lindsey Vonn famously drew inspiration from a fan session with Picabo Street, and legions of kids still mimic Ligety’s finish line donut arc. Voelker herself fixated on the Rossignol poster of the four U.S. medalists at the 1985 Bormio World Championships. Voelker, who was then in her first year FIS, remembers, “I always looked at it and thought, ‘I want to be like that.’”
It starts with the little things
When Voelker made a huge step toward that dream, however, and showed up for her first World Cup at Lake Placid, she had an unglamorous reception. She found herself “braces and all” alone and ignored in the hotel lobby as the other athletes bolted to dinner. “I swore to myself I’d be different. I’d never make newcomers feel uncomfortable.”
Voelker also remembers when, after winning her first World Cup point (then awarded for top 15 finishes), speed skier Pam Fletcher made a point of catching up with her. “She put her arm around me and said, ‘If you keep doing that you’ll be on to good things.’ It really stuck with me.”
When Voelker was a veteran on the team, she made a point of reaching out to the rookies, and even requesting to room with young Kristina Koznick, when the teen sensation burst on to the World Cup. Koznick, who at first felt sad and alone, was thinking about quitting, when yet another older teammate, Monique Pelletier, came to her rescue. Pelletier reminded Koznick that it was only ok if she quit for herself, and not for any coaches or athletes along the way who would make things difficult.
“This was exactly the encouragement I needed at that moment in time,” says Koznick, who years later passed the same wisdom along to a young Julia Mancuso. “I’m not sure if my words are even remembered by her, but I was grateful to have the opportunity to encourage her in a moment where she needed it.”
The mantle of a mentor
Being a mentor is equal parts privilege and responsibility. Christin Cooper grew up in Sun Valley, and as a teenager on the U.S. Ski Team checked in for “tea” with Olympians Don and Gretchen Fraser on her trips home.
“I loved those chats, and felt so special,” recalls Cooper. “Gretchen was the first to set in my mind that I was going to be a role model whether I liked it or not. That how I dressed and spoke would be noticed and copied and sometimes judged. She stressed that I would set an example with my conduct, on the hill and off, even when I didn’t think people were paying attention, even when it felt unfair that they were paying attention.” The Frasers’ guidance stayed with Cooper as she made her way, sometimes reluctantly, to skiing stardom. “It took a while before I stopped chafing against the “burden” of it. I eventually grew up and embraced it, in no small part because of their example.” Some athletes intuitively understand the magnitude of their role, and still others develop as mentors within a systemic culture.
Watching, learning and the mentoring culture
Mentoring, though different than coaching, is inextricable tied to it. A hallmark of a great coach is a culture that encourages healthy mentoring. During the glory days of the U.S. women’s ski team, when they won the 1982 Nation’s Cup, head coach Michel Rudigoz — aka the Minister of Culture — fostered a mentoring environment.
“We had some huge superstars on our team, but we all trained together, worked out together, and ate team dinners together,” says Karen Lancaster Ghent, who came up during that era. She recalls a team environment that was supportive and empathetic, and emphasized learning from everyone — teammates and top racers from other countries. “When I was no longer the rookie, there was an expectation to model the same team environment,” says Ghent. “I hope I contributed to a smooth transition for the younger women.”
“I strongly believe that mentoring needs to be done outside and on the hill,” says Terry Palmer, who raced with his brother Tyler on the World Cup and the World Pro Tour. Among his biggest peer mentors were his brother — who was with him at virtually every turn — and two older teammates, Rick Chaffee and Spider Sabich. Chaffee once stayed on the training hill until dark with both the young Palmer boys to help them “iron things out,” while Sabich looked out for and took care of the younger guys coming up the ranks. “He knew what positivity could do,” says Palmer. “Confidence is a tool you need every day in life and Spider knew how to be confident and humble at the same time.”
Mark Tache grew up in Aspen, surrounded by World Cup and World Pro Skiing heroes that he closely watched and imitated. Among them was Palmer who was and still is his mentor. “Terry was always open to sharing and I learned some precious tips, particularly in slalom, that went into my tool bag.” Abbi Fisher Gould recalls “following Phil and Steve on G.S. skis down the mountain and just trying to ski the same way.”
For Tache, in his era on the U.S. Ski Team, the environment did not foster mentoring to the younger athletes. The exceptions were long video sessions with the entire team, where Harald Schoenhaar critiqued each individual athlete’s run. “It was a little embarrassing as a rookie especially when you saw the difference between your run against the veterans, but you got used to it. Those video sessions were implanted in my brain and still stand as the most educational during my entire career.”
Boots on the ground: intel up close
Abby Ghent recalls her first World Cup DH in Lake Louise in 2012. During the first inspection, she was understandably intimidated. Lindsey Vonn, who had been winning at Lake Louse since 2004, and would notch another victory there that year, stopped as she slid by Ghent at the first jump.
Ghent recalls, “She said something along the lines of, ‘If you need any advice, don’t hesitate to ask.’ I was a little star struck and so appreciative that she offered to help me out. The offer to share a bit of their experience is such a simple thing, but can mean the world to a rookie.”
Doug Lewis, on his first trip down the Hahnenkamm, was escorted by Phil Mahre, who took him down the entire course sharing every insight he had acquired over the years. “This was 1983, the year he won his third big globe in a row,” notes Lewis “He did not need to be babysitting a rookie down the Streif, but he did.”
Warner Nickerson had a similar experience during his first World Cup on the notoriously difficult Alta Badia GS hill, getting help during the inspection from both Ted Ligety and Erik Schlopy. “Schlopy was right there, so I asked him a few questions and he helped immensely with line choice,” says Nickerson, adding that advice from racers who had actually raced there instilled much more confidence than anything the coaches could offer.
As an accelerant up the ladder of ski racing, there is no substitute for direct exposure to athletes who have breathed the rarified air of World Cup success. Nolan Kasper went from winning the NorAm slalom title in the 2008-09 season to, the following season, starting and scoring in World Cups, winning the Europa Cup slalom title and racing at the 2010 Olympics. Training with the World Cup slalom team — Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Jimmy Cochran and Tim Jitloff — during that prep season was a huge advantage, as Kasper recalls: “I saw how they prepared, got to speak with them about what they were feeling and the technique they used, and was able to talk to them about their tactics specific to a training course before running it.” The exposure gave him confidence to try new things that would generate more speed.
When Kasper was battling back for a spot on the 2018 Olympic team, after extraordinarily long career detours, he found himself amongst a rookie group, known as “the Shiver.” He decided to spend as much time as he could helping them out, passing along technical tips as well as mental and emotional tactics that helped him persevere through injuries and tough times. One of Kasper’s biggest concerns when he and the entire slalom team was cut after the 2018 Olympics, was that the younger guys no longer had American guys to ski with who were consistently scoring points and focused on the slalom discipline.
A legacy of passing it on
Conversely, when the baton of experience is passed along in a continuous process, the accrued benefits of mentoring are enormous. Such a dynamic fueled the American Downhiller legacy of both women and men. America’s most successful women’s speed team — one where all six members of the World Cup team found the podium during the 2013 season — started well before any of those athletes were on the national team, and even before 1994 Olympic champ Picabo Street was inspecting speed courses with a young Jonna Mendes and Kirsten Clark was modeling her behavior after World Champion Hilary Lindh’s work ethic. Mendes and Clark went on to win their own medals, and when Mendes retired in 2006, the young Vonn was already a great teammate.
“She was thoughtful about bringing others on board, and comfortable talking about what made her strong,” says Mendes. As Leanne Smith describes the vibe on that team: “Anytime you can watch Libby Ludlow, Linds, Jules, Kaylin, Stace, Jess Kelley, Caroline Lalive, among others, you observe traits and behaviors that you know would work well for you, and implement them where they make sense.” When Vonn was offering to help the rookie Ghent, in 2012, mentoring was a fully normalized behavior on the speed team.
On the men’s side, the U.S. downhill team historically waged an uphill battle, looked down upon by the Euros as second class racers. When Lewis arrived on the tour, a USST male downhiller had never won a World Cup DH, an Olympic Gold Medal in DH, or a World Championship DH medal. “When I left the Team we, our small little team, had done all of that,” says Lewis.
Once Bill Johnson showed what was possible, with Olympic gold, the bond that had been passed along through the years finally translated into real confidence. Lewis lists things like logistics (how to deal in Europe), fun (rookie night), on hill intel (line and tactics for each hill), and confidence (knowing deep down we belong!) as things he and his teammates passed over to an emerging crew that included AJ Kitt, Tommy Moe, and Kyle Rasmussen.
They in turn schooled Daron Rahlves and Marco Sullivan, who branded the American Downhiller bond. Rahlves recalls how Kitt’s “give to gain” plan of attack — fully sending some sections and easing up in others — helped him fine tune his tactics. “That’s when I began to piece fast runs together.”
A 2-way street that bridges disciplines, genders …
Lewis calls mentoring a “two-way street of respect and communication,” where the mentor connects, commits and communicates, and the mentee actively seeks input, listens and acts on it. For downhiller Lewis, one of those mentors was Phil Mahre, better known for his tech prowess. “He gave me help only when I needed it – not all the time. Sometimes I reached out and other times he reached out when he knew it was important,” says Lewis.
Downhiller Chad Fleischer counts SL specialist Kristina Koznick as one of his greatest mentors. The two were friends and teammates, and Fleischer, who was struggling to find the World Cup podium, sought out Koznick’s advice on finding the confidence that it takes to be the best in the world on any given day. Over the course of an in-depth discussion, Koznick counseled Fleischer to aim for momentum rather than perfection. Shortly thereafter Fleischer finished second in the World Cup Finals Downhill. Says Fleischer, “It was my Hail Mary and she was willing to throw the ball.”
… and crosses the age barrier
Viki Fleckenstein Woodworth learned some of her most important lessons from a younger teammate. Tamara McKinney, a wunderkind superstar who nabbed her first podium at age 16, had what Woodworth calls, “the healthiest competitiveness that I have ever seen.” In the days before the Flip 30 format, McKinney would secure her spot on the podium well before her teammate took a second run, but would nonetheless wait at the finish to offer encouraging words.
“She never got raging angry or jealous, she just kept working on her skiing and was very consistent and reliable as a friend.” Woodworth found McKinney’s support reassuring and refreshing amidst the World Cup’s cutthroat tension, and tried to offer the same positive support and encouragement to younger kids coming up. Says Woodworth, “I loved just trying to do exactly what she always did for me, which is getting out of your own crazy happiness or despair and thinking how the other teammates might be doing.”
Sarah Schleper recalls older athletes showing her the ropes, including the fun and social side of life on the road. During her 16-year run on the USST Schleper passed along big and little things she’d learned: “I passed on a friendly and competitive atmosphere. I passed on advice I had picked up on working with service men and physiotherapists,” says Schleper, who notes that she also learned from the younger generation. “I learned a lot by watching Mikaela (16 years her junior) and her dedication to the sport.” Kasper, too, learned from his younger peers: “There were many things that [the Shiver] taught me and showed me, about being a cohesive team, and pushing each other to be better each day.”
Nature and nurture
When Voelker thinks back to those athletes who abandoned her in the hotel lobby all those years ago she reasons, “They weren’t malicious. They just weren’t taught.” Indeed many athletes, when looking back on their careers, recall a “dog-eat-dog” environment, where younger athletes coming up were seen as potential threats, rather than sources of inspiration and team strength, and regret not being part of a health mentoring lifecycle. Ashley Davenport Sargent, who now, as a parent and coach, is a huge proponent of a mentoring culture, recalls that she had no such awareness of the positive role she might have played for younger athletes. “I wished someone, anyone, had explained to me the importance of that role, how crucial it was to be inclusive and kind to the other athletes… and in addition, how important it was for me to model the behavior of a highly successful young athlete.” Sargent recalls when a younger athlete started beating her, “I didn’t have to tools to be supportive and embrace her athletic ability.” In such environments, would-be mentors and mentees alike miss out on roles that can be both satisfying and valuable. Fortunately…
It’s never too late to pay it forward
Mentoring doesn’t stop at the end of an athletic career. In fact, guidance then, when the applause stops, can be the most valuable. Retirement from sport is typically a traumatic time, where you are grieving the end of one life, and feel the uncertainty and fear or facing a new one. I remember the kindness of Tamara McKinney and Christin Cooper, who both reached out during that time, with understanding and advice. Even more than their words, just knowing these stars cared enough to make those efforts was powerful and comforting.
Since retiring Rahlves has attended pre-race team meetings in Beaver Creek, Wengen and Kitzbühel to watch video, offer advice and give a pep talk. “I want to see our current team be successful and feel what I and the team around me did,” says Rahlves. Post retirement
Cindy Nelson came on the hill to offer our rookie DH squad advice and encouragement, some of it technical and some of it along the lines of what she offered to Abbi Fisher a decade earlier, when they were teammates. As Nelson told Fisher, “Sometimes you get so much information that you have to sort out what is best for you, and let the rest go—right in one ear and out the other.”
Nickerson’s unique experience of competing on the World Cup post college, while on and off the national team, is particularly useful to athletes who need to put together a training plan after being cut from the national team. More Paula Moltzans? Yes please!
Mentoring benefits, too, continue throughout life. Cooper and Tache, as life and business partners, are active supporters of youth ski racing and prioritize mentoring in all aspects of their lives. The collaborative and supportive environment Tache craved during his amateur career, he found on the Pro Tour, then fully realized in their successful restaurant business.
“My mentors were happy to share/pass along their knowledge and expertise. They followed up with my progress which kept me accountable,” says Tache.
“I love passing on what life has taught me,” says Cooper. “I always stress that I threaded the needle in winning my medals. I could just as easily have not won medals. And for most racers, that can’t be the point. It can be the goal, but take care if it is. It is the whole experience of ski racing that I so value and cherish.”