In a continuing discussion about elite athlete development in the U.S., this article builds upon points raised in Edie Thys Morgan’s ‘All Grown Up With Nowhere To Go’ which is recommended as a starting point.
In my past 30 years as an NCAA ski coach, I have been fortunate enough to see the evolution from the original collegiate formula with extreme restrictions and limitations on development to today’s modern version. With a legal potential to attend NorAm, European Cup, World University Games, World Cup, World Championships, and even the Olympics as a college ski racer these days, the sky really is the limit!
Little by little, we have integrated our college racing with FIS, and next year for the first time we will have all our regular season (EISA and RMISA) races plus the regional championship running as FIS-sanctioned open races. Another positive step. As we actively pursue full integration into FIS, the NCAA National Championship is the last event with the traditional format. Maybe in another two years we’ll see a change there as well? We are pushing the NCAA to give us what we need in order to exist, and no other sport in the organization enjoys such privilege on this scale.
On the other hand, the NCAA is also the only organization providing full support to the development of ski racers globally! No other nation nor organization supports the college skiing to the same or even similar degree. The opportunity to become an NCAA skier crosses all boundaries as schools actively recruit students from both the U.S. and abroad. The University of Colorado’s Office of Admissions is recruiting worldwide with this mission in mind: “The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.” That is what the school has asked me to do; and if I fail, someone else will do it in my place instead.
Where does collegiate skiing become exceptional? In my opinion there are a few areas where colleges are currently outranking other sport organizations, including U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the U.S. Ski Team, and this applies to most NCAA ski programs in the country. These institutions of higher learning provide an excellent training opportunity that is organized, consistent, structured, and well supported. While we may not have as much preseason on-snow training as the national team groups or local clubs, that seemingly has not mattered in development as much as our consistency, variety, and frequency in dryland training. We train at home – daily and hard.
On average, two coaches service 12-plus skiers on a college team, and I see this as a major opportunity. It is a lot of work for the coaches, but this ratio creates a unique social relationship and climate. Looking at all my fellow collegiate ski coaches, everybody embraces the mission to develop a positive relationship with each individual on his or her team. There is no parental influence and the school pays the bills, so guess who is in charge? In nearly all cases, the coaches end up knowing more about the skiers on their team from an athletic, academic, and social standpoint than the athletes’ own parents, all within the first two weeks of the very first year at school. The skiers adapt to a spirit of mutuality and the team concept. Lots of responsibilities previously tended to by club officials, coaches, or parents suddenly become the athletes’ areas of accountability. At Colorado, we start on snow at end of October, and that seems to be early enough for our athletes to stand up to any competition. We do not go to Europe, but we do have Europe on our team.
David Ketterer came to our school from Germany with 16 points in slalom and 17 in GS. He finished last season with six and nine points, respectively. He won the NorAm slalom title and both NCAA Championship titles. Just a rare talent? Perhaps. But on his own admission, Ketterer never won a single race in his life prior to last season. Even as a kid. All season we had five men and six women beating each other as we set out on bike rides, went for runs, or skied courses. Seldom did the same person win a training run twice in a row. Just good, old, positive peer pressure is what drove these student-athletes to perform better in school and be faster on course, and that led Ketterer to win 15 of the 34 NCAA, NorAm, and FIS races he competed in last season.
Bobby Moyer from Aspen, Colo., rehabbed his notoriously injured knee thanks to daily and consistent care from our athletic trainers and went from 32 to 23 slalom points with fewer than 30 days on snow. In the process, he also became an excellent student – to his own surprise. Once again, positive peer pressure.
Andrea Arnold (seen in the lead image) from Boulder, Colo., dropped her GS points from 42 to 22. Miracle? None whatsoever. All it took was a different environment and climate for Arnold. The school is, in my opinion, the best mental diversion to handle the intense pressure of skiing competition. These athletes are not unique to my program and are just a few of so many, and I am certain every NCAA ski team can document similar cases.
About 12 years ago collegiate coaches asked the U.S. Ski Team why more students didn’t get the opportunity to train and compete with the national team and why the college route was not a part of the development structure. We received the response that the national team perceived a lack of commitment and insufficient strength training from our student-athletes. We all left the meeting asking, “Where did this misconception come from?” Could it be a lack of expertise, knowledge, or perhaps ego? The situation persists, but hopefully collegiate skiing will formally make it into the development pipeline in this country soon. The college route is unique and sometimes hard to comprehend, but ultimately it’s just a different animal that can lead to similar or even better results for skiers in the long run.