Editor’s note: This is the last in a four-part series on development from veteran coach and program director Aldo Radamus. Read his first three articles, “Reflections on alpine ski racing development in the United States,” “Let’s face it, skiing is expensive,” and “Competition raises effort and pushes personal limits.”
The most underutilized resources in the United States’ ski racing system are the colleges and universities.
Both the elite-level athletic programs of the NCAA teams and the many club-level and competitive USCSA programs provide an avenue for continued participation and athletic development. Eliminated at the NCAA programs are program fees and many or most travel and training expenses. Club fees and other racing expenses at USCSA programs are more reasonable than most local club programs. Athletes are able to continue towards their academic and athletic goals simultaneously.
The problem is that the schools occupy the wrong space in the pipeline to truly be part of it.
Many years ago, skiing approached the NCAA and together with men’s ice hockey was able to receive a waiver to the NCAA eligibility rule that requires athletes in football, volleyball, basketball and nearly all other sports complete their eligibility within five years of their high school graduation. This means that ski racers can compete for multiple years as PGs, members of their respective national teams or independently and still have four years of eligibility that has to be completed by age 24.
As a result, the common advice from NCAA coaches and club or academy coaches alike is to recommend athletes commit to one, two or even more PG years to continue to progress, mature and become more competitive before entering the collegiate ranks. Athletes already at the national team level around the world pursue that pathway until failing to re-qualify or wanting to leverage their accumulated skills by receiving an education.
Since the introduction of FISU competitions to the U.S. more than 20 years ago and the ultimate conversion of all carnivals and invitationals to FIS-sanctioned events (previously USSS-sanctioned events), athletes are able to maintain and improve their FIS point profiles and rankings while exclusively following their collegiate calendar and adding NorAms when possible. Athletes from overseas consider North American FIS points to be “soft” providing both an opportunity to receive a desirable U.S. education and advance their rankings. This has increased the interest from outside the U.S. significantly, therefore limiting U.S. athletes access to this resource.
Is it time for the skiing colleges and universities to return to the NCAA and request to withdraw the eligibility exemption? Top high school athletes will become the most desirable recruits. These athletes will seize the opportunity to receive the support for their continued development and the need for expensive PG years will be significantly reduced. U.S. collegiate skiing will become less attractive to older, highly ranked former World Cup and European Cup competitors, allowing U.S. athletes to compete for those spots on a more level playing field as juniors. An athlete continuing his or her development through his or her college years would be able to graduate at 21 or 22 years of age with the possibility of a professional career as a ski racer still ahead of them and their degree and future in their back pocket.
USSS could support the collegiate role in the pipeline by implementing an NBA- or NFL-style draft eligibility rule requiring that athletes more than one year post high school graduation be qualified for A or B Team criteria to be nominated to the national team.
The sport system domestically generally works effectively through the younger ages. Children are attracted to the sport and participant numbers grow through the U14 age group. A greater gender balance exists than just a few years ago. Rules and calendars define the sport to reduce excesses. A clear pathway beginning with local competition exists for selection to regional and national championships and eventually international projects. The competitive level is regularly validated through performance at international U16 competitions and performance is improving at the World Junior Championships due to national development initiatives.
At the threshold of FIS racing, our sport system begins to lose its structure. Often, less experienced racers have little opportunity for appropriate competition, being lumped in with much stronger, older and faster racers. When athletes are competing at a level where they are consistently overmatched it doesn’t take long to realize they have little chance of closing the gap and lose motivation. Progress and enjoyment suffers.
The commitment to single-minded specialization, high intensity programming, off-season camps, intensive racing and additional equipment required by internationally competitive athletes is expected of too many others and over professionalizes the sport leading to an unsatisfying experience and attrition. All too often the choice is between “all in” or “all out.”
Rules defining racing structure, advancement, equipment and travel that are effective at defining the sport at the younger junior ages, fall away. Athletes are eligible to compete nationally or internationally before they have succeeded locally or regionally. Those who can pursue attractive racing opportunities are rewarded while some of those who need increased competition having risen to the top of their local or age peer group are unable to afford the next steps.
It’s tempting to assume that prudent athlete management and common sense would eliminate unnecessary excesses but we can see that “market forces” haven’t succeeded in driving appropriate behavior. The unfortunate truth is that these sort of activities can lead to short term advantages for those with the resources to travel the world in search of the best scoring opportunity. Sadly, the effort to keep up drives the expense of the sport up for everyone.
The ideal competition pipeline will have both ability and age-matched competition. Beginning locally, athletes are presented with appropriate challenges that provide the stepping stones to more competitive races that draw from larger geographic areas and ages. When an athlete wins or succeeds at a level that indicates they need additional challenge to continue to develop, they have the opportunity to advance to face stiffer competition. Advancement should be for the highest performing individuals and not discretionary for the best resourced.
In an efficient system with minimal redundancy, each stakeholder has a clear role. The athlete is focused on personal development, enjoying the process with unlimited opportunity based on achievement. Their club, team or academy supports each athlete by providing the training and sport education to foster their passion and growth to compete locally, divisionally and regionally. The regions will provide additional opportunities for the athletes who’ve outgrown their clubs and divisions to identify, and prepare teams for national competition. Colleges and universities fill the gap from clubs and academies to the National A and B Teams while US Ski & Snowboard is uniquely positioned to field and prepare teams for successful international competition.
By reducing redundancies and being disciplined when advancing athletes, resources can become available to provide financial support insuring that advancement is based on performance and not means.
Competing and traveling locally, divisionally or regionally can be reasonably affordable, particularly when efforts are made in scheduling to minimize overnight stays, reduce travel distances and allow for training time at home. Every club, team or academy can provide assistance for an individual or a small group who have qualified to advance to the next level. Likewise, regions and USSS can realistically help fund small groups of athletes who are selected to higher levels.
Casting a wide net by having a system with as many participants as possible will provide the best athletic success for the sport as a whole. Limiting selections to those who at that point in time have truly exceptional performances will keep the sport accessible and everyone appropriately challenged, striving to improve and benefitting from the experience.
The finish line
Ultimately, a very select few will be counted among the best in the world. The step at the tip of the pyramid is small and the competition is fierce to get there. It is the journey that is all important. Sport, and particularly ski racing, develop personal skills that enhance lives and help prepare our athletes for the opportunities and challenges ahead.
The most important outcome is for our athletes to look back at their experience and say they had fun, learned a lot and had the chance to pursue their dreams as far as their effort and potential allowed.