Each spring, high school seniors across the country are faced with a difficult choice when it comes to their ski racing careers. A select few are picked to join the elite ranks of the U.S. Ski Team and the rest are left to choose between either enrolling in college, taking one or more expensive post-graduate years, or quitting the sport all together.

With the U.S. Ski Team introducing their new development system, Project 26, and restructuring the way the national team functions at the junior level, the door is now open for rethinking the way college programs fit into the greater development pipeline. What was once seen as a second-class option for America’s elite junior athletes might soon become the preferred path to success at the World Cup level.

“What we’re trying to do is include the college pathway as one of the options for athletes after they graduate high school,” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard Alpine Development Director, Chip Knight. “It’s been an either-or situation in the past; you either make the national team or go to college. What we’re trying to do is utilize our landscape more effectively and efficiently and include college as an option in the process. You can go to college and continue to develop.”

Project 26 introduces a de-centralized development team model that requires named athletes to still be part of a club during the competition season. College programs are considered clubs in the eyes of the U.S. Ski Team.

There have been several success stories of athletes from the college ranks making the jump to becoming established World Cup skiers in the past with Jimmy Cochran and David Chodounsky being the most notable American examples from the 2000s. In recent years, however, these athletes have frequently come from countries outside of the United States. Why have there been so few elite-level American college athletes in the last 10 years?

“The fact is that foreigners like Trevor Philp (Canada), Kristine Haugen (Norway), Jonathan Nordbotten (Norway), and Elli Terwiel (Canada) who were of that age and skill level are coming and filling our NCAA Championship teams because the Americans who would be filling those spots don’t want to go to college,” says University of Denver Head Coach, Andy LeRoy. “I know because I offered them all scholarships and they all chose the national team. It’s just not quite in our culture where the best American athletes develop in college and then go on.”

According to NCAA Division-I coaches across the country, it’s not that they are biased toward packing their rosters with foreign athletes, it’s that the majority of American athletes who have the talent required to be competitive at the D1 level do not see college as a viable development option — yet.

“That’s why my, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont’s rosters are filled with foreign athletes,” adds LeRoy. “Why wouldn’t they? Those are the people who are of that age and level and want to come.”

Canadian Elli Terwiel won an NCAA Championship with the University of Vermont before going on to compete at Sochi 2014. Image Credit: GEPA Pictures/Christian Walgram

With Project 26’s changes, this coming season might be the start of a new trend that sees the most elite-level American junior athletes choosing college as their best option and clearest path to developing into the best skiers in the world.

“The message is trickling down from the top that the ski team is supporting kids going to college,” says Dartmouth College Head Men’s Coach, Peter Dodge. “With the new D-team program, I’ve got a bunch of recruits coming in at Dartmouth who will be named D-team, possibly even C-team members.”

Discussions arise every season about the imbalances at the NCAA level between American and foreign talent. With the new Project 26 structure, the pendulum might begin to swing back in the American’s favor in the coming years.

“Let’s make better skiers and encourage them to come to school,” says Dodge. “There are a lot of athletes that would be more than qualified to race in college but choose to continue to pursue the national team. If the ski team can put some meat behind their message of ‘Hey, we want you to go to school,’ then more Americans will find spots on teams because we’ll just have better skiers out there.”

With the amount of resources at the disposal of college programs across the country, better utilizing what they have to offer seems like a clear step in the right direction in terms of developing athletes that can be competitive at the highest levels of the sport.

“Can we be part of the development pipeline? Obviously,” says LeRoy. “Look at all the skiers at Denver, Dartmouth, and UVM and the amount of support and structure that they receive. It’s an obvious no-brainer. Yes, it can happen.”

Just this past season, Dartmouth senior Brian McLaughlin won the NCAA and NorAm giant slalom titles and finished the season ranked 31st in the world in GS. However, McLaughlin is 24 and did not qualify for U.S. Ski Team criteria for the coming season for his age. For a male athlete of McLaughlin’s age, team criteria is restricted to athletes that are racing and scoring points at the World Cup level. According to Dodge, McLaughlin’s case is one that needs to be addressed clearly in U.S. Ski Team criteria.

“I think that needs to be done to make what they’re proposing realistic,” Dodge says. “Right now, it’s not realistic when you have people performing at the highest level for a collegiate racer and still not making any criteria.”

Dartmouth graduating senior Brian McLaughlin has a World Cup spot to his name for the 2018-19 season. Image Credit: Agence Zoom

According to Knight, although McLaughlin won’t compete as a named U.S. Ski Team athlete next season, he and future athletes like him will have full access to the World Cup program regardless of team status.

“Brian actually has full access to the program at the World Cup level,” explains Knight. “I think that’s great for him and I hope he’s able to get himself through that. David Chodounsky had a very similar type of access when he was coming up. We want those athletes to have good access so they are poised to compete at the World Cup level.”

“The challenge we have is that we are looking at this from a bigger picture vantage point and we need athletes to be at Brian’s level earlier in their career,” Knight adds. “As a country, if we’re trying to achieve what we want, we have to start to develop athletes at that level younger. That’s why criteria is set up the way it is and that’s the pickle we find ourselves in when we have an athlete like Brian. We are trying to adapt the system so that he and athletes like him have avenues in.”

Time will tell if these changes will bear fruit at the NCAA, NorAm, and World Cup level, but if things do pan out the way Knight and coaches across the country hope, the “old college try” just might have to take on a whole new meaning.