In examining the NCAA and U.S. Ski Team collegiate debate, first of all, we have to understand Tiger Shaw, Chip Knight, Jesse Hunt and their current goals and priorities. They are under significant pressure to perform, and it is important that they demonstrate accountability, strength and results. Financial support for U.S. Ski & Snowboard comes largely in the form of sponsorship, which is directly fed by results, and that’s where the horse is currently limping.
The ski team continues to lack depth, and it is becoming increasingly evident it is not as strong as it once was. Part of this is due to the natural fluctuation of performance curves that every national program experiences. The team at the top seldom sits there very long and strength generally circulates through five or six nations.
The key is to become one of those five or six, and the U.S. is currently not there.
If this happens for an extended period, then the time has come to make a change, to rethink the system with big ideas. If leadership is not willing to make those changes, then someone will have to make those changes for them. The team has obviously felt some pressure, and is attempting to make some quick fixes, but they are simply putting a bandaid on a bigger, systemic problem.
Broad changes in strategy have been applied several times in the past, including when Bill Marolt was at the helm. The first being from 1980 to ‘84 culminating with absolute success in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympic Games, followed by the memorable “Best in the World” campaign. Although that handwritten sign on the wall of his office has probably been painted over by a current occupant, there is no denying that it worked.
Then, from 1996 to 2014, U.S. skiers were among the big dogs. Focusing exclusively on an elite group of top athletes, cutting out all unnecessary distraction and identifying the most efficient way to accomplish the most aspirational goals. In that concept model there is little room for college.
There are a couple key differences between those days and now. Bill Marolt operated with a deeper elite team, more financial resources and no COVID restrictions, which hopefully will be short-lived.
Resources and how to use them
Now, we have Ski Racing Media and Dan Leever’s comments at the front of the national dialogue. As usual, he is right on the money. His passion for collegiate competition is legendary and very rational.
To reinforce Mr. Leever’s point, college programs operate with solid financial resources and typically excellent facilities, staff and support systems, thanks to the presence of collegiate funding. For the NGB, this is an opportunity to broaden the developmental base of elite skiers in the United States. The best part — it’s free!
If the ski team does not recognize this opportunity, we must come to one of three conclusions. They are either incompitent, bad businessmen, or perhaps they see the NCAA as a threat or competitor to their own interests and livelihood.
What’s frustrating is we perform these simple financial equations every few years — whether to utilize NCAA resources or not. We leave the table and everybody agrees wholeheartedly on the principle, but then somewhere along the way the NGB dumps the concept. Obviously there are egos involved, as there always have been and always will be. But to hammer home the most important point — it’s free!
When Tiger Shaw took over the office in 2014, Michelle Demschar had conducted a series of meetings with collegiate coaches. The goal was to identify the potential role of collegiate programs in NGB structure. Demschar collected a great amount of information, and we were all excited to see where this new opportunity would take us. Fast forward to the present, Michelle is no longer in the office and gone is the program. No meaningful change has taken place.
Uniquely American opportunity
Chad Fleischer’s comment on domestic athletes is an excellent point. NCAA is an American program, funded by U.S. taxpayers and U.S. sponsors. Controlling a foreign influx of athletes should absolutely be a part of the solution.
In 1999, I proposed the “maximum foreigners participation” rule to the NCAA for the first time, and I have done it a few times since. The answer has always been: No, the NCAA does not discriminate against anyone, they say, including foreigners.
In meantime, NCAA became the only organization consistently providing scholarship opportunities for skiers. This opportunity is offered only in the U.S. — Europe has no program like it — and it is available to athletes from around the world, and everybody in skiing knows it. That’s why so many foreign athletes come to our shores to take advantage of it. What have they figured out that our own NGB can’t quite understand?
We as coaches occasionally demonstrate a mild effort to control the international problem, but it is more less a gentlemen’s agreement. This gentlemen’s agreement is often tossed out the window, the moment a bluechip from Europe, the Southern Hemisphere or Canada announces his or her intent to go to school.
The dogfight among the programs results in a full scholarship offer somewhere. It is a dark side of our jobs. One way or another, we all receive an implicit message from our superiors and constituency: Build the best team possible — or someone else will! This applies to nearly every NCAA sport, and if you think skiing is the most impacted by foreigners, you are wrong by far.
To Dartmouth’s credit, they have always been a flagship of opportunities for U.S. athletes. Having their own ski area, eastern snow conditions, excellent academics and a top-notch ski program contributes to their success.
Since foreign participation in U.S. schools is unavoidable, we try to make it beneficial for our athletes. Having stronger racers in our system helps accelerate the development of U.S. student-skiers. Students skiing at the World Cup and Europa Cup levels do miss a lot of school and domestic training, but the frequent opportunities to take five consecutive runs with someone coming fresh off the World Cup is priceless. Frequent video analysis and comparison to high-level skiing alongside our athletes gives them a fresh and different perspective, and it makes everyone better.
Message to the NGB
We as a collegiate community need you. If not for any other reason than keeping the dreams of athletes alive — which is supposed to be your mission! There are very few domestic kids in NCAA schools who do not have the U.S. Ski Team as a personal goal. They all dream about it, and although very few will make it, that is OK. These dreams are driving progress, motivating and stimulating our student-athletes, making our nation stronger on and off the snow.
In the same way we need you, you very much need us. Unless you have unlimited funds, you will need a consistent, reliable supply of 20 to 24-year-old, developing, enthusiastic athletes. You may get through the season with what you have now, likely with lackluster results, but how far can you go without any depth? We do not need contracts or guarantees; athletes need opportunities, and being able to race NorAms is a key opportunity!
We used to have a plan for this. The collegiate races could generate similar point penalties as NorAm or Europa Cup. Skiers could make criteria by skiing NCAA only, apply it in any country and ultimately make the national team of their respective countries.
Someone did not like the plan, and FIS-U got penalized, and without racing NorAms, there is no chance for collegiate skiers to make any advancement toward their goals.
It is not easy to add NorAm to the calendar for NCAA athletes. It is costly and time consuming, but we are forced work within that system, and we manage to make it happen. The foreign participants are not under such a strained financial burden because they race on their national quota and usually on a national budget, as well.
U.S. collegiate skiers traveling to NorAms are the “dreamers” trying to make criteria or come close to it, and they deserve a chance.
What’s it going to take?
A little good will would go a long way. How difficult is it to merge two circuits so there is not a conflicting schedule? We can do this.
Do not waste the money going to Europe. It is not as necessary as the ski team says it is. NorAms should be an opportunity for U.S. skiers to accomplish their goals. Your intent to take away this opportunity from collegiate athletes is lacking any fairness, and it is hurting the national system.