Where are we now? COVID is dictating the pace of our lives, and our educational system has been hit equally hard. “Shutting down” with any new breakout is now the foundation of any planning. We went from scenario A, to B, to C, and still the pace of change is faster than our ability to react. Training and racing protocol is fully dependent on COVID statistics, which are often misleading. Group training halted when the entire school went into a 14-day quarantine. Our Uni race schedule continues to be revised, with proposals aimed to condense competitions and minimize travel. Schools are already anticipating a Thanksgiving outbreak, which would mean switching to remote learning after the fall term. Whether we would be able to train is unclear, because of liability concerns.
This is happening on top of an already fragile system, where five RMISA ski programs were cut out in past 10 years. While EISA is maintaining high membership, we all are in “clear and present danger.” Closing fall sports, including revenue source sports like football, could lead to cutting off non revenue sports like skiing. The latest bad news came from UAA, which plans to cut its NCAA ski program after this season. The World University Games were canceled or postponed until November 2021 at the earliest. At present there are no fall FIS races on the calendar, and along with the suspension of the semester, if that happens, the students would go home (domestically and internationally) with the hope of resuming after the New Year. So, now what?
Taking a step back: What makes us different?
With exception of the east, some pockets in the Central Rockies and the northwest, the U.S. does not have a consistent geographical pattern to support alpine skiing. Some ski areas and programs UAA and UAF are as distant as Scandinavia or Western Europe.
Just to compare, the state of Colorado with 32 ski resorts is two times bigger than the Central European Alps shared by seven countries with 1136 ski resorts. The 524 ski resorts in the USA lay roughly on the same acreage as Europe, with 3726 ski resorts. Twelve ski areas in Europe are open year round with some (in Scandinavia) open for summer skiing only.
In spite of it all, we often try to implement a European training model here, and it typically struggles with the size of the land (distances), cost of the sport and combination of elevation, snow density and terrain. We have hired Norwegians to try a Scandinavian model, Austrians, Swiss, … with a variety of success. The current composition of the U.S. Ski Team staff is the most American we have ever seen. (I am proud to say there are five Buffs there.)
Culture and history
A little over 165 years ago, the U.S. Civil war was one of the last major societal upheavals, impacting the U.S. economy and daily life of its citizens. Since that time this country has been moving forward with few significant bumps in the road (Great Depression, etc.). All the wars we were involved in — in which our young men and women died — were fought upon faraway lands. While Europe dropped on its knees twice and had to raise itself from ruins of war, this land enjoyed steady economic growth.
Thanks to this, USA was always led the pack with the ongoing renaissance of human inventions— cultural, economic and societal.
More often than not, what has happened in the U.S. eventually spreads to Europe and becomes close to a global trend, e.g., rock ‘n’ roll, technical invention, fashion, nuclear technology (for better or worse), communication technology.
In Pedagogy, the U.S. was the first to introduce behaviorism, the theory of learning that states “all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment through a process called conditioning.” To give a practical example:
“If a parent rewards their child with praise every time they pick up their toys, the desired behavior is consistently reinforced. As a result, the child will become more likely to clean up the messes.”
This, of course, is the complete opposite of forced discipline and submission. If sport is ideally a balanced blend of discipline and enthusiasm, the U.S. sports were always on the enthusiastic (fun/rewarding) side, while Europeans were traditionally more grounded on discipline. However, as with other inventions, the U.S. behavioral model has been coming to European schools and sports as well and is slowly taking over.
The COVID opportunity
Like it or not, we have to accept and adapt to a new COVID era concept, and that is not necessarily bad news! Why not to get something out of it? Why not fully embrace a culture of fundamental innovation that is no longer merely a standard and traditional stereotype, but is instead a basic requirement for our sport to remain competitive in the months, years and decades to come?
By limiting group size, race field size, access and services, COVID has limited our financial resources while the expenses remain the same or greater. Age class skiers have to be chaperoned to the training and back by adults, which bring an extra burden on families. We have to quickly react to it to prevent a loss of membership. Some steps in that direction have already been proposed and implemented, and they would make the “Made in USA” skier Bob Beattie smile!
Make it local, inexpensive and fun
That was Bob Beattie’s vision. Another CU skier and successful businessman Bruce Gamble once told me, “Sometimes you have to stop and take a deep breath.” There is lot of wisdom in this statement. Maybe this year of the break will reset the clock. Maybe now we can come “back to the future” with Beattie’s vision:
Make it local
In recent years, Rocky Central Division age class schedule included races in Minnesota and New Mexico. The 2500-mile roundtrips, by van or plane, were a great learning experience for racers throughout the region, but with COVID travel restrictions, we can not have anything like this if we want to keep parents involved.
We could revise our NGB protocol to one more specific for this country and current climate. Breaking the three regions into a few more, smaller areas would allow local clubs the opportunity and independence to execute more races, more often in a smaller geographic area instead of being a part of large scale planning.
Make it inexpensive
Skiing, similar to Formula1 car racing, will not be ever a cheap sport. Some parents can afford to do more than others can. Our sport has become a very exclusive, limited and elite enterprise. We can’t broaden the membership base by offering a product so few can afford. To make the sport doable we need to find areas to cut corners on the cost, but not the value of the experience.
COVID is our opportunity to race and train locally. The focus on the development of proper technique is not dictated by the size of the ski area and access to most challenging terrain. Buck Hill in Minnesota has repeatedly produced world class skiers, which reflects Erich Sailer’s vision and enthusiasm for staying local. If this means not traveling to an overblown Düsseldorf bubble with a group of 12 year old skiers, then it’s a good thing!
We can promote intramural races in small clubs and crossover age class competitions, (the Bunny Hill Cups) by handicapping older skiers.
Mandatory and controlled maximum (two pairs/event) of new skis per year could save money as well.
Also, we can include more “dryland” aspects to winter training. Skiers too often come to training physically unprepared and unable to respond to the physics of the sport.
Make it fun
The healthy mental development of adolescents is largely dependent on social interaction with peers. Social media has already done enough damage in the development of social skills, and remote learning will take away the rest of the opportunities. I am sure parents will recognize this deficiency, and if we can provide the opportunity through the sports to substitute what school can no longer provide, we have a winning formula.
Also, if the parents must now drive to each training, we can offer some form of participation. Not all of them want to sit for hours in the lodge and wait for the kids. Active parents can help with course maintenance and see their offspring “in action.”
A small time trial at the end of each training session will promote a competitive spirit.
An opportunity to develop our national identity
The current situation might have a negative impact on training of speed events, which is both labor intensive and costly to execute safely and well. Also, U.S. ski areas west of Independence, Missouri, traditionally struggle with the quality of the snow. What is considered a skier’s dream (powder) is a racer’s nightmare. Ski areas operating on 50% capacity could be uneasy to commit to watering and preparing an icy surface on otherwise public trails, or to closing a full run during peak hours.
The chance to dedicate and prepare a smaller piece of turf for training is a lot greater. To focus on technical events is not a bad option. This is where training and racing dual slalom or GS makes a lot of sense. It can be as intense as coaches wish to make it, and 10-12 runs (even if they are short), would dig into every athlete’s endurance pocket.
The U.S. has more tradition in this format than any other country.
Similar to NASCAR, board track and football, the format meets the American culture and spirit. We missed the opportunity to develop it into the national landmark in the time of prosperity, when the format (thanks to the U.S. Pro Tour) enjoyed its glory days, nearly 30 years ago.
This could be our second chance. There has been a heroic effort to bring it back, and while it is not quite there, the current athletic crisis may make it the best chance for our sport’s future.