Back in December, I wrote an article titled, Parker Biele is My Hero, in which I expressed my admiration for this young ski racer who, against significant physical odds and bucking our somewhat inflexible U.S. ski racing culture, has continued to progress and find success at the ripe old age of 21 (written ironically). I also used the article to raise questions about the conventional wisdom and accepted athlete-development assumptions that currently drive ski racing in the U.S.
Well, I have another hero that I want to place the spotlight on as a similar, and perhaps even more extreme, example of an athlete who has defied the odds and bucked the system to reach, if not the absolute pinnacle of our sport, then at least just a rung or two below (and he’s still climbing!). That ski racer is Alex Leever.
A brief recap of his recent competitive exploits (if you’ve been hiding under a rock). Alex earned his first top-10 European Cup finish in early January which earned him his first World Cup starts. He took full advantage of his World Cup opportunities by finishing 24th in his third start (with an exciting finish!). In turn, his World Cup success earned him a place on the 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina later this month.
I’ve known Alex since 2013 when I spent a year working with Team America and we’ve stayed in touch periodically since. I have to be honest here. I never expected him to make it this far. I figured he would be a good junior slalom skier who would race in college, but wouldn’t be able to qualify for an NCAA Championships because he wasn’t a particularly good GS skier. He would then end his ski racing career after college and join the “real world.”
Well, Alex’s actual trajectory as a ski racer is just one more example of how wrong I can be about so many things. The reality of Alex’s development has included becoming a very capable GS skier, a place on the University of Denver ski team, competing in two NCAA Championships, earning second-team All-America honors, and captaining DU to the 2018 NCAA Championships. Since graduating from DU, Alex has not only continued to develop as a ski racer, but he also earned a Master’s degree in finance from DU as well. Which brings us to his present ski racing successes and likely more to come.
I also want to be honest about something that most everyone in U.S. ski racing knows. Alex has been afforded opportunities to develop that few others have. He is extremely fortunate that his family has had the means to provide him with exceptional private coaching in Peter Lange (disclaimer: I have worked with Peter on and off for several decades with athletes he has coached), unique opportunities to train with many of the world’s best ski racers, and the best training, equipment, conditioning, and other support available. As Alex shared with me in a recent email exchange, the reason Team America was formed was to fill a void in the development pipeline left by U.S. Ski & Snowboard in which there were few opportunities for athletes once they enter college and who fall outside its qualification criteria.
It would be easy to say that Alex bought his way to his success and to diminish his accomplishments by suggesting that he is a prime example of the unfairness of our sport in which money provides access that other equally talented and deserving racers don’t have.
However, such a presumption is, in my view, both unfair and disrespectful of Alex and his achievements. There is no doubt that money can buy opportunities and Alex has benefited from the many he has been presented with. But, and here is a very big but, opportunities don’t necessarily translate into ownership by athletes or results. I can attest to seeing many racers over the years who were given the same opportunities, but didn’t embrace or turn those opportunities into action or results.
I know that Alex is grateful for the opportunities he has been given. At the same time, one of the greatest expressions of that gratitude has been his willingness to take full advantage of those opportunities and never take them for granted. In other words, Alex has owned his opportunities and his successes are his alone (though he shares them with all who have supported him).
As is my want in my fascination with trying to understand what makes people successful, I have thought about Alex’s journey and I would like to share with you what I believe has enabled him to far exceed expectations (at least mine) and approach the top of our sport. Here are the qualities that I find most notable about him.
One of the most conspicuous things about Alex is his humility. Despite his privileged upbringing, you won’t find a speck of entitlement or arrogance in him. When Alex has had successes, he is always gracious and almost shy in accepting congratulations from others. Whomever he is hanging out with, whether some high-powered types in Vail or other racers on the circuit, he’s just Alex, a seemingly regular guy. This humility has always kept him grounded in who he was and who he wanted to be, rather than allowing his privilege, opportunities, and successes to make him “too big for his britches.”
There’s no doubt that, throughout Alex’s career, he has been immersed in the importance of results. He’s a competitive guy from a competitive family in a competitive sport surrounded by a competitive culture. Yet, since my time with Team America, he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to avoid the common trap of results impacting him deeply (except to motivate him!) or letting disappointing results ruin his day, as I see so frequently in my work. Alex has always been able to create healthy distance from his successes and failures, enabling him to not be defined by his results, but rather by his efforts. Noted Alex in a recent email, “…it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I didn’t get to where I am in one big leap, but rather a thousand small steps, each one almost imperceptible from the last. I never felt like I made a big “breakthrough” in my skiing…”
Clearly, patience is a quality that Alex has in abundance. Without it, he would have ended his career after college and pursued a new set of goals. In so many ways, you see patience in every aspect of Alex’s life. Whether in always looking not immediately in front of him (a certain source of doubt and frustration for most racers), but rather focusing on the horizon (a certain source of hope and possibility), putting in countless hours on the hill, or just eating dinner in the most unhurried way. Alex has always been willing to do what was necessary for as long as it takes.
For anyone with big dreams, there may be no more important quality to possess than a fundamental faith in their ability to get where they want to go. Alex has demonstrated this unwavering belief in himself time and time again. At every potential fork in the road in his ski racing career, he always had a clear vision of his destination, so stayed the course in pursuit of his goals. In the face of doubters and cynics, setbacks and failures, he has always trusted the path he was on and the program he was following. Of course, it also helped that his family and coach never questioned Alex’s faith in his journey.
Though not related to Alex’s athletic efforts and accomplishments, I feel compelled to add decency as an essential quality he possesses. Quite simply, Alex is just a decent fellow: kind, thoughtful, respectful, helpful, generous, and caring of others. His basic decency may not help him ski faster, but it sure will help him in the bigger journey of life that will continue long after his ski racing career ends (whenever that might be; I have stopped trying to predict how far Alex will go!).
Alex sums it up best: “I think the biggest thing to take away is if you continue to challenge yourself, put in the time and effort, and not worry too much about the present, you can end up somewhere you never really thought you’d be.”
So, Alex, as I always told you, just have fun and ski fast. If you focus on that, and continue to be who you are, you will get as far as you can in our crazy sport and then you’ll be ready to set your sights on another big dream in your life. And this time, there’s no way I’ll be doubting you!