Skis. Bindings. Boots. Poles. Helmets. Goggles. Socks. Baselayers. Midlayers. Race suits. Jackets. Snow pants. Bags. Flights. Trains. Busses. Taxis. Rental cars. Hotels. Motels. Inns. Breakfasts. Lunches. Dinners. Snacks. Lift tickets. Lane space. Gym space. Race fees. Hospital bills.
That’s a list of ski racing must-haves I came up with in 60 seconds. And if you know anything about the sport, you know that list isn’t nearly complete. This sport is demanding. This sport is full of logistics. This sport is expensive. And the hard truth is that, even when you’re a top American with the athletic and mental ability to “make it” on the world stage, doing so has become increasingly difficult. The journey to major success—the opportunity to be a U.S. Ski Team athlete and race on the World Cup—is filled with hurdles that often force people to quit.
Foreste Peterson was almost one of those people. You’ve likely heard of her, or at least seen her name at the top of result sheets before. A former U.S. Ski Teamer and stand-out member of the Dartmouth Ski Team, the 25-year-old Californian seems to get faster and faster every year. She even had two World Cup starts last season while finishing up her degree from Big Green. But the writing was on the wall, nonetheless: her career was going to end.
“Of course I wanted to continue racing after Dartmouth, but I couldn’t ask my parents to pay for it. It’s so expensive,” says Peterson. “So about halfway through my season, I kind of accepted the fact that I would soon be done. And I was okay with it. I had such an amazing experience racing for Dartmouth and I thought it could be great to just end it on such a positive note. But I also felt like I had a lot left in the tank, and I was still hungry.”
So, we have this all-star who’s dedicated her entire life to ski racing, yet she feels an inevitable pressure to quit. That’s sad—no doubt about it. But, fortunately, this isn’t a sad story. This is a story about independent ski teams—teams that are picking up athletes like Peterson and finding solutions to America’s difficult ski racing problems.
Exhibit A: Team X. Fast forward from Peterson’s Dartmouth graduation to present day, and she’s part of this brand-new women’s ski team—based in Park City, and privately funded by those who believe in independent ski racing. Alongside Peterson is Madi Hoffman of Australia, Katie Fleckenstein of Canada, and Benedicte Lyche of Norway. In other words: a very talented bunch.
“Independent ski teams represent capitalism in a lot of ways and a free market—finding a solution to an issue that American ski racing has,” says Jim Tschabrun, Head Coach of Team X and past coach for Burke Mountain Academy, Rowmark Academy, and the U.S. Ski Team. Jim is joined by three additional staffers—Neil Lande, Coley Oliver, and Cam Furrer—which means the team consists of four athletes and four staffers. It’s, undisputedly, the ideal set-up.
“Because we’re outside of that realm of the National Team, we have the latitude to do things a little differently,” Tschabrun continues. “And this isn’t to say that what we do is right or wrong; it’s just different. So I kind of saw what’s happening as an opportunity to try a little different model to kind of take some of the things that have worked well for me in the past and apply those to a small, talented group. We’re trying to be really thoughtful about what the needs are for these athletes.”
Now, let’s take a look at independent ski racing’s Exhibit B: Team America. Founded by Bode Miller in 2007 and re-founded in 2012 (Miller is no longer associated with the team), the Vail-based organization is stacked for the 2018-19 season with three high-level men: Americans Alex Leever and Brian McLaughlin, and Garret Driller. Similarly structured to Team X, these three athletes—all recent college graduates—are supported through private funding and three expert coaches: Peter Lange, Alex Skladanowski, and Chris Toone.
“Athletes need to know they are being supported without the pressure of criteria,” says Dan Leever, who’s Alex Leever’s father, the man behind Team America’s rebirth in 2012, and the team’s primary funder. “I believe in the whole person. Taking college graduates and giving them the opportunity to pursue ski racing full-time is something I strongly believe in. The [U.S.] ski team won’t do that. That gives these athletes few options. Many athletes are just hitting their stride after college. They deserve a chance.”
Dan is a well-known outspoken critic of the U.S. Ski Team. His passionate blog post from last March, “What’s Wrong With U.S. Ski Racing,” went viral within the ski racing community. If you haven’t read it, read it.
“I believe USST is irreparably broken,” he boldly writes in the post. “In my view, there is no incremental approach that can turn around our situation, as evidenced by our abysmal performance in alpine at the recent Olympics. Two medalists, superstars Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, for a total of 3 medals for the women, none for the men. What is wrong?”
Polished, funded groups like Team X and Team America are seriously impressive. They have world-class coaches. They have access to incredible training facilities. They have detailed agendas and all the tools they need to succeed. As Peterson explains, regarding Team X, “We have essentially all of the resources, if not more, than what the national team offers.”
But are all of these resources 100% necessary to succeed? Do athletes without access to such manicured, supported teams have a shot? See Exhibit C: Redneck Racing, an independent and informal team based in Vermont; nowhere particular in Vermont, just Vermont.
“At Redneck Racing we don’t have any coaches, servicemen, physios, trainers. We have to be all of those things for ourselves,” says Robby Kelley, one of the team’s founders and a former U.S. Ski Team member. “With a setup like that, the only consistent thing is ourselves, meaning we don’t have anyone there but ourselves day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year—keeping up on what we’re doing technically, tactically, equipment-wise, and physically.”
This season, the Redneck Racing squad includes four athletes, all from Vermont: Tomas Woolson, Sandy Vietze, Tucker Marshall, and, of course, Kelley. They’re all self-funded but, together, work towards the shared goal of skiing fast. By simply being around one another, they’re improving everyday despite the lack of typical structure, coaching, and other expected elements of a modern ski team. It’s wonderfully disorganized in a sport that tends to worry too much about organization.
So what’s the end goal behind all of this? And what happens if, or when, someone graduates from an independent ski team? Well, it varies. A lot.
On one end of the spectrum, there are people like Peterson who are basically crystal clear.
“If I were to make the [U.S.] team criteria, I would never shut the door on that opportunity,” she says.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are people like Kelley who race in spite of the U.S. Ski Team.
“I really have no desire to rejoin the U.S. Ski Team,” he says. “I really enjoy what I’m doing. It’s a lot of work and I know that honestly it might not be the easiest or even best way to get the results that I’m looking for, but it is so much more rewarding.”
People don’t ski race for the money. People don’t ski race for the fame. People ski race because it’s fun and it brings out the best in us: the competitiveness in us, the athleticism in us, the toughness in us. Whether you’re on the U.S. Ski Team, or an NCAA team, or an independent team—or you’re just sliding between NASTAR gates—one thing is certain: when you’re smiling in the finish coral, you’ve done something right.