In a virtual meeting of the alpine U16-and-older Working Group on Monday, a proposal brought forth by the Health of Sport Task Force failed to make it out of committee as currently written. The working group, made up of eight members and a chairman, Peter Korfiatis, voted by a 5-3 margin to prevent the measure from advancing to the Development Subcommittee and later the Alpine Sport Committee, where it would have been considered for final approval.

The main sticking point was the fourth provision (D) in the Health of Sport proposal, which limits the number of FIS starts racers are permitted to make. As originally submitted, the proposal would cap the number of starts to 25 for first-year FIS racers, 30 for second year, and 35 for third year. It was opposed by five of the eight voting members. Killington’s Tom Sell, Park City’s Jess Kelley, and Aspen’s Casey Puckett were among the most vocal detractors. 

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The Health of Sport proposal, which is split into four parts, was formulated by a special task force of industry leaders with the goal of improving retention, lowering cost and enhancing development across alpine ski racing.

The main provisions, as proposed on Monday, were as follows: 

A. Regions and divisions will establish an ability-matched system of race series for U16 and older, whereby athletes start at an introductory level and advance to the next level by meeting a standard, such as points, rankings, and/or qualifying event results, determined by the region and/or division. Head-to-head competition should be included in the advancement method. 

B. Whenever possible, head to head racing should be utilized for selections.

1. Regional selections to Regional Camps, NPS, Jr. Nationals and U.S. Alpine Championships will be based on head-to-head competition within one’s own region.
2. National selections that cross regions (i.e. national projects) may utilize seed points.
3. Exceptions may be made for athletes who are unable to compete in the head-to-head series races due to attending national projects.

C. Racing in the Southern Hemisphere is prohibited for 1st year FIS athletes

D. Start limitations for 2020-21 season. Applies to SL and GS starts only. Athletes who have reached their start limit will not be eligible to enter additional events in that season.

1. 2004 YOB: 25 FIS starts
2. 2003 YOB: 30 FIS starts
3. 2002 YOB: 35 FIS starts

The task force was formed about a year ago when a late proposal to limit FIS starts was brought to the table by Rowmark’s Todd Brickson at Congress in 2019. The sport committee had limited time to discuss and review the proposal and didn’t want to make an impulsive decision at the tail end of Congress. They also realized — although an important component of the problem — FIS starts are only part of the perceived problem.

“The intention of this four-prong proposal has several different goals,” said Brickson, who was subsequently named chair of the 16-and-older Working Group at the end of Monday’s meeting, replacing Korfiatis. “We realize that this is not the be-all, end-all proposal, and each region definitely has its own unique challenges that are much different from the others. But the goal is to decrease cost, travel, and the amount of school missed while attempting to level the playing field, and increase retention in our sport.”

The first three parts of the proposal (A-C) were largely unopposed, but there were serious reservations about limiting the number of FIS starts, especially for second- and third-year racers. As a result, the proposal was tabled and further discussion is expected on Friday, when the group is hoping to reach a compromise.

Part A establishes an ability-matched race series for U16-and-older athletes that allows introductory-level racers to advance to the next level by meeting a particular standard, such as points, rankings, event qualifying, as determined by the athlete’s region and/or division with an emphasis on the head-to-head format. Part A was approved with no objections.

Part B received a small modification prior to approval. The verbiage originally read, “Regional selections to Regional Camps, National Projects, Junior Nationals, and the U.S. Alpine Championships will be based on head-to-head competition.” The group simply changed the word “will” to “should” in order to allow more flexibility among the regions. 

Part C of the proposal was also approved with no objections. This section states that racing in the Southern Hemisphere is prohibited for first-year FIS athletes and requires the age group start its season all together in the Northern Hemisphere.

Examining Part D

Part D, which focuses on start limitations for first-year, second-year, and third-year FIS athletes in slalom and giant slalom, was unsuccessful because of discrepancies across regional programs. 

The original proposal of 25/30/35 was the product of a study conducted by Sun Valley’s Lindsay Mann and members of the task force. The study analyzed FIS starts per season for divisional, regional, and national racers through the lens of top athletes in each alpine nation, as well as mid-tier and bottom-tier athletes. The results showed U.S. women tend to have higher-than-average start numbers across slalom and GS, and U.S. club athletes, in general, have higher start numbers, on average, compared to other nations.  

“There’s just a sense that domestically we need to try and send a signal of what’s appropriate and what’s in line with our own alpine training system,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard Alpine Development Director Chip Knight. “So that’s where these numbers came from. And I feel there’s probably room for a little wiggle room, but the idea is that we can’t help ourselves — we chase races around the country because we can.” 

Start limitations were suggested as a way to encourage regions to design more effective race calendars while simultaneously persuading athletes and coaches to better manage their race schedule. This, they hoped, would open up more time for training while reducing the overall cost of participation by decreasing travel and minimizing “race chasing.”

Brickson, an advocate of more training and less racing, sees this as the proposal’s top priority — to free up time in the athletes’ schedule for training, periodization, and peaking focus, which many members of the task force believe is the current failing of U.S. skiing.

“In general, some people at least race too much and don’t train enough in season and don’t really try and peak for the races that they have instead of just going from race to race,” said Brickson. “The reality is that our sport is relatively unregulated, so putting in some sensible regulations makes sense to our committee to make an impact to start to control costs while at the same time making our athletes more successful.  But the American way is to do what you want and I do understand that perspective as well.  But we’ve been doing it that way for a long time and it is not working.  It becomes difficult to actually make meaningful policy, as there are so many varying opinions.”

Counterevidence

Voting “no” on the proposal were Sell, Puckett, Kelley, Mike Morin, and John Buchar. A few of these coaches and academy directors stepped up to the conversation with examples of outlier instances in their programs, citing individual athletes who could be negatively affected by the rule changes. Limitations, in their opinion, could put top athletes at a disadvantage, causing them to potentially miss U.S. Ski Team criteria or other goals as a result of reduced point opportunities.

“Top-level athletes are the ones who get hurt by this because of start limitations,” said Kelley. “Maybe they’re coming on at the right point and then have to stop racing, and they don’t meet the criteria and make the development team or whatever it might be. When I’m listening to a lot of this, I feel like this proposal is really aimed at the middle of the pack and trying to eliminate those skiers from getting so many starts that you don’t feel are necessary for them because they need to improve their skill set.”

Puckett, another vocal opponent of start restrictions, agrees with the task force’s overall philosophy that the train-to-race ratio is important and should be addressed. But his concern is in limiting the athletes seeking a particular objective — athletes trying to meet development criteria or those looking to compete on the NCAA circuit, for instance. 

“Generally, my philosophy is to leave it to the clubs and the coach and the athletes and the parents to figure out what their schedule is,” Puckett explained. “If we’re going to follow the qualification head-to-head series and if [athletes] are going to participate in one or two championships, all of a sudden you’ve chewed up the 25 tech starts really fast. Are we doing this to drive participation, or what’s our goal? Trying to raise champions and Olympians and compete against Europe, or are we trying to just keep people in the sport?”

On the development end, Knight chimed in to emphasize long-term priorities over short-term objectives, which he says will empower athletes to meet their goals. In his opinion, training and development standards need to be an emphasis in the community in order to cultivate champions.

“We don’t want to put the short-term concern of maybe missing a FIS point result out of the long-term advantage of developing athletically,” Knight said in defense of reduced starts. “It’s hard to restrain ourselves [as a country] but philosophically it makes a lot of sense to me. I’m not too concerned about the college points or even the criteria points because I think the athlete with more of a periodized race schedule, more of a well thought out plan, and higher training-to-racing [ratio] will be better off in the long-term and [will be] able to make criteria or land at a good university.”

Where’s this going?

Given the back and forth, Brickson suspects the Friday discussion will limit first-year FIS athletes but may leave second- and third-year athletes unrestricted, which is not necessarily the outcome he had been hoping for. 

“That’s the important part of this proposal. Each of these, [Parts] A, B, C, and D, by themselves probably don’t have enough of an impact. The committee feels that together the four parts will have an impact to make meaningful, systematic change,” Brickson said. “But it’s hard because as they move through these committees, the parts can get pared down too much, and then we might not get to a place where we have substantial change.”

Committee members are in agreement that the emphasis on head-to-head formats will allow for geographically stretched regions — or regions with a lot of race disparity — to level the playing field in younger age groups before the point system can work as intended. Part B of the proposal seeks to provide equity among individual racers, as well as across divisions and regions, by encouraging head-to-head racing whenever possible.

“Whole regions may have kids with points a lot lower than another division or region when making selections based on points,” said Brickson. “Then they’re not comparing apples to apples because they achieved those points at different races, sometimes against older kids where their penalties were a lot lower.  As athletes get older, the points system begins to work well but in the early ages it can be very unbalanced across the country.

“Even in just the Western Region, we have such a region that spans five divisions, point bases are a lot different. Alaska and Montana don’t have as much access to races where they have lower penalties. The East, Rocky/Central, and West are so very different in terms of their populations and their density and how they decide on their qualification procedures,” he added. “So the committee believes it is much fairer and objective to select head-to-head whenever you can, with some exceptions. It’s also important for the policies to give the regions enough room to make policy that works for them.”

Moving forward, the group remains focused on Part D, although the rest of the proposal is still subject to change as it moves through the process. 

“For most of us, there’s this arms race going on and inequity of people that can spend as much money as they need to or want to have a crazy schedule versus the majority of kids that can’t do that,” said Brickson. “I think part of our goal as a task force is to try to even the playing field a little bit and not have it be such an elite sport where only one percent or half the one percent can do this.”

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6 COMMENTS

  1. You cannot have World Cup and Olympic level athletes without first having athlete retention in ski racing. Europe can produce so many elite level ski racers because they have great depth in their youth ski racing and development programs that the US has never been close to touching. The socioeconomic gap in this sport between the rich and the talented (and the talented rich) creates an environment where money literally has the ability to buy success in some situations; more racing opportunities, better training conditions, better coaching, money to travel, etc. I have experienced too many young adults burn out from the financial burden of ski racing, the physical burden of racing/training too aggressively, and the social burden of not being supported by proper coaching and leadership. Then comes the burden of not getting enough education while spending high school years on the road with only ski racing on the mind. Look at how many athletes actually make a profit from ski racing professionally in the US; not enough to justify skipping some of the most substantial educational years of one’s adolescent life. High school age student-athletes need balance, and the FIS start limitation provokes more strategic thinking in how to maximize training, scheduling, traveling, racing, and learning. Not a lot of people are fortunate enough to zoom around the world, or even just the U.S., for ski racing, but they might be just as talented or more, than the people who can. The ‘middle of the pack’ athletes at this age (early FIS) are not even close to being fully developed athletes, and have barely seen opportunities to grow in their lives. Think: the beloved Ted Ligety, was once a ‘middle of the pack athlete’, and alas, has grown beyond what anyone at age 16 thought he would ever be. And have we all forgotten that Mikaela Shiffrin began one of the most successful careers in the history of ski racing by limiting her starts in order to balance her training and personal time? Ski racing needs this kind of innovation, strategy, and structure. Let the middle pack have their chance. We all deserve that chance.

  2. One additional component that had been brought up is education. While I do not discount the value we cannot have education included in the race start conversation.
    If you want to be a student and a scholar please make that your focus. If you want to be an athlete make that the focus.
    There are no guarantees dedication to being educated gets you into Harvard just like dedication to sport means success as a professional athlete.
    What sacrifices is everyone willing to make, what risks and how are those weighed based on your true wants, needs and environment?
    Being a ski racer and being successful at the highest level means sacrifice from being what many consider “normal”. Thinking you can have it all is a farce and the sooner someone tells the truth that you cannot the better.
    The sport isnt cheap, you will miss school and an educational component and you will most likely blow out your knee. Those are facts.
    It is also a fact that as much as we all want it to get cheaper it isn’t and we have to live in reality not utopian wishful thinking.
    What we want and how it is are two different t realms so we all must know it is about sacrificing the life you might have for a life you believe in and want but has zero guarantees.
    Bottom line, you cannot second guess the path you choose and you are best to make that choice and dedicate your life, love and blood to it with absolute resolve because if you don’t you will fail, you will not be happy and it was a waste of time, money and resources.
    I am sorry but this is not what ski clubs want people to hear but I must speak the truth because we are talking about kids lives and their future and parents money.
    If you are going to pursue a path in ski racing you need to be all in regardless of what you want from the sport be it a career or fun. Anyone involved half in is a distraction to coaches and athletes that actually want something for themselves out of it.
    Participation is ski school we are talking about ski racing. They are extremely different and must not get confused.
    NASTAR and high school racing are great outlets for fun, participatory ski racing. Ski racing is fun because you pour your heart and soul into the sport to derive the most from yourself to see what you can get out of it as a person and an athlete.
    You also know the risks involved from injury to missing out on prom, high school in general and an educational component.
    These are facts so finding the balance is the coaches, parents and athletes job but it is truly the coaches because parents don’t know and athletes are too young to know better.
    Great coaches create great programs and help develop great athletes but as said above it is the dedicated athlete that has to believe and know where they want and intend to go.

  3. Geoff,
    Are we looking at the complete proposal?
    1. Please list the people who comprise this working group.
    2. Please provide a link to the complete “Health of Sport proposal”.

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