Last month at a virtual meeting of the Alpine Collegiate Working Group, part of U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s annual congress, a disagreement between national-team and collegiate factions became apparent, specifically with regard to conflicting NorAm and NCAA schedules and the inability for those two entities to work together. 

Among those representing the national governing body, President and CEO Tiger Shaw affirmed his position that the NorAm circuit is not designed for NCAA athletes, and the upcoming schedule would not make any such accommodations for college skiers. 

For the collegiate representatives on the call, it was not entirely surprising, as the lack of coordination between the two bodies has been the status quo for some time, but it was disheartening nonetheless to have the NGB’s stance restated ahead of the 2020-21 season, according to those involved. 

The meeting in question took place on Tuesday, May 5 and kicked off with remarks from Shaw and Alpine Development Director Chip Knight to address the national body’s relationship with the collegiate circuit in the United States.

In Shaw’s address, he reiterated that the core goal is to achieve podiums at the World Cup level and emphasized that Knight, as well as Alpine Program Director Jesse Hunt, are all in agreement with respect to the best pathway to that end. According to comments made by Shaw, the NGB’s focus and its intended structural pathway to the World Cup does not include an NCAA component. 

“Everybody is an elite athlete if you are dedicating your life to these goals,” Shaw said in his address. “But not everyone is truly moving through that pipeline on that performance curve. … Jesse (Hunt) and Chip (Knight) and I — being hyper-focused on having athletes that can place in the top 10 in the world — are hyper-focused on the pathways that we have the most control over and the most influence on — and that is the primary pathway of being on the national team full time.”

Shaw stated research conducted by the NGB supported the belief that, in order for athletes to achieve podiums, their world rank must fall within the top 10. And the best route, according to Shaw, is the national team pipeline — not NCAA. 

He argues athletes from the United States must compete and win at the NorAm level before further raising the bar by competing at the Europa Cup level and eventually seeking success on the World Cup. Taking athletes to Europe is of the utmost importance, says Shaw, so they can experience the pace, intensity, and difficulty of the venues, and fully understand what it takes to be successful at the highest levels.

As part of this effort, Shaw relayed to the Alpine Collegiate Working Group that the NorAm schedule for 2020-21 would be adjusted to accommodate the priorities of national team athletes and their “pathway to Europe,” regardless of the NCAA circuit and its own scheduling considerations. 

“The NorAms serve multiple roles, but that one is absolutely critical because without serving that role, our athletes have no pathway to the top in the world,” said Shaw. “And that’s our job, as the people who run the national team.

“(Europe), that’s where the game is played in our sport, and that’s where we wanna be successful,” Shaw added. “And, again, there can be multiple pathways there. We just wanna be stark and clear about where our focus is, and our focus is on what we’re funding and what we control, which is that pathway with the national team.”

For Dartmouth Head Men’s Alpine Coach and Alpine Collegiate Committee Chairman Peter Dodge, this message is nothing new. He says the national team’s focus on Europe is hurting American development by favoring athletes within its own, arguably, narrow pipeline and neglecting other pathways, like the NCAA. 

For 30 years, Dodge has held the same position at Dartmouth College and has seen multiple athletes come through his program who have gone on to actively compete — or been called up to compete — on the World Cup level. Still, he says, the relationship between the NGB and the NCAA has not changed. 

“The ski team has said for years and years … if somehow (college athletes) manage to (make criteria), we’ll pick ‘em up and we’ll help ‘em out a little bit,” said Dodge. “But my question is, what are you doing to help them? What are you doing to get people there?”

Having a schedule that prioritizes national team athletes has, at times, led to conflict between NCAA circuit and NorAm schedules. For example, in 2019-20, Dodge specifically recalls that Dartmouth had a week of carnival racing in the East and then a NorAm in Collingwood and Mount Eduoard, followed by another carnival race in Sunday River. Dodge drove 10 hours through the dead of night in a snowstorm to get his athletes back and forth to these races — all due to a last-minute scheduling change that was made so a single World Cup skier could come back to the States and fight for lower points, Dodge says. 

Prior to the Alpine Collegiate Committee meeting, Shaw had invited Dodge and other prominent voices in the collegiate community to discuss the upcoming schedule changes, to reiterate the NGB’s agenda, and try to reach a compromise. Dodge acknowledged, at those meetings, he got the sense that Shaw, Knight, and Hunt were actively looking for solutions, but the message that racing in Europe is the only way young American athletes are going to develop the skills needed to win is not something he agrees with. Prioritizing Europe, he says, is not the only solution when the competition exists domestically.

“The key is you’ve got to pay attention to the college races. We are at least 50% of the top 30 of the (NorAm) field,” explained Dodge. “If I could do it and not hurt the racers, I would say, ‘Let’s just boycott the NorAms; we’re not even going to go. Good luck with that; you’re not going to have a race.’ Who are the River Radamuses going to race against if we aren’t there? They’ll have no competition at all. The takeaway for me is, they’ve got to continue to work with us in earnest to make this schedule work.”

As the head coach at Dartmouth, Dodge has seen more athletes who have also worked with the U.S. Ski Team come through his program than any other institution. Many of his recruits are C and D Team-level athletes. From NCAA slalom champion and Olympian David Choudounsky to Europa Cup slalom champion Nolan Kasper, alumni Brian McLaughlin and Foreste Peterson, as well as current Dartmouth athletes Tricia Mangan and Abi Jewett — Dodge is no stranger to overseeing American athletes who are pushing for World Cup starts. Tanguy Nef, a current Dartmouth athlete and Swiss national team member is ranked 25th in the world in slalom and had top finishes in Wengen and Madonna di Campiglio in 2020.

The national team pipeline in the United States encourages what Shaw referred to as “the frantic athlete” —  an athlete willing to sacrifice it all in order to be top 10 in the world. An athlete with other goals or aspirations, Shaw says, is probably an athlete that should not be involved with the U.S. national team. 

Dodge argues, on the other hand, because an athlete decides to go to college, that does not mean he or she lacks commitment to racing in Europe at the highest level. 

“Commitment isn’t black and white,” said Dodge. “College kids are super committed because they are doing it on their own and they’re studying at the same time, and they’re making it without support. Because they can’t go to all the camps, and they can’t do everything except lift weights 24-7, (the ski team thinks) ‘Oh they’re not super, super committed to be the best in the world — you gotta be absolutely committed.’ But life isn’t that simple and people don’t work that way. They’re not machines.” 

Messaging from NGBs that their own pathway is the best route to the World Cup is a doctrine that has long been impressed on athletes rising through the ranks.

Dodge points to Luke Winters as an example of young, up-and-coming American talent who chose to forgo college in order to be noticed by the national team. Roni Remme felt similar pressures from the Canadian national team, and competed solely for them before feeling like something in her career was missing. She then opted to attend and ski for the University of Utah.

“You don’t want to close that door, you don’t want to say ‘no’ to (the national team),” Remme told Ski Racing Media in December. “And sometimes, I think, by going somewhere other than their direction that is how it’s perceived. Obviously, it affects your decision, the way that you think they are going to think about you and your decisions on your career. But I knew in my heart, I couldn’t do a year the way I had just done it.”

As a college athlete trying to get to the next level, Dodge says, “You’re fighting against your national team, not being supported by them.”

JJ Johnson looks on at the women’s podium at RMISA Utah Invitational.

University of Utah Head Coach JJ Johnson had been with the U.S. Ski Team, both as an athlete and coach, prior to joining the Utes. As such, Johnson has a unique perspective and possesses firsthand knowledge of both athletic bodies. When coaching for the development team from 2014-2018, he sensed a lack of coordination between his athletes who wanted to go to college and the ski team’s priorities. He didn’t realize until he left the “ski team bubble” how disjointed those two pathways had become. 

From Johnson’s perspective, NCAA athletes often acquire the racing skills needed to make it to the next level and contribute to a healthier national system, but criteria isn’t helping their cause. If they muscle their way through the system, advancing to the World Cup level, they’re considered “fringe athletes,” and not given due attention. 

“I was that way as an athlete,” recalled Johnson. “You’re a fringe athlete getting World Cup starts, you go there and you’re not paid attention to as much, and you’re sort of that one (athlete) in between groups. Then, all of a sudden you’re 24. Now you don’t have a college opportunity, and all of a sudden, you’re off the team and don’t know where to go. So that’s a hard choice.

“That building, there in Park City, that was my life. All I ever wanted to do was be a part of that curve. I get it, but there’s going to continue to be skiers in college, so let’s find some cool ways to collaborate.” 

Even with the added pressure and stigma placed on NCAA athletes, many who have chosen the non-traditional pathway of competing on the collegiate circuit have later found their way onto the World Cup. Leif Nestvold-Haugen, a Norwegian athlete currently ranked sixth in the world in giant slalom, competed on the NCAA circuit for Denver University (DU). University of Utah graduate Sam Dupratt was recently renamed to the alpine B Team. DU’s Jett Seymour also found his way back onto the B Team after winning an NCAA slalom title. And current B Team athlete Paula Moltzan missed a chance to race in World Cup Finals in order to compete with the University of Vermont at NCAAs in 2019. 

“I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone more at school than I would have ever been pushed on the U.S. Ski Team,” Moltzan told Ski Racing Media in November of 2019. “It’s probably hard for a lot of people to hear that, but I think school is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, and I would not have traded it for three more years on the U.S. Ski Team.”

Some athletes like Moltzan and Remme who have gone through the collegiate pipeline have actually found more World Cup success after racing in the NCAA, largely because their school experience broke up the monotony of life on the national team and challenged them to expand as a person, they say. 

According to Johnson, when Seymour made the national team his first year, he wasn’t ready. Going to school, however, took his skiing to the next level. Now he’s more grown up; he’s back on the B Team, and Johnson thinks the NCAA has been the best thing for him. 

“What’s the athlete-centric approach? What’s going to make them better,” Johnson asks. “There are people that go through skiing their whole life … and they’re going to be successful. Then you get people that are skiing and skiing, and they flatline somewhere, and then what makes them a whole person? Is it less training? Is it a year off? Is it going to school? What’s going to round them out? What’s their balance? (NCAA) is a hell of an option for life balance. It’s not like you’re losing a ton.” 

Shaw, Knight, and Hunt are not blind to the fact that some athletes in the national program have come to them via the NCAA circuit. The naming of new NCAA athletes to the 2020-21 squad is a move that Knight deemed “exciting, positive news” and recognized many people in the community who worked hard to make those opportunities possible. 

Dodge, being one of those people, argues that while there are small steps being made in the right direction, there is still a disconnect between the NGB and the NCAA. The National University Team that once existed was a step in the right direction, he says, but then it disappeared. 

“The biggest disconnect seems to be just a systemic thing in the organization where the message isn’t consistent from the top down to the coaches,” said Dodge. “You’re the coach of the U.S. Ski Team. These are U.S. people. Don’t you want to give them everything you can to succeed?

“I would do anything for an athlete that comes to me from the national team to facilitate their national team program,” Johnson added. “Would they do everything to help out on the couple things we need? Or one little thing? Besides telling (athletes) they can’t. They’re so vague with their communication. Why not just get to work on this? (The NCAA) is not going away.”

So what can be done to make the relationship between the NGB and the NCAA stronger and more cohesive? In Dodge and Johnson’s opinion, that will require a cultural shift from top-level leadership all the way down to the coaching staff. 

In the past, there’s been a lack of NCAA representation when it comes to making decisions that affect all American athletes. Johnson is hopeful his recent experience as a ski team coach and current experience as a top NCAA coach can facilitate productive conversation that will benefit the entire U.S. skiing system.

In the meantime, the solutions Dodge suggested and wrote in a 1999 article for Ski Racing magazine still ring true:

“Give us some real criteria that we can achieve domestically and make the age criteria realistic so a kid can go to college for two years and get his shit together and then go on. Give us a realistic program and realistic criteria and we can then go out and do our job. Our job is just like theirs: We want to make people ski fast, and colleges have a lot of resources to do that.”

Editor’s note: In the days and weeks ahead, Ski Racing Media intends on publishing several articles, features, and opinion pieces that demonstrate the value of collegiate skiing as a viable pathway to success for elite racers — on and off the hill.

Have some thoughts on this? Send a letter to the editor. If it’s good, we’ll publish it.