When The U.S. Collegiate Ski & Snowboard Association (USCSA) canceled the 2021 U.S. Collegiate Ski & Snowboard National Championships last fall citing concerns from its membership regarding the safety of attendees and travel restrictions, the USCSA turned its focus to enabling the regular season and local competitions where conditions permitted. Among limited training, a condensed roster of teams participating, and various COVID-19 Task Force meetings, USCSA persevered to successfully hold Western Region Championships for four collegiate teams last weekend.
This decision to cancel the national championship was made with input from the USCSA’s COVID-19 Task Force, the National Championships Committee, and the Academic Affairs Committee among the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. After determining that it would not be safe to host athletes from across the country at a pinnacle event this year, the difficult decision came before the start of the competition season, but giving conference coordinators flexibility to adjust their regular season schedules to support their conference and athletes. In tandem to this decision, the Academic Affairs Committee approved an eligibility waiver for any full-time enrolled student athlete in the 20-21 academic year, allowing athletes who competed this season to retain a year of eligibility for use in future academic years.
Then began conference planning.
Many teams didn’t get the green light to train and race until the beginning of January, while most teams were told their season would not come to fruition. In the Northwest Conference alone, only two of the ten teams were granted a go-head, leaving the Northwest Conference to cancel their season before it even started. The following week, phones started to ring as teams from the Grand Teton, Northwest, and Rocky Mountain Conferences worked to put together a race schedule for any teams in the West that could participate. Just a week after giving the thumbs up to have a season, head ski coach at the College of Idaho Aaron Flynn was on the phone with Jerry Wolf, head ski coach at Rocky Mountain College and Grand Teton Conference Coordinator, to put together a race at the end of January. Meanwhile, Wolf took the responsibility to replace Western Regionals, which had not been able to get scheduled, with a Western Region Championships.
Making championships possible
There is not one person who made Western Region Championships possible, it took a village of athletes, coaches, schools, and organizers to pull every detail together. Invitations to championships were sent to all available schools in the West and Far West USCSA regions, a total of five conferences covering 10 states. Five schools from Grand Teton, Northwest, and Rocky Mountain Conferences worked closely with their school administrators in order to be cleared to travel and compete at the event hosted by Rocky Mountain College in Red Lodge, Montana.
Rocky Mountain College hosts the Western Regional Championships every third year at the venue with the help of local ski club Silver Run Ski Team. Although venue selection for USCSA Regional Championships are typically scheduled a year in advance, Red Lodge was selected as host just a month before the event among many existing uncertainties. After Red Lodge hosted a successful Masters race in December following COVID-19 protocols, and USCSA COVID-19 Task Force worked with the three conferences to develop safety protocols that were used at the championships, Wolf worked endless hours over countless zoom meetings finalizing protocols and convincing their institutions to allow a championship race.
And the hard work paid off.
It’s race day
Flynn’s team was not the only one to travel the 10-plus hours to get to Red Lodge, yet believes that everyone involved agreed that the logistical barriers were well worth the opportunity to race.
The five teams that attended — Rocky Mountain College, College of Idaho, Colorado Mesa University, Western Colorado University, and Colorado School of Mines — followed USCSA and Red Lodge Mountain COVID-19 protocols before and during the race to ensure the safety of all in attendance. When teams arrived at Red Lodge on March 12, 40 athletes were treated to two days of spring temperatures, sunshine, and perfect hero-snow conditions.
The teams opened championships Friday with back-to-back GS races. Rocky Mountain College had a stellar day, sweeping the podium in both men’s and women’s races. For the women, Rocky Mountain College’s Hilde Sato dominated both races, leveraging her path to the top by over a second in both races. Her teammates Sofia Brustia and Sydney Weaver finished both races 2-3, pulling ahead in the team standings.
The men were no short of outstanding finishes for Rocky Mountain College, taking the top six positions in the first race followed by the top eight in the second. Alexander Schlberg had dominating results like his female teammate, winning both races by a second. In the first run, his Rocky Mountain College teammates Filip Johansson and Gusten Berglund rounded out the podium in second and third. After the first run in the second race, Berglund was in second just 9 hundredths behind Schlberg. Berglund did not start his second run, giving room for Jonansson to move up to second and Ludvig Bye to move into third.
On Saturday, teammates returned for two slalom races on pristine snow conditions. Another day and another four-race podium sweep for Rocky Mountain College. For the women, Brustia edged out GS champion Sato for the first race win with Weaver once again rounding out the podium in third. In the second race Sato had her revenge, beating out Brustia with the fastest second run time and nearly moving into first, .13 seconds ahead. Sato rounded out the weekend winning three of the four races, while Weaver went four for four in third.
Ludvig Bye was the dominating skier on the men’s ski, taking both slalom wins ahead of teammate Johansson who finished second in both races by over half a second. In the first race, GS champion Schlberg suffered a mistake in his second run that moved him back from second and into third. After leading the first run of the second race, Schlberg did not finish his second run, giving Bye his second win of the day while Daniel Larriu captured his first podium of the weekend in third.
The two days of racing were exactly what teams needed to close out their 2020-21 season as coaches and offiators shared remarks of a fun atmosphere representing the truest form of comradery, competition, and gratitude. With many athletes having shifted to remote learning, the social appreciation extended beyond individual to teams and to those they were competing against. After a commanding performance from Rocky Mountain College, the team took away the Western Region Championship team standing, followed by College of Idaho, Colorado Mesa University, and Colorado School of Mines.
“For the athletes, having sanctioned races including a championship race gave them something to work towards, and maybe a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Flynn. “Our team is young, so this was an opportunity for them to see how competitive the field really is at this league. I know there were a few graduating seniors at the race as well, and I can only imagine how meaningful it was to have a final championship race to end their collegiate careers.”
After Wolf put personal grit, resilience, and hours into putting together a successful championship race, he was grateful to have the teams together, traveling and competing with one another in this challenging year.
“All the work and effort paid off for those lucky 40 athletes,” said Wolf. “We all got to execute the COVID plans we worked on, instead of just Zoom about them. I worked too darn hard this season not to have a championship event.”
Athletes and coaches alike share a positive outlook on the year ahead. For Flynn who’s team is new to the USCSA roster, rounding out their season with a championship race helps athletes set goals for next year. For many athletes, participating in ski racing is a major part of their college experience and look forward to full conference schedules next season.
Jay Moyer, Western Region Championships TD and USCSA official, shares sentiment of hope and excitement for the next season, aspiring to safely hold additional championship races throughout the country next year.
“While USCSA recognizes the difficult position many of our teams were in this season that prevented them from competing, we’re proud of our athletes, coaches, and volunteers who were able to pull off multiple events throughout the country this season, including in the East, Mideast, Midwest, and Southeast Conferences in addition to the Western Region,” said Moyer. “This Regional Championship was a great culmination event for the athletes who were able to attend and we’re glad that everyone in attendance had a great time.”
Western Region Championships marked the end of the USCSA race schedule yet some athletes will continue to compete at the FIS level and participate at spring series races. Otherwise, many will shift their focus back to the classroom and begin preparing physically and mentally for next season.