Defying Gravity

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Gravity is Fair. Racer eX readers may recognize this key insight from a long ago Executive Director of US Skiing. If ever there was time for ski racers to internalize this truth, it is now.

In terms of opportunity for ski racers, we’ve never seen a year with this much variability. Athletes on the national team, or otherwise able to station themselves in Europe have had as much or even more training and racing as in a normal prep period and early season. On the other extreme, athletes in the east who barely had snow through December, saw their first FIS race January 11. The Northwest and Far West may not host any competitions for some time, and athletes there need to trek to Alaska, Wyoming or Colorado to find starts. Somewhere in the middle, are athletes based in Colorado who have seen the most training and racing domestically, though with reduced field sizes that limit access.

So, ski racing is not fair. But we knew that.

There are good things in this scenario and I suspect most athletes stuck in the no-race-zone are tired of hearing them all by now. For youngsters, there’s a lot of upside. Staying close to home and minimizing races allows them to bank time on snow and is a much-needed break from the typical hamster wheel sprint of qualifications and champs. Older athletes have had more time to train without the pressure and distraction of racing. The absence of travel, and the notorious time suck of race days, allows more time to build the strength that will ultimately bolster and further the technique being honed in oh-so-many training sessions. Nobody but nobody is taking a ski day, or a training day for granted anymore. Same goes for races, whenever they do happen.

Somewhere in this year’s extremes of opportunity is a sweet spot that balances training, racing and enthusiasm for the sport. You can’t blame athletes for taking advantage of the opportunities they’re given. These are ski racers—racing is what they do. The ones in position to race their hearts out can hopefully exploit this chance to go for the brass ring. Likewise, everyone else is justified in being frustrated and wanting to scream into a pillow regularly. Sure, a positive attitude helps. But optimism, on its own, is inert. It needs to be paired with action to do its magic.

No matter where you are on the spectrum of feast to famine, you can keep the faith that there is still plenty or runway. Assuming we get rolling and are able to have a season domestically, it will be heavily weighted towards spring and hopefully last well into April. By then we will at least have a lot of information available from the wildly different approaches athletes took based on their circumstances. This is our opportunity to learn, to evaluate the positives and negatives of the various paths and to use a broad perspective when looking at athletes.

If American athletes need more grit—and we hear that often—then let’s look closely at athletes at every level who made the most of limited opportunities. How were they able to execute with fewer shots on goal, and how do we recognize and promote those attributes post pandemic? Tim La Marche in his letter to Ski Racing last year suggested ways of evaluating athletes that look beyond FIS points and now would be an excellent time to try that, not just for “talent identification,” but to better understand how to succeed in our sport.  

Youth racing might actually benefit long term from finding ways to step off the hamster wheel, and let athletes settle into the process of simply gaining miles and getting better. And FIS racing might benefit from a later schedule and fewer total races. It might also help us retain athletes longer. That is, IF we acknowledge that an uneven playing field creates wacky bounces, and grant a lot of patience, encouragement and grace to the athletes who keep showing up to chase down every option they get, in whatever way works.  

Most kids I see on the hill don’t dream about being ok. They dream about being great, and having that special something that transcends a results list or a FIS ranking. As fans of the sport we all want to see those athletes who expand the boundaries of mere technical prowess by bringing their own creative flair— the ones who blaze a unique trail to a more exciting destination.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Gordi Eaton for an upcoming article in Skiing History (If you care about preserving the history of this sport, you should subscribe!). I love being able to talk to people with a perspective on our sport that spans decades. The two time Olympian, US Ski Team coach, and ski designer has an encyclopedic knowledge of high level ski racing from before the US Ski Team existed to the present. Like many of us lifers in the sport he wonders if there is still room for those natural talents in our sport to percolate to the top. Is there room for kids with desire, ability, athleticism and a work ethic, who can’t or don’t chase year-round skiing from age 14, and a meticulously curated FIS profile? Because, sometimes the raw, unhomogenized version is just… better.

Eaton tells a story of standing with legendary Austrian coach Franz Hoppichler as they watched American and Austrian World Cup athletes take on an icy mogul field. The Americans tackled it with precision while the Austrians danced down it. Something was missing with the American skiers, a joy and playfulness that translated to their feet. “You have better technicians,” Hoppichler observed, “but we have better snow athletes.”

Maybe this shake up in the routine is our time to learn how to dance.

When we get so fixated on who gets down the prescribed path fastest, we forget to celebrate the things that can make a more interesting path. We could easily miss the Bode Millers who are willing to take a risk at the Junior Olympics and race on a recreational ski for his biggest competition of the year; the Warner Nickersons who built enough chops through college to race  World Cup after graduation, before that was a thing; the Paula Moltzans who took a step back and didn’t ski at all for two summers while racing college; the Ryan Cochran Siegles who skipped spring ski camps, and “critical’ on snow days to play baseball his senior year of high school. How many skiers like them have we missed or lost because their paths didn’t match the ideal?

This is an unprecedented year and we’ll need to make unprecedented efforts to keep kids in the game. We need to encourage them to look beyond the inequities of the moment and towards the long-term benefits that can come from this departure from the ski racing as we know it. We can walk the talk on the value of long term athletic development by looking for ways to keep the door open, and leave the light on for as many athletes as we can.

By next year, if and when things get back to “normal” we will no doubt have learned that there are many ways to progress in ski racing. Let’s lean in to them and celebrate them all.

6 thoughts on “Defying Gravity”

    • Thanks for reading Hilary and I hope you find a lot of bright spots in this wacky year. It’s different at least!

  1. Hi Edie,
    I love this article because it recognizes the racers who absolutely love skiing and racing , but who are not able to follow the proscribed path on account of lack money or opportunity.

    My coach Dave McCoy, who helped me get on the US World cup ski team, often told me, “ You are good because you absolutely love the sport.”
    Lee Hall Delfausse author “ Snow Sanctuary”

    • Thanks for reading Lee and I’m glad you liked it. How lucky you were to be coached by Dave McCoy! I just read Robin Morning’s book about Dave and Roma “For the Love of It,” and it made me wish I could go back in time to be part of that scene. I hope you are able to get some kind of ski season (or at least enjoy the snow) wherever you are.

  2. Edie, you nailed it… !! So many truths in there… and so many ways to review and renew our opinions ! Thanks !

    • Thanks for reading and for chiming in Ruben! I hope things are good in Sun Valley and you all are making the most of quality time close to home!

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