Hey Hey, NCAA

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“IMPOSSIBLE!”

Say that en français and you have Laurence St Germain’s reaction at the finish of what would be her gold medal winning run in Courcheval. At the time, she thought her run was enough for a bronze, which in itself would have been historic. She would be the first woman to come from the NCAA to win a World Championship medal. Why not do it from Bib 18? Why not make it gold? And why not make it gold in front of the greatest SL skier of all time?

One day later, AJ Ginnis, former US skier now representing his native country of Greece, would make his own history, for Greece and for NCAA men, Starting bib 24 in Run 1, then skiing in the roughest conditions imaginable Run 2, Ginnis won silver. Another medal, for another athlete who used the NCAA to support and extend his ski racing career past the freshness dating conferred by conventional NGB wisdom. These two athletes prove, once again, that phenoms will come and go, but true talent development is a long-term game that college skiing is built to play.

Having beaten the drum to preserve and promote college skiing heavily and steadily since 2017 (see partial laundry list below), it is hard to imagine what can make the message resonate louder than these two medals. In St Germain’s case, it is even more remarkable that coming into these World Champs another Catamount was favored to be on the women’s podium. St Germain’s former UVM teammate, American Paula Moltzan, was in position to score medals in two events before being sidelined by a broken hand while winning Team Parallel gold. St Germain’s own Canadian teammates include NCAA skiers Ali Nullmeyer and Amelia Smart.

Ginnis’s medal was especially impressive considering the extraordinarily challenging second run set that created epically rugged conditions. Like St Germain, he had never been in medal position for the second run in a big event. Adding to that pressure, he also stood at the top watching all the top racers slide backwards in the punishing ruts that worsened for each racer at the bottom of the 30 flip.  Nevertheless, Ginnis was the only athlete in the top three to hold podium position. That’s skill. That’s toughness. That’s composure. That’s an educated athlete.

CARNIVAL MAGIC—THE SPECIAL SAUCE

So, what is it about the college circuit that makes it rich territory for development? Lots.

It’s gritty, with races on hills that range from gnarly to wonky, on eastern snow that on any day is a box of chocolates; as in, you never know what you’ll get, from boilerplate to slush to polar vortex aggressive snow. Courses are rough, especially for men in GS, who run after 80 women on the same course. Succeeding consistently on the carnival circuit requires a level of adaptability and a bag of tricks you just don’t cultivate on the well-manicured NorAm tour.

It’s HARD, requiring athletes to manage all their own equipment and off-season training, and a full course load. They’re writing papers in vans, taking finals in hotels, tuning skis between classes and training in any window they can. Without national team access their equipment is the best they can cobble together through connections and inherited quivers. Nothing in their schedule allows for optimal performance in either their academic and athletic pursuits; no allowances are made, or extra credit given, for the headwinds they face daily. Athletic and academic success relies on extraordinary commitment. It is for sure a longer road, but one that builds resourcefulness, strength and resilience.

It’s FUN. The banter in a college van between teammates, and at races between all the competitors is vastly different from what you’ll hear at any other race. After years of being run down by the single-focus treadmill that is youth sports, student athletes come alive as they discover and enjoy the world beyond sports. Ironically, that freedom often reconnects them to their love of skiing. The international athletes bring low penalties and high intensity on the hill, and also diversity, perspective and maturity off the hill. Athletes come through their four years with a lifelong network of friends who can walk through fire, shrug it off and laugh about it over a game of pong.

THE GIFT OF MORE TIME, THE NEED FOR MORE TRAINING

The missing piece for college skiers has always been off-season training. No matter how talented the committed college athletes are, they need high level training outside the approved NCAA season to find the next level. That is the piece Ginnis himself, along with his own coaches, Sandy Vietze and Gaby Coulet, provided for American skiers this past summer.

Unlike Moltzan and St Germain, Ginnis was never a regular on the NCAA tour; but, he used his college team and the NCAA circuit as a resource for support while toggling between the World Cup and domestic circuits. However it is deployed, the consistent home base of a college team along with the ecosystem of the circuit provides huge value. It allows the breathing room that talent typically requires to fully develop. When Ginnis raced for Dartmouth in 2020, he shared the podium with Norwegians Mattias Tefre and Joachim Jagge Lindstol in first and second. Tefre and Lindstol, now in their final NCAA seasons, are still stacking the podium. But this season they are joined up there by Americans who trained at the camps Ginnis organized.

BELIEVING IS FREE, AND AS GOOD AS GOLD

Nearly as valuable as the training itself was the boost the college athletes got from someone believing in them enough to organize a top quality camp just for them. Sometimes, validation is the catalyst you need to make a leap. College skiing gives athletes who aren’t their NGB’s “chosen ones,” or who fell off the fast track, the chance to become all they can be. St Germain put it plainly in this article from 2018:

“I don’t think I would have been to the Olympics without going to UVM. Four years ago Bill [Reichelt] took a chance on me after a tough season and I’m really glad he did because that’s why I’m here today.”

We were on our way to the Williams Carnival, following the Women’s World Championship SL race on Livetiming when St Germain won gold. It’s impossible to convey the impact her victory had on the assembled college skiers. Impossible because we may not know for some time how many student athletes rekindled a dream they thought had passed them by.

A day later, Ginnis’s medal had an even greater effect, thanks to the close connections he maintains with the current crop of NCAA athletes. Group chats and Instagram lit up with college athletes sharing the story of their guy breaking through.

There is plenty of talent in US skiing out there, if you know where to look. Where is that? This is not a trick question but here’s a hint for anyone who is interested in what it takes to develop talent, rather than simply harvest it. Come out to an EISA NCAA carnival. There’s good home-cooked food to go around, spirited conversation and a boatload of talent ready to be taken seriously.

Thanks to all who blazed the trail before Laurence and AJ, and to the tribe who supported their journeys. And thank you Laurence and AJ, for stoking the dreams of so many while making your own dreams come true.

For a little refresher on how NCAA skiing can be used for development, here are some of the articles on this blog and in Ski Racing on the topic, starting in 2017 and hammering relentlessly since then.

10 thoughts on “Hey Hey, NCAA”

  1. Nice job Edie .

    Obvious for many years except to those who do not understand that athletic development takes time and consistency .

    There are very very few Shiffrins .

    • …and yet it seems we’re always looking for the next prodigy to identify and manage. it is fun seeing what happens when athletes find the support needed to develop their full potential. Thanks for reading!

  2. Eddie,

    You are exploring some exciting terrain for female skiers.

    The collegiate experience is much more than a chance to continue on the up-hill slope of physical training together, pushing each other and experiencing world-class race courses. It’s about growing intellectually, learning new skills, and testing future career choices.
    It’s about confidence building that can lead to a fulfilling life after ski racing.

    In other words, in many ways college racing can lead to not only success in the World Cup circuit, but in careers after.

    As Andy Mead Lawrence once told me, “It’s not just about the gold medals, it’s about what you do after winning them.”

    I turned my Middlebury College ski racing, my academic studies in American Literature ( Phi Beta Kappa), and my time on the World Cup tour into a career teaching American literature, coaching, and writing novels about elite ski athletes.

    Ski racing teaches the life-skills of hard work, organization and goal setting, while college offers the intellectual ladder to a fulfilling life of knowledge, curiosity, and career choices.

    All good when bundled together.

    Lee Hall. Delfausse
    Novelist
    Snow Sanctuary
    No Sanctuary Here

  3. And let’s not forget about the Western collegiate circuit where Denver University has been very successful in developing talent and putting athletes on the US Ski Team in recent years, such as 2022 Olympian and NCAA SL Champion Katie Hensien, 2022 US Nationals SL winner and 2019 NCAA SL Champion Jett Seymour and 2020 NCAA GS Champion Storm Klomhaus. Recent DU graduates on the Canadian Ski Team include recent Olympians Amelia Smart, Trevor Philip and Erik Read.

    • To be fair to my alma mater, I should add that University of Utah also had a skier qualifying for the national team in 2020. After suffering a horrific injury that took him off snow for 20 months, and after only 2 years on the team, Sam Dupratt was not re-named this season.

    • For sure! My on the ground experience is on the eastern carnival tour so I can only attest to gnarly conditions and competitiveness there. The NCAA World Cup skiers now stand on the shoulders of those before them like Haugen, Philp, Read, Nordbotton, Remme,Chodounsky, Riis-Johannessen etc. kind of cool to have a long and growing list!

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