Leever’s message, which details his deep frustrations with US Ski and Snowboard, effectively corrals the countless back-room and sideline conversations among this sport’s most passionate followers, and turns the spotlight on them. One look at the shares and comments reveals the deep vein of dissatisfaction his letter taps.
The timing could not be better. As the American ski world convenes in Sun Valley to contest the National Championships, this is the perfect time to dive into the issues laid bare by Leever.
SHOW THEM THE MONEY
These are not new conversations. The biggest and longest running topic is lack of funding. Leever suggests: “We should have virtually no administrative and support staff until we fully fund all the athletes on any team.” Every four years, former teammates—who, like me, were fully funded for our entire national team careers—tune in and are incredulous about the costs to the athletes. I don’t know how to explain how this became the new normal, but the sheer size of the organization and of the Olympic entourage makes athlete funding seem totally solvable.
A big part of the funding issue is utilizing the resources right in front of us, including our uniquely American collegiate race circuit. Leever suggests, “We must fully embrace NCAA skiing. There is millions of dollars of funding available in the NCAA system.” Boom! As posed in all grown up and no place to go, “What if every dime spent by college teams to further develop ski racers—both men and women—was maximized by actively and deliberately embracing those athletes as part of the national development process?” With collaboration college racing could not only be a viable path for tech skiers: it could be the preferred path.
In the past year, while researching pieces for this blog, for Ski Racing and for work with a grassroots effort to Keep Kids in Skiing, I interviewed many current college coaches and athletes. The athletes talk about how much more they enjoy the sport when competing as a team in a fun, invigorating, secure environment. The coaches hail the advantages of having a four year horizon for each athlete’s development. In all these conversations the coaches look beyond their own teams, their own athletes or a championship win, because the underlying reality is that if we don’t address the larger problem of keeping this sport viable, there may be no championship to win. The collective goal is to embrace, celebrate and expand collegiate skiing.
SHOW THEM THE PATH
Perceived opportunity influences participation at much younger ages than we may realize. As Leever notes, “Without a robust college circuit, there is no long game for 99% of our junior racers. Without a long game, how do we expect the grass roots of our sport not to wither and die?” I see this upstream attrition firsthand, particularly at girls ski races, and touched on it in Stay Classy, American Women. When young, talented, motivated athletes see there is no future for women to develop in the sport past age 17, they take their talents elsewhere. We need to show those girls that this sport wants them and needs them and can be that future. We need to show them the scores of women in college who are continuing to develop athletically, while developing as people.
Rather than decry Foreign athletes for taking US scholarships, let’s strongly encourage US Ski and Snowboard to give college racing the respect it deserves. Let’s not sit back and just watch as the Norwegians, Canadians and other countries figure out how to take full advantage of our uniquely American collegiate racing circuit. Let’s make all efforts to grow that pie and then take a bigger piece of it!
BUILD A REAL TEAM
Another hot topic of conversation is around team, or lack thereof. As Leever points out: “we do not have the depth of athletes like other, predominantly European, nations that allows us to only rely on phenoms. We don’t have that luxury, so we need to think differently, and commit resources to a wider base of skiers.” The theme of this past Olympics—be it related to the entire country of Norway or the US Women’s Nordic Team—was the power of team. Peggy Shinn’s well-timed book “World Class. The Making of the U. S. Women’s Cross Country Team” chronicles how US Nordic coach Matt Whitcomb led his team to success by cultivating a team-centric culture. We can and should learn from Whitcomb, as well as Chip White, Michel Rudigoz, and other ministers of culture who built winning ski teams, by first creating a positive supportive environment.
I do not have the answer, but I know the solution lies in conversations that are open and honest, and that emanate from a spirit of cooperation and humility. Sun Valley is paradise. It’s the perfect place for many things, including these conversations. They don’t need to wait for a meeting or a committee. They can happen on chairlifts, at the side of the course, in apres ski gatherings, around the finish corral…anywhere ski racers and their fans gather, in Sun Valley and points beyond. Let’s make use of this opening to move the ball forward. To everyone who loves this sport: We’re all in this together. Let’s be part of the solution.