The fact that last weekend’s historic American sweep featured three 30-year-old women on the podium was not lost on any of us oldies. Neither were this season’s early downhill results of Steven Nyman, 32, and Marco Sullivan, 34. Our best slalom skier David Chodunsky, 32, scored his best GS result by far coming from Bib 66 to finish 17th in Beaver Creek. And of course there is Ligety, at age 30, schooling young’ns and vets alike.
I had the good fortune to be out in Beaver Creek during the Birds of Prey World Cups, to watch the Americans slay it while catching up with some former teammates. The night before the big weekend started we just happened to be sharing stories about the age at which we were first told we were “too old” to make it in ski racing. For one it was 19, another 18 and for me that age was 17. By then I had already been kicked off the National Training Group and was recovering from my first knee surgery.
By far the majority of racers who got that message believed it. After all, female ski stars were winning World Cups in their teens. Surely they would be well past their peaks by their late 20’s. Retirement ages, amongst even our most successful racers reflected that: Christin Cooper—done at 24; Tamara McKinney at 27; Cindy Nelson, the vet by far, at 29. Even later the age didn’t get pushed up by much. Hilary Lindh and Picabo Street retired at 27 and 30 respectively. It wasn’t a much longer run if at all on the men’s side. The Mahres departed the World Cup at 26.
As equipment, technique, and sports science evolves the upward age shift is no longer a story of outliers, but a reality. We need to adjust our perspective accordingly, and worry less about sprinting to establish oneself nationally as a 15 or 16 year old, and on the World Cup by age 20, and more about how to keep growing and improving for as long as possible to fully exploit the potential success that can come from years of experience.
While at the Beav I attended a dinner where some of the top USST men spoke briefly. All of them mentioned where they go (or, in Chodunsky’s case, went) to school in the off season. The clear message is that education is part of the path, both as a way to augment ski racing and to retain athletes in the sport longer. This message, from the top of the sport, represents a subtle but sincere shift towards patience.
So that was heartening. But, as the early season training cranks up, other conversations with parents of young ski racers make it apparent that the patience message doesn’t always penetrate at the grass roots level. Many parents resent when 10-year-olds must “prove their commitment” by not missing any training sessions, when 12-year-olds are being pushed to chase points and when 14-year-olds are spending many days and dollars running speed early season, often in dicey conditions, before they’ve solidified their technique in Slalom and GS. In their guts these parents feel that this acceleration is not right, but they don’t want to get themselves or their kids on the wrong side of the law.
Much of what I write about might be termed Parent Whispering, urging parents to keep calm and adopt a longer term and broader perspective to sports development. After the past few days and weeks, however, hearing the onslaught of stories about skiing’s pushier proponents, I think mere whispering isn’t enough. Furthermore, parents aren’t the only ones who need to hear the message.
When one mother lamented that her 1st year U-16 was injured while training speed I asked the obvious question: “What was he doing running speed that early in the season at that age?” She knew it wasn’t right—that at worst it was highly risky but that at best it was a poor use of precious time, energy and money. Every high level coach in the country is lamenting the echo chamber that is our development “pipeline” of technical skiers. It’s also well-documented that the top racers worldwide of all ages and disciplines distinguished themselves first as top junior tech skiers. Running speed judiciously—in the right conditions and when skiers have their feet underneath them—is absolutely a component of creating well-rounded (and fun-loving!) ski racers. But being a young speed star can do more harm than good if it takes time from skill development or puts an athlete at higher risk before he or she has appropriate physical, technical and tactical maturity. And yet, this rush to speed, this Faustian bargain to pursue the quickest path to the podium at the expense of developing solid technical skills, continues.
This sort of became a rant, but it’s one that is dear to my heart. As a former speedster I get the attraction. It’s fun and great and as a kid I took every opportunity to do it as much as possible. It got me two blown out knees at ages 17 and 18. Ironically, whatever success and longevity I had, I owed to those injuries and to being banned from speed until I re-qualified for the USST through tech. It wasn’t easy to watch younger girls get their uniforms and race World Cup while I slogged away in the Minor Leagues. But in the end patience paid off, while most of those young speedsters didn’t race beyond their teens. They went on to do wonderful things beyond ski racing, but the sport lost them well before they had achieved their potential.
The Parent Whisper of the day is more of a shout, and it goes out to coaches too. Chill, people! Take the time to build a solid base. Progressing in this sport is hard enough. Don’t complicate the process by pushing the accelerator too quickly because there are sharp curves ahead. Anyone hoping to go the distance will need to know how to turn.