EAGLE COUNTY - For snow sports, the days of 14-year old skiers earning world championship points are now behind us.-
As of this year, the International Ski Federation (FIS) has revised its rules to make eligibility for competition in sanctioned events start with athletes who turn 16 during the main competition year, rather than 15-years old as had long been the case. For local clubs, that means the traditional "J" age groupings (J6 -- J1) will be abandoned for "U" age groupings (U10 -- U18), like the system youth athletes and parents might recognize from club soccer or lacrosse.-
"The kids that have been J3s are now going to be U16," said Dan Stripp, alpine director at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. "So let's say a 14-year old normally would have been a last-year J3, and as a 15-year old they go into FIS races, international races. Now they're all holding (racers) back a year so 15-year olds this year are going to stay U16."
Federation officials say the move was made for the sake of injury prevention and athlete development.
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association President and CEO Bill Marolt said athlete development has always been one of the bigger challenges for the organization.
"We have never really put into place a development program that we can say is the best in the world," Marolt said.
But Stripp said, especially for female athletes who have already grown into their optimal racing bodies, the new ruling has the potential to stifle development.
"The problem is we can't race internationally and get FIS points like we normally would have, so we have to fill that up with other things to keep their interest," said Stripp. "(When) they've been exposed to FIS racing less time when it's time to go to college, either they quit, or they do a (post graduate) year. We're trying to make sure our programming is really moving quickly to get them ready for college, or ready for the national team, if they're going that direction, and see if we can get them there quicker than they normally would because they don't have a lot of time. Once they're 16 and 17, that's it. If they're not really ready to compete in college, then we're in trouble."
Here in the Vail Valley, student athletes are able to compete and receive proper schooling thanks to the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. Marolt says that's not the case in all areas of the country, which is what spurred his organization to open an academy this fall in Park City.
"We are excited because we have an athletic development pipeline and now we are going to have an academic pipeline that lays right over the top of the athletic pipeline," he said. "At the end of the day a young person that gets into our program is going to have a great athletic experience and at the same time, when they are finished with their skiing careers they are going to have a degree and a great future."
Longtime Vail resident Emily Kloser went through some of the standard junior-athlete development challenges with her daughter, Heidi, a freestyle athlete who was first named to the U.S. Ski Team when she was just 17.
Emily Kloser says while she can understand the pros and cons for 15-year-old athletes, if an athlete is destined for success, another year of youth racing shouldn't be a huge detriment. By the time she turned 16 in September of 2008, Heidi Kloser had competed in a host of FIS and North America Cup races, and had earned a considerable amount of points. She had even earned points as a 14-year-old due to fact she would turn 15 after the competition had ended, but before the end of the year.
"You hate to hold kids back, but you also see plenty of examples where kids just get out there too early," Kloser said. "They're missing school, they're missing a lot, and it makes it more and more of an elitist sport because you have to start having your kids travel so expensively at such a young age."
Emily Kloser said while Heidi competed in her fair share of FIS events in the Rocky Mountain region, she also missed out on a lot of opportunities for international competition and FIS points due to the expense of traveling.
"It was expensive, and she was getting good-quality competition here," Kloser said. "So we made the decision to skip a lot of the NorAm competition until she got older."
Stripp agreed that despite the field lacking an international appeal, here in the Rocky Mountain region his U16 athletes will still be able to find tough competition even if it isn't FIS sanctioned.
"We can't race international races, but we can still race for USSA points. We're going to try to race them more as an adult against other kids who are older," said Stripp. "They can still race against older people in our Smartwool series that we have, for example."
Stripp and the local U16 squad head to Chile this week to continue summer training.