As our car crossed the Rio Grande River into Alamosa, Colorado, a large stone monument greeted my wife and I to the “City of Champions.” When I walked into my first graduate course at Adams State University, surrounded by lean endurance athletes, it was evident what those “champions” tended to do. I was walking into a room full of elite runners, who, eager to etch their names into their sport’s pipeline through continued competition, future coaching, or further education and research, often wound up dabbling in all three.
While the majority of my Adams State classmates’ quest for a thesis involved simply walking to the back of the school’s computer lab to find inspiration from alumni dissertations, my search for research gaps in the American Nordic ski literature felt a bit like wandering into the woods to find a timberwolf. Yeah, it might be out there, but there’s probably a reason to leave it alone. Eventually, I turned to Norway’s database, and one name kept popping up at the top of study after study: Oyvind Sandbakk.
The Aspen Institute article’s authors Inge Anderson, Johan Olav Kloss and Sandbakk himself wrote the following:
“Norwegian sports facilitate learning across sports. We have joint research and development projects, and arenas, where athletes and coaches meet across disciplines. This form of competence sharing has systematically been valuable. Few countries, if any, match Norway in this area.”
Sandbakk, director of the Centre for Elite Sports Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance — and one of Farrey’s ‘architects’ — is living proof of the synergy between elite sport performance and elite sport science research in his home country. The opening scene and my blank staring at hundreds of scientific journals, only to come up empty, is more emblematic of America’s lack of such cohesion.
Apparently, one result of having approximately 53,000 NCAA track and field athletes across DI, DII, and DIII – compared with 386 male and 374 female NCAA skiers (according to an 2021 NCAA participation survey) — means infrastructure to support research and development in one sport but not in the other.
“The most underutilized resources in the United States’ ski racing system are the colleges and universities,” is how Aldo Radamus, Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s Executive Director from 2002 to 2016, opened up part four of his Ski Racing Media column series on Alpine ski development.
“That’s a free development system for the US Ski system,” McMurtry said. “It’s like, the NFL has a free development program with NCAA football. That’s something we have that the Europeans don’t have.”
Dan Leever, who penned an article titled “What’s wrong with U.S. Ski Racing?” for Snow Brains in 2018, stated, “We must fully embrace NCAA skiing.”
“There is millions of dollars of funding available in the NCAA system.The NCAA programs can do a perfectly good job of developing athletes in-season, the biggest gap is in the prep period. This should be easily doable and affordable for USST,” he wrote.
He also wrote that he believes “college skiing is the pinnacle of the intrinsic joy in ski racing.” When interviewed for this story, he pointed out that one reason the NCAA hasn’t been a better pipeline to the World Cup is because “we’re not producing good enough skiers to be competitive at DI NCAA schools.”
“It does relate to a weakness in our system,” he added.
Kicked out of class
Ski Racing Media published a story on Thomas Stauffer, the mastermind behind the Swiss team that unseated the Austrian mens team’s grip on the Nations Cup in 2020. That year the Swiss ended the Austrian’s 27-year winning streak. In addition to pointing out the national team’s patience in developing athletes, author Peter Lange asked Stauffer about his philosophy in regard to education. Of the more than 40 Europa Cup and World Cup athletes, only one had not continued his education beyond mandatory school at the time of the article’s publishing.
Tanguy Nef skied for Dartmouth in addition to World Cup races for Switzerland that year. “When Tanguy went to Dartmouth to continue his education, I was fine with that,” Stauffer told Lange. “You want to have mature athletes with their own minds, I absolutely had no problem with it.”
Because NCAA skiing, along with ice hockey, received a waiver to the collegiate rule requiring athletes to complete their athletic eligibility within five years of high school graduation, Radamus believes the system has been displaced from its possible slot in the pipeline.
“…the common advice from NCAA coaches and club or academy coaches alike is to recommend athletes commit to one, two or even more post-grad years to continue to progress, mature and become more competitive before entering the collegiate ranks,” Radamus wrote in part four. “Athletes already at the national team level around the world pursue that pathway until failing to re-qualify or wanting to leverage their accumulated skills by receiving an education.”
The result is that the NCAA ranks are saturated with elite European athletes looking to improve their FIS point profiles in the “soft” American collegiate carnivals while also getting an education, severely limiting access for U.S. athletes to the system. Radamus pointed out that if the NCAA revokes the eligibility exemption, top American high school athletes will become the most desired recruits and can “seize the opportunity to receive the support for their continued development and the need for expensive post-grad years will be significantly reduced.”
“An athlete continuing his or her development through his or her college years would be able to graduate at 21 or 22 years of age with the possibility of a professional career as a ski racer still ahead of them and their degree and future in their back pocket,” Radamus continued.
In a phone interview last month, Radamus expressed that while Olympic medalists haven’t typically come through the NCAA pathway, that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful.
“I do think college is important to this as another pathway for athletes to stay involved in the sport,” he said. “Colleges play an important part today, but they could play an even more important part in the pipeline. I think if you eliminate that rule in skiing, you enhance that possibility that somebody in the normal course of their development will spend at least one year as a member of an NCAA team as part of their pathway.”
He pointed to Paula Moltzan, a 2022 Olympian with ties to Vail. “She was identified early, a member of the U.S. Ski Team, a world junior champion,” he said. “She plateaued, lost her position on the team and was able to use college racing to mature, develop additional skills and now she’s come back and she’s a rising talent. She could be the first one who comes through a college pathway to be a U.S. Olympic medalist.”
Leever pointed to Brian McLaughlin and Erik Read as examples of athletes who utilized the NCAA and NorAm circuit en route to the World Cup. As someone who devoted thousands of hours to understanding development trends, much of which is captured in the “Leever Study,” the longtime U.S. Ski and Snowboard board member fully understands the statistical probabilities behind podium-track athletes.
“I get that athletes not on this initial progression are outliers. However, we do not have the depth of athletes like other, predominantly European, nations that allows us to only rely on phenoms,” he wrote in 2018. “We don’t have that luxury, so we need to think differently, and commit resources to a wider base of skiers. Promoting the culture of ski racing is also important. We need fans, and a broad base of supporters … 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 grassroots of our sport not to wither and die? Think about it.”
Late bloomer boom
Because Alpine and cross-country skiing rely on physical maturity, the NCAA could be one of the uniquely American solutions for late bloomers.
“There’s also a lot of skiers in the World Cup that were totally off the map at all those races and missed the stepping stones we talked about — the JO’s, the Junior Championships, the out-of-region races — and are still competing on the World Cup, succeeding in the sport, and moving upwards because they’ve worked hard, taken all the steps and they have the platform to build from there when they have more skiing volume,” River Radamus said on the Arc City podcast in March. He referenced Austrian skier Johannes Strolz as a perfect example of someone who needed time to blossom.
“He was working construction and working his butt off in the gym and doing the work when nobody watched. He was overlooked for the resources and the opportunities that are provided for the team athletes,” he said.
Strolz won the Adelboden World Cup from bib No. 38, went to the Olympics, and won two golds.
“This sport is never linear. Just because you’re losing to someone now, doesn’t mean you’re going to be losing to him in a year, if you outwork them. And it goes in peaks and valleys,” River Radamus said on the podcast.
Leever also brought up Strolz in referencing U.S. Ski and Snowboard’s reaction to the Leever Study’s findings. After analyzing the top 30 World Cup skier’s junior progressions, Leever proposed rough necessary performance markers along a World Cup career trajectory. U.S. Ski and Snowboard decided Leever’s statistical pathway wasn’t tough enough.
“They made it much more stringent than that, and as a result, no one could meet the criteria and it basically demoralized the whole community,” he said. “They’re so myopic in the way that they’ve looked at it historically that they don’t realize that there are people like Johannes Strolz. There’s a guy at 29 years old, never been in the top 30, gets three medals at the Olympics. Is that not proof positive enough for you?”
For cross-country skiing, the relevance of the NCAA system has flowed in and out of prominence, with the number of American-born individual national champions countable on a pair of hands in the 1990s and early 2000s. The relationship with the U.S. Ski Team and the college system was on full display in a recent repost of an archived Fasterskier.com article from 2009. In the story, one Rosie Brennan, then a Dartmouth sophomore, was dismissed from the U.S. Ski Team.
Nat Hertz wrote, “According to USST staff, these three skiers—and the other four that were dismissed from the team—were not dropped because they were attending college, per se. Instead, they were dropped due to a simple lack of improvement, and a lack of integration into an international-caliber development pipeline.”
Ironically, Hertz would cover Brennan, now 33 and a poster child for late-blooming Nordic skiers, at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, where she raced every event, including a fourth-place finish in the classic sprint. Brennan was fourth in the overall World Cup standings in 2021 and is the best female skier in the country not named Jessie Diggins.
“The opportunities in terms of training that I have at Dartmouth are much better than I could have gotten anywhere else,” Brennan stated in the 2009 article. “I have a great coach, and great teammates.”
Hertz highlighted one of the other potential battles when it comes to integrating the NCAA into the pipeline when he wrote, “Brennan said that while she also thought there were other pathways to success, ‘sometimes, you’re fighting a political battle as well, if you’re not on the [USST].’”
Jim Galanes, a four-time U.S. Olympic cross-country skier and Summit County resident, believes the college route can be part of the pathway, but he said, “I refuse to call it a pipeline. Because that means there is a strictly defined pathway. There is not.”
During her era (1978-1984), Judy Rabinowitz described how being on the U.S. Ski Team meant “eschewing (or postponing) higher education, training on one’s own during the summer months (except for the odd training camps on European glaciers), followed by winters traveling full-time with the team, either domestically or in Europe, coached by USST coaches.” Rabinowitz ended up getting a degree from Harvard and Harvard Law School before working in the U.S. Department of Justice in San Francisco and eventually Denver.
“Today’s more decentralized and club-based model seems healthier, as does the increased openness to USST members attending college while on the team and even leaving the World Cup circuit to compete for their colleges!” she wrote.
Recently, cross-country coaches have shifted toward encouraging the collegiate route. At the 2022 NCAA championships, American Olympians swept the individual titles, with Ben Ogden claiming both men’s races and Novie McCabe and Sophia Laukli each winning one of the women’s races.
“I suspect this change will lead to less athlete burnout and increased confidence that comes with having more preparation for life after skiing,” Rabinowitz stated.
Cindy Nelson remembers a similar situation to Rabinowitz’s.
“It was really taboo to go to college,” she said.
Nelson, who has been on the U.S. Ski Team’s board of trustees since retiring in 1985, has been impressed with how the team has improved in this area.
“The ski team has a great educational program now. Scholarship programs — we work hard on it — it’s really come to light in the past 20 years I suppose.”
John McMurtry, the coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine team from 1976-84, suspects the bridges have been burned and no one is looking to rebuild.
“Here’s the other message that really hurt this sport,” McMurtry stated. “The director of athlete development and Alpine director made it clear to this country that you have to make a choice between either going to college or being on the U.S. Ski team … you can’t do both. That killed it.”
“Jesse Hunt sat in front of the whole community at U.S. nationals four or five years ago and berated college skiing right in front of everybody,” Leever recalled. “Saying college skiing doesn’t lead anywhere, they’re not serious athletes — it was hogwash. Those are the kinds of things they have to fix.”
He continued, “They have to change that so that people recognize that wherever someone comes from, whatever his background, his means, his pathway — we’ll find a home for him, and if he or she is fast enough, we’ll put them in a race and away they go.”
McMurtry added, “What it takes is the ski team’s gotta sit down with the NCAA and work these issues out so that it’s for the kid’s benefit, and I don’t see anybody doing that.”
Science and skiing
Unity between scientists and the ski team was an integral element to the success of the teams in the 1980s, according to McMurtry.
“We had a tremendous sports science program, which really became a model for other sports,” he said, pointing to Richard Steadman, the chairman of the sports medicine counsel. A full-time sports psychologist, Jeremy May, as well as PhDs in biomechanics and exercise physiology, worked alongside the coaches and athletes during his era.
“We had absolutely the best,” he proclaimed.
Cindy Nelson remembered John Atkins, the athletic trainer for both men and women, pushing athletes out of their comfort zones by prioritizing the team over the individual.
“He really worked hard at putting individual athletes who were competing with each other under the same flag, to win. Do you want to share your training secrets with the person that’s going to beat you? Probably not,” Nelson said. “So, how do you balance that and make each other stronger because you’re competing against your teammate who’s also as good. John came up with some things that were really hard for all of us to abide with.”
Before the “Atkins influence” it was common for athletes to depart from the finish line after their run.
“John told us it didn’t matter what your result was, you needed to support each one of your teammates,” Nelson said.
He absolutely changed the environment from its ‘me-me-me — if I don’t win then my days over’ — to everybody is a whole. And I think it was a lot of that cultural change that helped us win the Nation’s Cup.”
“It was a sweet spot in time,” McMurtry reminisced.
“It was fully funded, we had state-of-the-art sports science, and when all those pieces come together — and on top of that we had tremendous athletes — that’s when you win Nation’s Cups and more medals at the Olympics than any other country.”
Part III: Collegiate athletics’ place in the pipeline
Part IV: What happened?
Part V: The Leever Study
Part VI: The importance of Idraet
Part VII: U.S. cross-country skiing’s trail to gold
Part VIII: An American answer