Inside the skiing pipeline: An American answer
A series on the health and development of the U.S. Ski Team pipeline
Most of the subjects interviewed for this series shared a desire for expanding participation through lowering costs and improving retention by creating accessible, attractive and pedagogically appropriate rungs on the competitive ladder.
To a degree, undergirding such an approach are the tenets of the Norwegian view of sports’ transcendent value in the holistic development of children, something a few former athletes feel might not be a top priority for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
Former Olympic cross-country skier Jim Galanes said a group of former Olympians “worked on legislation to establish a select group to study the USOPC and provide recommendations to reform the USOPC and the national governing bodies (NGB’s) in general.”
“Of course, under heavy lobbying from the USOPC and its partners, Congress did not fund the commission so nothing will change,” he stated. “I think we need to see changes at both the NGB level and USOPC to shift their philosophies in meaningful ways to improve sports in the U.S.”
Others expressed satisfaction with the U.S. Ski Team’s efforts specifically.
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“It is impressive what the team is doing for its athletes,” said Cindy Nelson, who has been on the U.S. Ski Team’s board of trustees since she retired in 1985.
Nelson pointed to programs such as the Bob Beattie travel fund, which provides support for development and B team athletes climbing toward the World Cup, and the educational program.
“Before, when I skied, you either skied or went to college. You don’t do both,” she stated.
“I think the team is doing a great job. We have new leadership,” she noted, referencing President and CEO Sophie Goldschmidt as well as new Chief of Sport Anouk Patty and Alpine Director Patrick Riml.
Nelson continued, “really, really committed people to making the U.S. Ski Team as great as it possibly can be. I think it’s an interesting era. Of course we have such standout racers and some young ones who are coming up, too,” she said.
“Really excited about the future.”
Drafting a red, white and blueprint
Regardless of opinion on the current status, most agree that the only way up is a solution that considers geographic, cultural and sport-specific restraints to the athletes wearing the stars and stripes. Even European coaches and thought-leaders don’t believe their blueprint is appropriate for the U.S.
“I spent a lot of time interviewing thought leaders in Europe,” wrote Dan Leever in a 2018 article for SnowBrains, which he published after dedicating months to studying development in Europe for what was known as “The Leever Study.” Leever has a long list of ski-related involvement, including being the owner of Ski Racing Magazine and chairman of the board of the World Pro Ski Tour. He also served on the board of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail for 15 years and the U.S. Ski Team board and U.S. Ski Team foundation board.
“Virtually none of them thought Americans should simply follow the European model; i.e. work into Europa Cups and then to World Cups … Yet, blindly follow that path is precisely what we do.”
“Norway is a smaller Alpine nation — they achieve a high level of success in a very different way than Austria does; there is something to be learned from both of those,” Aldo Radamus explained.
“The U.S. is a much different nation geographically, and so, for us to be successful, we have to develop a system that really is American in every way considering those resources that we have and the challenges that we have.”
“We have never become — in any industry that I know of — the best in the world at anything by chasing what other nations are doing,” said U.S. cross-country development team coach Greta Anderson.
“We’ve become the world leader by our ability to scrap and provide, innovate and be creative.”
Cross-country coaches instill the “ski like an American” mantra at youth camps and World Cup trips. Underlying the phrase is a collaborative, athlete-first culture, which has blossomed under the guidance of a long-tenured coaching staff.
“We try to put them in the driver’s seat and support them on what it means to do that,” Anderson explained.
“We aren’t going to beat Norway by trying to become Norway, but we can do it our way and have a lot of success. That learning requires failure along the way, which is where continuity and paying attention to what we’re doing comes into play.”
It is the continuous introspection and top to bottom growth-mindset, applied over time that ultimately allows athletes to maximize performance when they reach the start line.
In Anderson’s mind, the perceived challenges facing the U.S. are also inherent strengths.
“We work across four times zones, hundreds of trail networks, so many cultural nuances within regions, and you know that variety — you can say it’s a struggle because we have to travel so far or it’s really hard to centralize or whatever — but in my eyes, that variety gives us a ton of options. It gives the athletes a lot of choices and resources,” she argued, noting the availability of high-altitude options and a change of scenery if and when an athlete leaves for college.
“I think that opportunity for us is a strength, but some people will fight for that to be a limitation.”
The cross-country team prefers the term “pathway” over “pipeline,” with the former more accurately embodying the different routes an athlete can take to get to the top.
“You have other avenues, and I think that’s a strength that we have as a nation,” said Anderson, admitting that while we lack the Alpine depth of say, Austria, we have multiple options for athletes to “become the best in the world.”
“And we’re going to support you on that,” Anderson said of the cross-country team’s commitment to an athlete-directed path.
“So, while everyone can point to what they don’t have — that’s not a winning mindset or the messaging of a winning program anywhere.”
It starts with the kids
Byron Brown, who spearheaded the Buddy Werner League along with his wife, Vi, once told John McMurtry, “If there’s a child standing outside the fence that wants to be a ski racer, we’ll figure out how to get him in there.”
“That was the focus back then,” McMurtry said of Byron Brown’s words. McMurtry, the U.S. Ski Team coach during the ’70s and ’80s, who had children pass through SSCV, has been involved lately with the Summit High School ski team. The disconnect between CHSSL and club programs is further evidence of the unnecessary financial arms race prevalent at the youth level.
“That’s one of the great things we had in this country — sports for kids. I don’t think in Europe or Asia they have the system that we do,” he said of high school sports.
Byron’s son Mike, a U.S. Ski Team Alpine racer, concurred.
“That’s what I grew up with was that it was an all-comer’s event,” he said.
“But I think it’s been such a wonderful thing that we’ve had. So I think we gotta look at that, but I don’t think people will see that as a priority,” stated McMurtry. “There is tremendous talent in the high school programs,” he continued, lauding the “exceptional” coaching and passion from athletes.
“If I was director of athlete development, I would be there, at the high school state championships watching that talent, and I would be talking to parents and talking to kids,” McMurtry said. “And I would say, ‘hey, we loved what we saw today, and we would love for you to come to our camp in June, Mt. Hood, all expenses paid.'”
While some states, such as Minnesota, have figured out how to coordinate state high school league schedules and Junior National calendars to allow athletes to do both (the most decorated American cross-country skier of all time, Jessie Diggins, was a three-time state champion) the same was not true, at least in 2022, here in Colorado.
“In places like New England and Colorado — where it’s completely split — that’s really unfortunate,” said U.S. cross-country sport development manager Bryan Fish, who called the high school “our greatest opportunity.”
“When I say greatest opportunity, I’m not just stating that to have more athletes on the U.S. Ski Team,” Fish elaborated.
“I’m saying going back to those main points: growth, retention and performance in the sport. If we can figure out those synergies (between high school and clubs/junior nationals).
“That’s a huge issue,” said McMurtry. “And when we’re talking about one of the things we need to do across all sports as increasing participation, these organizations need to work together. It’s ridiculous.”
“I’ve been in USSA most of my life, and I’ve been in CHSSL for four years, and I’ll just tell you, the CHSSL high school racing was the way it was when I was growing up,” McMurtry concluded.
“We have first timers and kids who, if they competed, I would challenge that they would beat the top VSSA skiers. They’re that good athletically. And I’ve seen from the other teams as well. The only thing that separates it — the high school kids are paying 100 bucks to be in the program. They can’t afford the five-figure tuition to be in ski club.”
According to Fish, part of the problem, at least in cross country, could be generational, owing in large part to the old-school view that cross country was more an individual sport.
“People tended to do it by themselves, and they didn’t collaborate. And I think the culture is shifting to more collaboration, to identifying cross-country skiing more as a team sport and needing a pretty good, large team around you to be successful,” Fish said.
“To basically divide and conquer. We can’t do it all by yourself.”
According to Fish, part of the blame belongs to U.S. Ski and Snowboard.
“U.S. Ski and Snowboard is a club-based model, so we kind of fall into that. That’s on us, too,” he admitted.
“We kind of fall into this club mold, and then there’s the school-based mold. Both sides, we need to give a little bit. We need to compromise. We need to go, ‘OK, that schedule isn’t what’s best for our athletes.'”
“Hopefully, in the future we can continue to put ego aside and try to figure out what’s best for the kids and be more accommodating and more collaborative and find the solution instead of saying, ‘that’s a problem, and we’re going to just avoid it,'” Fish continued.
“Avoidance is not a solution.”
Access and opportunity
But is the gap between the accessible pathways — Buddy Werner through CHSSL — and the more expensive club options laced with financial barriers — getting wider?
“That’s a really good way to put it,” Mike Brown answered when the question was posed. Mike was a 10-year U.S. Ski Team athlete, and his parents started the Buddy Werner Ski League. “What we can offer at Buddy Werner for $300 is an intro for what you’re going to be doing. Racing is racing. The basic elements are there, although to get good at something, you need to do it day after day for awhile.”
According to Brown, Buddy Werner offers “a real phenomenal, tangible way where people, for very little investment can get the kids a chance to see if they like it and give them something they like to do in the winter time.” Contrasted with that are what multiple sources identified as the latest trend for parents: private coaching at a young age. Buoyed by the results of living legends like Mikaela Shiffrin, it isn’t hard to see why.
“The outside world just perceives what was Mikaela’s success and took the ‘well, she started here,’ and so that became this model, forgetting the fact that people like that are prodigies,” said Brown.
“There’s some people who said, ‘OK, this is the system, we’re going to beat it,’ and that’s how it evolved. I look at it from the standpoint of the dollar value,” he continued, laying out an athlete trying to make the national team.
“You’re talking $60,000 a year — that’s pretty much on the low side — for ten years. And you spent all that money, just for a chance,” he stated. “And that is where I kind of see the problem lying.”
“You’ve invested so much money in your child coming out through the system before you even see what the system is. That’s where I think the corruption lies.”
“There’s two things that we need to provide,” said Fish.
“Access and opportunity.”
While the U.S. cross-country team relies on club coaches to train athletes year-round, meaningful national team camps and international competitions provide “stepwise opportunities” intended to “motivate, educate and give athletes an opportunity to develop as a team and choose cross country as their sport,” Fish said.
Validating all levels
Peter Lange, who has coached athletes from youth levels through the World Cup, believes the problem is that adults don’t validate every level for itself and encourage people to participate at levels they can afford.
“That’s my big message,” he said. “But, I applaud people looking for the answers.”
Lange knows that club directors are forced to provide the “we’re the pipeline to the U.S. Ski Team” sales pitch.
“The problem with that is, it’s not real,” he said, pointing to the incredibly low percentage of athletes who even go on to a college career, much less the Olympics.
“There are not many people on the planet willing to do what it takes,” Lange argued.
Leever believes that the price of the sport can be reduced if parents understand more about what is a frivolous expenditure and what really matters to development. A key finding of his “Leever Study” was that one thing that can’t be replaced is time on snow at a young age.
“You can’t make up not starting young and not skiing a lot of volume for a long time,” he said.
Investing in travel for the purpose of racing every weekend, however, is unnecessary in a sport he sees lying farther on the skill side of the sports spectrum.
“At the end of the day, you have to acquire the skills necessary to take you to higher and higher levels,” he said. “You don’t do that racing. You do that practicing. A certain kind of practice.”
Leever referred to “deliberate practice,” which comes from the scientific study of expertise. It is, in a nutshell, scaffolding practice in a manner that constantly forces a person to acquire new skills.
“Doing the same thing over and over again is why we’re not all good at golf,” he explained.
“We stop the skill acquisition process that is required to make you better. We just keep doing more of the same. Well, skiing is no different.”
While European countries go with a club-only approach, eschewing high school sports completely, the U.S. may have to look to a synergy between both models.
“We have to work together — CHSSL, NCAA, U.S. Ski Team — how can we get more kids involved,” said McMurtry.
Either way, the cost needs to come down.
“The established pathways are inaccessible,” Galanes succinctly summarizes.
The financial barrier
“Naturally, this sport has to be really expensive … but it doesn’t need to be this expensive or this prohibitive,” River Radamus said on the Arc City Podcast. “There is also a lot of resources in this sport to be able to bring in a more diverse crowd, a more varied crowd, and honestly, a crowd that lives in the ski valleys of the U.S. and doesn’t even pick it up because they’re like, ‘we can’t afford that sort of thing.'”
Radamus, a member of the U.S. Ski Team who races on the World Cup circuit, plans on offering direct grants to athletes whose clubs show evidence of financial support as well.
“The reason I do that is because I feel like I need to help to put the onus on the programs themselves to support these athletes as well,” he argued on the podcast. “I feel like they are capable of stepping in and stepping up a bit more to make sure the sport is more affordable to the athletes that participate and need it.”
His goal is to destigmatize the notoriously prohibitive nature of the sport’s cost.
“If we are able to get these clubs to engage in this way and work really hard on the price component, then people in the community will be able to say, ‘Wow, maybe this sport is doable for us, maybe we can send our kids into this program,'” he said to host Jimmy Krupka.
“There’s a lot of people that miss the net completely because they never give the sport a chance because of the cost,” River stated.
River, along with his dad, think the key is to develop athletes at home, provide them with opportunities when appropriate, and hold clubs accountable.
“That’s sort of the idea behind my foundation is trying to hold the clubs accountable to the absolute necessities and a real drive to bring the cost down because I think that will make the sport more accessible, bring more people in the door, have a broader talent pool to pull from, and ultimately produce better athletes that come onto the national team in the future,” River stated to Krupka.
“I’m not going to be able to change it on my own, but I feel like my little piece and hopefully those that will bind arms with me will build it and start pushing this movement and developing it. You see it across the country developing a little bit.”
Aldo said his son River has been the inspiration and influence to him — not the other way around, when it comes to this vision for the sport.
“He’s been a big influence on me in terms of the way that I view the sport and some of these things that I feel are unnecessary excesses,” he said in a phone call this April.
Aldo said that while fundraising is promoted as a means to cut costs, it actually contributes to increased spending. The alternative, he believes, is to raise money for financial aid, which he said “makes a significant impact on both accessibility and quality of experience.”
Among many suggestions outlined in his four-part Ski Racing Media series, Aldo proposed creative solutions like shifting the competitive calendar to allow for communities across the country to have sufficient on-snow preparation periods without traveling to exotic locations. He also believes parent volunteers and part-time coaches, which are common in other youth sports, can provide additional support.
“This type of efficient structure is implemented successfully by many programs at smaller ski areas. Most resort programs tend toward a more expensive structure, the opposite of what would be best for sport development and accessibility,” Aldo wrote.
As far as coaching goes, McMurtry looked back on his experiences growing up in Austria, where he lived with the director of the Austrian national ski team as a 16-year-old.
“I knew in Austria what it takes to be a coach — you have to have an academic credential. You study sports science. Just because you know technique — that’s probably 10% of the whole package of being a coach,” he said. “I’ve seen every part of the sport. Coaching in this country, with a few exceptions, is a wasteland.”
Needless to say, McMurtry seemed less than thrilled at the recent hiring of Patrick Riml, an Austrian, to run the U.S. team.
“Americans can coach this sport. We have to make it an American sport. It’s not European. It’s an American sport. We won at that level and always fall back on ‘well, let’s hire the Austrian again.’ I mean, Americans can coach this thing,” he said, noting that understanding what American kids are into and what makes them tick is a part of the recipe, too.
“Nobody seems to have any faith in Americans doing the job,” added Mike Brown. “The success of every single one of these people that you currently see has all been done by Americans coaching Americans.”
Mike Brown has noticed European coaches who dwell on technical elements tend to foster doubt in Americans, who historically “tend to do better in the bigger races because we race emotionally a lot.”
“And I think we skied as good as anybody in the world and technically considerably better than most, but when you have people who are only oriented on making the perfect turn, you end up with this self doubt,” he said. “And there’s no place for self-doubt when you’re in your underwear going 60 mph down a hill.”
A strong sense of self-belief was a driving force for the success in 1984, according to Mike Brown.
“We didn’t have a lot of people telling us that, ‘well, if you don’t make this turn exactly this way, you’re not going to beat anybody,'” he explained. “It was, start to finish, who gets there the fastest, and you could be one of those people.”
Galanes’ active social media presence, where he posts scientific research and data from many of his own clients, often has a tenor of concern over the scientific background and training for coaches in all sports across the country.
An encouraging sign exists on the women’s cross-country team.
“I think the sheer size and diversity of the U.S. precludes the U.S. replicating the country-wide sports model Norway employs,” 1984 Olympian Judy Rabinowitz stated when asked if implementing a Norwegian strategy in the U.S. was reasonable.
“At the same time, over the past several years the U.S. Cross Country Women’s Team has demonstrated the power of ‘team’ and team building in closing real or perceived advantages on the part of the Norwegians and other European countries.”
Rabinowitz’s senses an improved direction of the cross-country teams’ pipeline, thanks to a “viable club system allowing for more sophisticated athlete development, team building, and continuity of coaching.”
Still, she would like to see more funding for developing skiers
“An obvious point, but the U.S. Cross Country Team could benefit from a larger budget enabling broader development and scholarships for junior and developing skiers,” she wrote.
The fact that cost increases alongside athlete performance until a limited few reach the sport’s pinnacle isn’t working, according to Aldo Radamus. “Any economist would determine that if the goal is to promote participation and performance, the incentives are lined up in the wrong way,” he says. “We have to create a structure to our system of ski racing that is unique to our challenges and our strengths and opportunity. The system has to help define when an athlete really needs additional resources.”
When opportunities do arise, McMurtry says they need to be paid for. He points to Major League Baseball, where teams invest hundreds of millions of dollars to development and wouldn’t dream of charging a prospect $25,000 to tryout.
“That’s what’s happened in a very simplistic view with skiing. We charge kids to be on the national team,” he said. “You have to fund development.”
“We have a responsibility as clubs and coaches involved in the sport to do everything we can to keep the sport less expensive by being closer to home, by not doing excessive things,” Aldo stated.
“Particularly egregious in my mind is that when kids who live in communities in the mountains — like Vail — who have access to snow and are able to at a relatively lower cost become involved in the sport, when those kids can’t be involved in our sport, then we really have a problem.”
He finished by pointing to the possibility every ski fan, athlete — and parent — probably wishes for.
“Ski racing will be transformed when barriers are removed and all are invited to try and be part of the sport.”
“The talent exists in this country,” said Mike Brown.
“For right now, this is the system and we need to somehow figure out how the pieces and parts work together a little bit better.”