Ski & Snowboard Club Vails hosts Austria’s Ski-Club Arlberg
Athlete exchange program returns after two-year COVID-induced hiatus
Margaret Fuller once said, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” The quote’s ski-racing application was lived out in our midst last week.
Ski & Snowboard Club Vail hosted three coaches and 11 athletes from Austria’s Ski-Club Arlberg for the past week or so as both groups’ U14 members shared venues, techniques and cultural differences through Dec. 10. Ski-Club Arlberg is one of the oldest ski clubs in the world and the only club associated with Beaver Creek’s sister resort, Lech-Zurs.
Seventeen SSCV athletes and three coaches will cross the pond to Austria in a reciprocal fashion Jan. 9-19.
“We began this exchange in 2019 and our athletes had an incredible experience that season,” said John Hale, SSCV’s executive director. “We were forced to put it on hold during the pandemic but we are thrilled to welcome the Arlberg back in Vail and for our athletes to return to the Arlberg in January.”
“Both sides, and specifically the coaches, share everything,” said former Vail mayor Ludwig Kurz, who was instrumental in forming the sister-city relationship between Beaver Creek and Lech, Austria, two decades ago. Kurz initiated an exchange similar to the current model shortly after.
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“That was more of a cultural exchange,” he explained of the original, biennial program that existed roughly 15 years ago. “The Lech kids came over here, went to a baseball game, they watched the rodeo in Beaver Creek, they did raft trips and stayed with local families. This is more of a coaching and sporting exchange. These are serious, young ski racers on both sides.”
“We’re sharing ideas, our kids are sharing pace, intensity levels, education and so forth,” said SSCV U14 head coach Rob Worrell. “And it’s great for our coaches, too. We had dinner together last night and we’re just talking technique. Austria’s where the game has been played for a long time, so it’s always good to see what types of things they’re working on.”
According to Worrell, rocket science isn’t one of those “types of things.”
“They work on the same, strong, basic skiing fundamentals. Since they’re so successful, they don’t have to look for magic pills,” he said. “Sometimes the U.S. gets off on trends. Whenever we’re talking technique with the Austrians, we’re often coming back to the baselines of what we should be doing.”
“I don’t believe they have any great secrets as to coaching and the success of coaching, so I think they’re very open to each other,” said Kurz, who grew up in Salzburg, Austria, and is a lifelong ski racing lover.
When pressed for specific shared intel examples, Worrell told how an SSCV coach devised a “drawing of the timing and rhythm of how an athlete looks ahead” and where to switch one’s eyes to the next gate. Two female Austrian coaches — both former World Cup-caliber athletes — tested the method later in the day.
“They went out and tried it on the courses and were like, ‘Wow, that really worked,'” Worrell said. “The visual acuity — how we use our eyes — that conversation started from our end, and then the Austrians went out and worked on what we were explaining and felt a huge difference in their skiing.”
Another contrast between nations is manifested in general coaching carriage. “The coaching dynamics are quite different sometimes … the Austrians really like the American demeanor,” Worrell said. “Stereotyped to them, we’re a little more laid back, encouraging with the kids, while they’re more rigid at times.”
The Austrian coaches’ technique strictness doesn’t take plays off. They even commented on the locals’ positioning while both groups of U14s slipped the Birds of Prey downhill course last Saturday.
“Even slipping the course, you’ve gotta be in a better position because you know, you gotta build strong habits,” Worrell said.
Of course, the primary beneficiaries of the exchange are athletes. For the cost of a plane ticket, elite training partners, race experiences on different snow types and venues, and cultural experiences are shared.
“When you’re 13 years old, you learn a lot from watching and observing,” Kurz said. “And being out of your nest and in a different culture with new, many different people — those are the things that I think are beneficial to both sides.”
Worrell said the learning starts before a single gate gets negotiated. “This morning I was telling my athletes, ‘Watch what these kids do for warmups,’” he said. “Austria does a lot of ski-school work. Slow, steered turns, a lot of working on movement patterns.”
Since implementing the “slower positioning and balance work” to his own program five years ago, Worrell has noticed gains being made.
“I think we’ve improved a lot with our athletes with that takeaway from Austria,” he said.
Bang for your buck
Food, lodging, lift tickets, transportation — all of it is taken care of by the hosts.
“When the kids get here, I don’t think they reach into their pocket except to buy a hot chocolate or something,” Kurz said.
“It’s a no-brainer as far as cost, because it’s a straight-across exchange. Here we are getting access to the best kids ski racers in the world — both ways,” added Worrell, who understands the importance of keeping things affordable in a sport as expensive as skiing.
“For the parents we have, everything is a stretch,” he said. “They want their kids to ski race because they ski raced and they look at the grit and character they got from sports. These kids work hard and are appreciative and are a great bunch of kids.”
Originally, Worrell was somewhat against the exchange for U14s.
“If they do everything now, what are they going to do when they’re 17 or 18? It’s like they’ve done everything and the sport gets boring,” he said.
Looking ahead to future international competition, however, he sees the benefits — from sport psychology to time zone-change practice to filling up the team van with the right fuel.
“Another huge thing with all this is mental stuff. The first time our kids go across the pond and they’re on the plane to junior worlds — if you’ve never seen these kids ski before, you don’t know what they ski like,” he said. “It’d be like the Austrians coming to play basketball with our kids in the Bronx.”
“Once they ski with us, it’s, ‘oh, these guys put their pants on the same way we do,'” he continued. “So, when they go over at 17 and it means something, and there’s consequences, they’re going to be going over there, ‘Oh, I remember skiing with these guys; I’m every bit as good as these guys. We’re going to kick some butt.”
Worrell has learned numerous tricks for time zone adjusting from his decades of international competition experience. It’s one more element North American athletes have to deal with, he said.
“Another thing is coaches — they use diesel vehicles over there and the normal petrol has a green handle,” he continued, pointing out that he’s witnessed more than a few American staffers accidentally fill team vans with gas. “We can’t even put the right gas in the vehicles over there,” he chuckled.
Moving forward, Kurz, who is retired, hopes to see the exchange happen annually. Even without literal skin in the game, he stays in touch with those who make the relationship possible, including Beaver Creek Resorts and Lech.
“I still ski and enjoy it, and I like to see other people enjoy the sport and therefore I’m always interested in skiing and ski racing and how people gravitate to it,” he said. “And if there’s a way I can foster that, by means of this kind of exchange, then I’m happy to be involved and be a catalyst for it.”
“Partnerships in sports throughout time, especially partnerships with strong programs, are super successful,” Worrell said.