This spring, the U.S. Ski Team made a small but notable adjustment to the selection criteria for one of its development groups. For the first time ever, the U24s in this year’s National Training Group (NTG) will include podium finishers from NCAA Championships in addition to athletes who qualified based on certain SuperTour, U.S. Nationals and international results.
The change officially opens the doors of the national team’s pipeline to skiers in full-time college programs, a shift in the official stance on where collegiate skiing fits into its development system. According to USST head coach Chris Grover, the addition of an NCAA Championship top-three to the NTG criteria is meant to include the high-level college athletes into its pipeline that haven’t been there before: the ones who don’t compete in many races outside the college circuit.
“A lot of those NCAA skiers are not participating in a full SuperTour schedule, or much of one, and some of them aren’t even participating in any spring nationals,” Grover said. “So we want to have another pathway for athletes.”
The new criterion was added in the same year that the USST decided to temporarily shelve its Development (D-) Team. Other programs designed to identify up-and-coming U.S. skiers remain, including the NTG, the national J2 camp, and the National and Regional Elite Group training camps.
In some ways, the addition of an NCAA result to the NTG selection process doesn’t change much. NCAA athletes have not been excluded from the group in the past; rather, they earned invitations through extracurricular results at national-caliber events or participation in Junior and U23 World Championships.
But as Grover pointed out, there are sometimes a few top college skiers who don’t attend those events. And the 2013-2014 nominees to the USST include six skiers who have spent time racing in the NCAA; Holly Brooks, Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent, Simi Hamilton, Sadie Bjornsen and Erik Bjornsen.
Several athletes have recently spoken about college skiing’s role in their athletic development. Annie Pokorny, who decided to move on to professional skiing this spring, praised Middlebury College for its part in her recent progress. Sophie Caldwell, in discussing her nomination to the U.S. Ski Team last week, credited her four years at Dartmouth College with keeping her fit and excited about the sport by the time she graduated. Her former teammate Sam Tarling, who will graduate Dartmouth in June, wrote on the National Nordic Foundation website in March that he made the transatlantic trip to OPA Cup Finals after NCAA Championships, along with Montana State University’s David Norris, in part to prove that it could be done — that college and international racing were not “mutually exclusive,” as he writes of being told throughout his career.
“It’s actually quite sad how many times coaches have told me that competing internationally and competing in college cannot work,” Tarling said.
The USST’s addition of an NCAA podium to its NTG criteria is a notable change, but not everyone looks at it as entirely productive.
Bruce Cranmer, head nordic coach of the recently crowned 2013 NCAA Champions at the University of Colorado, had conflicting opinions about one of his own athletes, 15 k freestyle champion Joanne Reid, being invited to the NTG.
“I think that’s great that [the USST is] interested in trying to recognize and potentially help college skiing that way,” Cranmer said. “But there’s not much that you really get for it. It’s like a tiny carrot out there… It’s like, ‘OK, I get to go to camps, which I might not be able to go to anyway, and might get a jacket and ski suit, and I come up with $10,000 or whatever to do all this.
“So I think while in some ways it’s nice, I don’t feel its doing all that much,” he continued. “From my perspective and from an athlete’s perspective that’s in college, why would I do something where I have to raise all this money? I get tremendous support at the collegiate level.”
For junior skiers with top results, that support is most evident in the form of potential college scholarships. But the USST has interest in those same athletes, and in the last two years several juniors confirmed having received letters from USST recognizing their potential and urging them to consider the college decision carefully; these athletes did not want to speak publicly about the situation.
In a phone interview last fall, USST coach Matt Whitcomb posited that there is no right way for skiers to approach the college decision, but suggested that certain athletes consider other post-graduate (PG) options before committing to a four-year NCAA program.
“There’s no blanket statement that can apply to everyone and cover this issue effectively so that it matches everybody’s needs,” Whitcomb said last October. “We have a great asset in collegiate ski teams here in the U.S. We also have a great asset in our PG programs, elite clubs and national team. When high school seniors are graduating, [we] just look at how they’ve done in that past season. And if, as an OJ they’re on the podium [at Junior Nationals]…or as a J1 they’re top-10 or better, then I recommend pretty highly that they take one or two PG years.”
Whitcomb believes this allows skiers to decide whether a full-time approach to skiing is a positive thing while giving themselves additional time to become better athletes.
“For everybody I think it’s important to keep your undergraduate degree in the plans, but I don’t think it has to happen in those four years immediately following high school,” Whitcomb said. “If the athlete going to college is a more mature athlete, the college gets a faster product and the athlete is better able to handle the pressure of academics and athletes combined. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.
“That said, the athlete may improve dramatically in their PG years and decide that maybe national team skiing is not for them, and want to go to college and try to progress as much as they can there,” he added. “We’re certainly seeing some athletes do quite well in these collegiate programs; I’m excited the way Sophie Caldwell’s been looking this year. There’s no one way to do it.”
The national team has named college athletes to its team in the past, including Alexa Turzian and Matt Gelso while they were at CU and Rosie Brennan while she attended Dartmouth. But USST coaches say they’ve learned from those cases that they need to require a higher level of dedication from its national team members in terms of time, and college skiers have too many conflicting obligations.
“It’s really difficult for an athlete that’s also attending college to meet the requirements we set for our national team athletes,” Whitcomb said.
That difficulty has gotten more challenging as the national team has increased its presence and success in Europe, he continued.
“Even eight years ago, [Andy] Newell was trying to figure out which period of World Cup racing he wanted to do that next year,” Whitcomb said. “Now we have B-team athletes trying to figure out which couple of World Cup weekends to skip so [they] can train and recover and race fast from start to finish.”
An invitation to the National Training Group is not a national team nomination, but it is designed to facilitate the jump between the two. By including athletes who podium at NCAA Championships on the list of skiers it wants to help improve, the national team has broadened the options available to athletes who wish to take part in its development pipeline.
And as Pokorny discussed last week about her departure from Middlebury, navigating those options is a very personal process.
“I think there’s a lot of negative stigma around leaving school,” she said. “It comes from this idea that kids who leave school are somehow brainwashed or counseled into it by someone else. But this is a decision I made on my own.”
She also echoed Whitcomb in noting there was no single pathway right for everyone.
“There’s no right or wrong way to do it as long as you’re confident in what you’re doing and believe in your training and believe in your choices,” she said.
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting.