Editor's Note: FasterSkier will wrap up this discussion with one final article tomorrow.
If there’s one thing that can be gleaned from the postings this week, it’s that there’s a strong desire to develop athletes regionally and locally. This, of course, is neither a novel idea nor a revolutionary strategy. Local development has happened in the past and continues today in many different ways across the country. This collection of clubs, regions and coaches is loosely tied, but together it brings a lot of assets to our sport, and those assets have grown considerably in recent years. In fact, there are probably more highly developed clubs, more professional coaches, and more athlete support in our larger ski community than ever before.
The fact that this community is loosely tied is not necessarily a weakness. In many ways, it’s loose both by nature, and by design. As we’ve heard again and again from those most involved with cross country skiing in this country, there is no single solution. And even though we’re only tied loosely, we all have the same mission, which is to win medals. Even in the postings here this week, no one has said that they don’t want to win. We all want to win medals — this is the tie that binds.
The most successful regions and clubs have analyzed their own particular situations, created their own solutions, and made changes or maintain consistency in ways that fit their own situation. And the national team either has to find a way to accommodate this variety of approaches, or to work to standardize each of them. In the nineties, USSA decided to standardize. So far since then, we’ve decided to accommodate.
Beginning in 1998, USSA worked with its Cross Country Committee to change nearly every facet of the way it managed its national system. The Cross Country Committee is composed of our nation’s top club coaches, our best officials, former Olympic skiers like Nina Kemppel and Jon Engen, and representatives appointed by each one of the regions.
The Cross Country Committee operates as part of USSA’s national Board of Directors, which has included a long list of talented individuals, even including Thom Weisel, who was mentioned in a posting here, who has served as USSA’s President, and who’s made many lasting impacts on USSA.
The changes we made were big, and sweeping, and not always easily accepted by some of the members of our committee, or community. But we identified the problems as best we could, and we addressed those items that we felt could be effectively changed. Miles Minson and Chris Grover gave birth to the successful (and controversial) residence program in Park City, which our most talented skiers could be a part of if they chose to (other skiers, who are also part of USSA’s development program, like Kikkan Randall and Lindsey Weier were able to choose to stay with their home programs, like APUNSC, or to move to a regional program, like NMU).
We changed our team selection systems so that athletes weren’t forced to peak for a national championship in the month before the major races in Europe begin, but so we could still hold the national championship at the optimal time, where it would be a highlight for the winter. Since then, our national championship has grown to record numbers, with over 500 competitors annually, making it one of the season’s most exciting events. And we developed a scoring system to support the new selection methods, so athletes both inside and outside the team would have the opportunity to ski up the competition pipeline, and so that top talents would have the opportunity to gain the necessary long-term international exposure that would aid in their development.
And we also recognized that we could only support a sliver of the talented athletes we have here. So with our best race organizers in each region, we developed the SuperTour, so our development teams, colleges and clubs would have a high-quality place to compete on a consistent basis, so we wouldn’t be forced to race in Europe all season long in order to be challenged, so junior skiers around the country would be exposed to our top-level athletes, and so the athletes we couldn’t support directly could win prize money to cover some of their training, competition, and living expenses. These organizers have helped immensely, by expanding the size of the sport in this country. They don’t ask USSA for a handout, they only ask for the structure that allows them to operate an incredibly important development tool, and to provide benefit to the athletes. They then take it upon themselves to leverage the resources in their local communities into our sport.
These were some of the programs we developed to support and accommodate the clubs who have, and who continue to develop athletes. Interestingly, the SuperTour has given development clubs a place to compete, and has given them another way to justify their community’s support. Teams have started to form around the SuperTour, and they place a high value on having their club names listed on the results, and on having their competitors race in their club uniforms.
We’ve also developed coaches education materials ( http://www.ussa.org/PublishingFolder/683.htm and http://educationshop.ussa.org/catalog.asp?category=elite ) and race organization manuals ( http://www.ussa.org/PublishingFolder/677.htm ), we offer insurance to competition and youth clubs, and we provide insurance to local race organizers. We also offer a biennial National Coaches’ Conference and Pete Vordenberg travels to the regions each year to work with the regions’ top skiers and to educate the best coaches in the region (much to our chagrin, a few Head Coaches of the most well known development clubs have failed to attend the National Coaches Conference, and have even been no shows when USSA’s development coach has come to visit their region).
Today, we have a lot of clubs, colleges and regions, who are all active in development. They all have different ways of doing things. Some clubs may do things differently from the national team, or even differently from their own region. Rather than force our will or our system onto the clubs and regions, we’ve decided simply to share what it is that we do. Anyone is free to take it, or to leave it, in part or in full. That the collective successes of the clubs and regions, is no different from those of our national team is telling. It tells us that we’re all in this together. And it also tells us that we have to continue to change and improve. From ’98 to ’01 we did more than our share of changing to the national system. In many ways, clubs had to evolve during that period just to keep pace with the changes. And when we were satisfied, we settled into a period of consistency at the level of the national program, to let the changes take hold. During that period, we turned our attention to changes at the national team level. This is when Trond and Pete took the reigns, and they made massive changes to the way our team is run. And they had great success in 2003 and also in 2004. Of course, this past year wasn’t what they envisioned. Interestingly, they didn’t make big changes this past year, but they got different results anyway. You don’t need to be like Einstein to understand that this will happen along the way, and they’ve made their evaluation and their plan to move forward.
Our best clubs, Sun Valley, Bridger, Maine Winter Sports, the Factory Team, NMU (just to name a few!) and nearly ALL of our regions are now taking on the challenge of change and improvement. But there are still at least one or two important clubs, who are maybe even more well funded and well supported than our best clubs, but who haven’t changed since they were founded with the exception of their team roster, which changes frequently when dissatisfied athletes have moved on. While it’s useful to scrutinize programs on a national basis, it’s sometimes even more productive to take a hard look at the places where we can have our own greatest impact. NENSA is a wonderful example of an organization that looked at their own challenges and tackled them effectively.
It’s been suggested that if we disband our development team, or restrict entry into some of our domestic competitions, or change our ranking system that the clubs and regions will flourish. Last year, we had four athletes on our development team, two of them living and training in their home or regional programs. The reality is that we do doesn’t hamper what clubs and regions can do. They’re still capable of living up to their goals, and we’ve provided only a small layer at the top to enhance our chances, and the framework within which development clubs can operate.
Will we continue to provide opportunities for our top talents through a development team if they can’t, or choose not to get them anywhere else? That’s our aim. Will we continue to bolster the framework for our clubs and regions? That’s our hope. Pete Vordenberg’s XCNDS is a start at that. But it won’t be a handout, and it will take clubs and regions to want to integrate, and work together.