Editor's Note: This is the second article in our discussion of the current state of US skiing. It is a follow-up to Torbjorn Karlsen's article from yesterday ( http://www.fasterskier.com/opinion2217.html ). We appreciate Luke taking the time to share his insight. Coaches and athletes – we encourage you to share your thoughts. You are at the heart of this subject and your opinions should be heard. Here is your captive audience! Add comments below or <email us.
Thanks to FasterSkier for hosting this discussion. Trond, Pete Vordenberg and I look forward to answering questions from fans and enthusiasts of the U.S. Ski Team. There are a lot of you out there who care about our results, and about our goal of winning a medal in Torino next year (we know, we hear a lot from you!).
In 1999, after an all-time low performance at the Olympics In Nagano, we installed a development program within USSA at a time where there was none. We were advised over and over again by experienced coaches and leaders in the ski community that previous efforts at development failed largely because they weren’t put into place consistently, and weren’t given the time they needed to work. Most of us then (and this continues to be the case today) advocated an 8-10 year plan
that is, it would take 8-10 years for the development program to bear fruit. If there was one request at the time we installed our development program, it was that we stick to it, keep our eye on our goals, and have the fortitude to finish the job without changing our strategy even if we had a tough season or two.
Over the seven years since we started this development project, athletes from that program have had seasons where they’ve progressed according to plan, and they’ve had years like this past season where they didn’t perform up to their own expectations. They’ve also had seasons where they wildly exceeded every scenario any of us envisioned. High level successes have come already, but we also know that even our top competitors, like Kris Freeman and Andy Newell still have a number of years to develop before they reach their potential. For them, consistency in programming is key. And moving forward, we’re looking at ways to enhance the program we have in place for our top competitors. We learn from each year, and hopefully the tweaking we do after each season makes us better. It’s not always so, but at least we continue to learn.
While we’ve seen now that it is possible to develop top skiers in the U.S., we’ve also seen over the last couple of seasons that it’s not possible to manage a program for athletes at the highest level while continuing to develop new skiers, and it’s not possible to put a high volume of skiers into a development program at least with the resources we have now. Which is one of the points that’s made in the article above. We’re not Norway. Or Sweden, or Germany, or Russia. In fact, we’re at a big deficit compared with nearly every nation we have to compete against. We’re the only nation in the world that doesn’t receive federal funding for our sport. Americans by and large don’t want to watch our sport on TV or to watch races live as spectators, which hampers our ability to sell sponsorships and TV rights at the same level as our competitors. We don’t have the same tools handed to us that our competitors have, so we have to hustle more. We have to be more focused, since we can’t afford a shotgun approach. And most importantly, we have to make decisions about what we CANNOT do. We regularly have to decide about what we can cut away from an ideal program without making big impacts, and what athletes we CAN’T invite into our team. We have to place our bets correctly, or we suffer. We have a clear understanding of what the other nations, who we have to compete against, are doing. Our challenge is to identify the most potent aspects of their programs and address those, since we aren’t able to address every aspect of what they do.
We’re always striving to increase the resources we have to work with. Over the past 6 years, we’ve been healthy enough as an organization to double the amount of resources we have to work with. And now we’re working on building by another 50% over the next couple of years (or sooner), because we know that we’re unable now to develop the next generation of athletes with the limitations that we face. In 1999, we cut back on our World Cup spending and re-focused ourselves on the development level. Now that those athletes have become World Cup skiers, it takes nearly all of our resources to try and get the job done with them. The resources we’ve had have followed them up the pipeline. In order to gain consistency in our development of athletes, in order to build on what we’ve done in the past several years, and in order to finish the job with the athletes that have developed into top skiers now, we need to develop new resources. This is the single biggest factor facing us in the future. We have the athletes and coaches in place now to make a run at achieving our goal next winter, but without new resources, we have to hope that this group continues to 2010, and after that, we may have to start from the beginning again.
To that end, Pete Vordenberg has led the development of a new vision for our development program. His ideas, which we’ve dubbed the NDS (National Development System), have been proposed to the President of USSA and USSA’s Cross Country Committee. The job in front of us now is to refine this vision and to develop the resources needed to kick start it, while also continuing with the management of our top skiers on the World Cup. We will also share this plan with you.
Those are the broad challenges. But as I mentioned, we are also busy tweaking the specifics of our program to find ways to improve from what we’ve learned. Specific to the issues raised in this article, here are some thoughts:
QUANTITY OF RACES
Already some years ago, we identified as a weakness the fact that our competitors were racing too many marathons. At that time, we de-emphasized the marathon series that was developed by USSA (the Great American Ski Chase) in favor of developing a FIS race series. We also wanted to increase the number of high-quality starts our racers could participate in, and as a part of that, we aimed to develop prize money for these skiers, so they could support themselves over a greater number of competitions. The old â€œDannon Seriesâ€, which operated at a time when U.S. skiers were getting top results in Europe, was our model. The new series we developed, the â€œSuperTourâ€, has increased the number of races, increased the quality of the fields (by drawing European athletes into our own races), and now puts over 100,000 dollars a year into the pockets of our top athletes.
Altitude definitely fits into our planning of the series, as does the flow of the winter (ie. where snow is available to race on), the travel for the competitors, and the location of organizers capable of running a very high-quality competition. The calendar design hasn’t changed drastically over the seasons, only grown, and in the past has provided an effective springboard for athletes, who have race the SuperTour in the first part of the season, and gone onto top World Championship and Olympic finishes in the second half.
Even so, the winter is short, and it’s a challenge to get enough races into the calendar. This is especially true of sprint races, where it takes a lot of race experience to become good. Scheduling enough races for the sprinters is even a challenge on the World Cup, where the pool of athletes, teams, organizers, and public interest is too small to split into separate circuits. For example, World Cup sprinters like Andy Newell and Torin Koos will only be able to race a MAXIMUM of 5 World Cup sprint races before the Olympics, which is not a lot. Nonetheless, we continue to increase the number of sprint starts for our athletes each season, with midweek sprints, sprint-only weekends, and the addition of team sprints. We also plan to begin to lead our SuperTour weekends this year with sprint races, so the sprinters can take part in more distance races during the season.
Trond and Pete will definitely have a lot to say about training at the club level, and they will be following up with their thoughts. With largely the same group of club coaches, USSA experienced an 8 year run of best-ever results at the Junior World Championships. This run ended two seasons ago. While the club coaches haven’t totally re-organized the way they train their athletes, and while they continue to kick a lot of talented youngsters out of their programs, we also have to recognize that when other nations see 3 skiers from the U.S. Ski Team in the top-8 at the men’s Junior World Championship sprint, they are going to evaluate themselves to find ways to improve at the junior level. Our competition is improving continuously, and we have to find ways, even at the club/junior level, to do the same.
Luke Bodensteiner is the Nordic Program Director of USSA