The Scientist Behind the US Ski Team: Part Three

FasterSkierMarch 4, 2008

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a three-part interview. The next section will be available over the coming week.

Read Part 1
Read Part 2

Sue, what are your impressions on the coach education going on in America?

I don’t have a great feel for the collegiate sport system. I see this, though, as a weakness. College sports come down mainly to competing against each other. It cannot help information sharing when people are focused on beating their rival, down the road or in another state. In this environment, there’s an incentive to not to share your information or “secrets”. Instead of Utah trying to beat BYU, imagine if the whole goal was strength in knowledge together, to go beyond a single school or region, and bring all American athletes to a higher level of international sport? Now that would be something.

Until colleges work together as a cohesive system, looking out for the good of all American athletes, not just their own, America’s development will be held back. That’s my opinion.

What is the U.S. Ski Team doing to increase the collective knowledge of the American ski community? Is it really the unsympathetic National Governing Body the print and internet media make it out to be?

Actually, the US Ski Team does a lot. It’s one of the more progressive national governing bodies. They have coach education groups. They are making products – books, cd’s, coaches conferences on an annual basis – whose sole goal is to get the information out to anybody or any team that wants it. In this regard, alpine has probably been the most progressive. Now it’s being more aggressively sought after in other sports, cross-country skiing being one of them. The US ski team clearly see this in everyone’s best interests including there own of course. The more better skilled, better trained, better informed athletes work through the door at the entrance level the more likely they are to have success on the international stage.

It’s really in the U.S. Ski Association’s best interest to have as strong as possible coach education system. They know this. They understand this. Whether they will be successful is difficult to say. To work, coaches education needs to be bought up by all — the athletes, the club programs, sport schools and, especially, universities. If colleges were to become a more viable stepping stone to international skiing — well that would have a potentially huge impact on the number of athletes and the level of those athletes ready to compete at the international level. Colleges have so many resources. To not make the most out of this would be a travesty. Colleges reach athletes at such a critical stage of development – those late teen to early twenty years. No NGB anywhere, in America or otherwise, has such potential to shape a country’s future international sporting talent.

You spent many years working closely with the U.S. alpine program. How important is physiology for them? Improving recovery rates, increasing endurance or monitoring lactate levels might not be the first things to come to mind when talking either speed or tech racing?

Alpine was the first sport I worked with at the US Ski Team. Alpine presented a challenge I could really revel in; it was very different from the sports I worked with previously. Yet at the same time, the race times and intensities are very close to middle distance track times — familiar territory t say the least. Both the anaerobic and aerobic loads of a two-minute downhill are quite similar to an eight hundred meter run. The physiological demands were so, so much higher than I had anticipated. At the same time alpine is such a skill based sport. Performance is determined by so much outside physiology. The athletes with the best technical skill sets will be racing on the World Cup. Period. There’s no other way around that one. But once a certain skill level has been reached, physiology makes a big difference. Either by building up one’s anaerobic tolerance or helping the recovery rate between ski runs. Once the US alpine athletes could see and feel results from individualized and scientifically based training – things like recovery rates dropping by over 50% – they really got on board, bought into the physiology training and started to get better, more consistent results.

Over the last couple years you worked more in concert with the US cross country program. You came to training camps, World Cups, oversaw the physiology testing protocols. What are some of your thoughts on the demands of elite ski racing? Where do good opportunities lie for Americans to move up the world rankings?

Torin, I think my answer is two-fold:

One, physiologically, I believe you guys are well on the way. Also – now that you are, it will become contageous and infect those athletes below you in the national pool. However at a group level I feel like continuing to use science to show the way in terms of training and progressions both for physiological gains as well as equipment choices will continue to help. Most of the athletes I have worked with in the last few years including yourself have continued to make what I would call “staggering” gains in physiological efficiencies etc – those gains have by no means plateaued yet meaning that there is more in the tank to draw on. At the level you are – with more to come then there is much more potential there for the “current” team.

And two, for the “future” team. There is no reason why in 8 to 12 years that USA cross country should not be a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Better resourcing and education below the national team, as well as improvements in the collegiate system – to better supported that pivotal group of athletes to a national and then international level. I think the main goal of creating a larger pool of athletes with the potential to make it at the international level is paramount. Then supporting those athletes through a carefully tailored progression of competition to assist them in being able to succeed at all levels – utilizing the Continental Cup as well as the World Cup as avenues into success on the world stage at the world champs or Olympics.

Sue, thanks for all your work and insight over the past years. It’s much appreciated and opened eyes into how we have to go about in the pursuit of skiing fast. All the best.

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