NewsOpinionUS Ski TeamA Critique of US Skiing

FasterSkier FasterSkierJune 10, 200943

Editor’s Note:  This piece is an op-ed and does not necessarily reflect the views of FasterSkier.  As always, please feel free to comment, but please keep discussion civil.

A lot has been written on this wesbite about the USST XC program. The site itself often behaves as a mouthpiece for the USST, but I don’t want to say any more about that here. However, there are plenty of us in this country who are dissatisfied with the results of the past twenty years or so, given all the money spent on the program. It seems a number of countries have entered the FIS fray recently and have surpassed us with their relatively young programs.

It’s easy to find excuses for our results but more difficult to find solutions. And it’s even more difficult to get the USST staff on a different track. As far as I know, there’s no advisory board for the xc program made up of non-paid employees of USST . Everything is determined in-house and so until things change, we will be subjected to whatever the USST staff decides or publishes, including the work of their marvelous spin doctors in Park City. Yeah, it’s been very discouraging.

Now, there are some objective measures for making the US Team and I’d like to look at some of the criteria, after saying this:

Our biggest weakness in this country is getting juniors to train more and even more importantly, to continue on with skiing after their secondary school educations. Quite a few areas in this country have huge high school racing fields, some as large as 500 on a given day. What happens after high school? What is the drop-out rate? I’d hate to estimate it. It’s easier to look at the options after high school because it’s easier to count these. Let’s see–there are a few clubs promoting skiing as a competitive sport for people well into their 20’s and beyond. A bunch of colleges have teams. Anything else that’s organized out there? Would all these above-mentioned outfits be able to handle more than 5% of graduating high school seniors? I doubt it.

For many skiers, going to a skiing college is the only show in town. The USST has decided to ignore these skiers since they aren’t fulltime, so we can knock them off the roster of possibilities for post-highschoolers. (It’s not accurate or wise to discard college skiers as having no potential. Surely going to a skiing college is better than not skiing at all. There have been cases of our best skiers competing on the international circuit during and after college and doing fairly well. Of course, there are others who have done well without going to college. It’s simply not a black and white issue. In addition, it’s been my experience that our skiers mature more slowly than those in Europe and so we need to learn patience. There are a host of reasons for this slowness, including those listed above, but that’s another issue I don’t want to get in here.) No matter how you look at it, now things are discouraging for skiers who want to continue racing into their late teens and early 20’s.

The new criteria for making the team include a standing in the World Cup results, 50th or better overall in distance races and 30th or better overall in the sprints. Clearly, one has to enter World Cup races to score WC points. How does one enter a WC race in order to have a chance to make the team? Well, you gotta be on the US Team, of course. It’s a Catch-22 set-up.

Consider the criteria of placing well in the World Junior Championships in order to make the team. This is a fair enough standard and it’s a good development trip, but how practical is it? The tryouts for the WJC’s are scheduled by the USST and use our National Championships. Last year and this coming year the races are in Anchorage. Look at the travel and expenses for a junior to get to these tryouts. Then, if he/she makes the team, guess who pays for the trip to the WJC’s? The junior, of course, and the last two years the costs have been around $2500 for skiers from the east coast area.. I’m not sure who pays for the coaches, whether or not the skiers are assessed some extra money to help pay for them.

Now consider the next two National Championships (2011 and 2012) being in New England. Once again, coming to these races involves a lot of travel and money for most juniors interested in making the World Junior Team. One can’t help figure out the chance of making the team, adding in the costs for a possible trip to Europe and the problem with taking off a couple of weeks in the middle of winter, giving up school or a job, and then come up with a good situation. It’s pretty chancey. Over the years, cross country skiers have not come from the wealthier skiing families, I might add. It’s not as if we have a whole bunch of trust-funders skiing xc in the junior ranks.

Pretty much the same can be said for the junior trip to Scandinavia and the team that goes to the U23 Championships. The tryouts are at the National Championships, trravel and expenses are big factors, and so on.

I mentioned earlier that it’s easy to critique the program and harder to find solutions. On this website I wrote a three-piece article a couple of years ago, made some suggestions and some predictions. The predictions turned out petty well to date and after the next Games we’ll know more about how accurate they are/were. We each have our own standards for success and I justify my feelings by considering the huge number of podiums available on the WC, WSC and OWG circuits, the enlarged number of skiers in the FIS Red Groups, and then looking at our overall standings. (I also look at international relay results as an indication of team depth.) We’re pretty low on the totem pole. I don’t know if there are standings for WC points by nations, but I’d be interested in seeing those if they exist.

The suggestions I sent along two years back were not recognized or acknowledged by the USST and as far as I know, none have been implemented. That’s OK. The USST reaction to my stuff was one of my accurate predictions anyway. Hahah!

So what good does it do to make suggestions? Probably no good. For one thing, all the readers out there can find something to disagree with–while not prescribing much themselves–and so the USST can sit confident that many suggestions were not seen as favorable by some of you readers. That’s the way it is.

However, I am not known for sitting back and I will actually suggest something again. It’s a bit wild. Here it is:

We ought to look at the countries that have emerged since the break-up of the USSR and the others that have joined the FIS since that time. We ought to send someone over to Europe and study what they have done to out-success us. I think there’s a good lesson to be learned by (as the TV ads sometimes say) looking or thinking outside the box.

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