Performance, not college, was reason for USST cuts

Nathaniel HerzJune 24, 200930

In the middle of May, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) dropped seven of the 18 skiers that were on the team. Three of those seven skiers are currently attending college: Matt Gelso and Alexa Turzian at Colorado University (CU), and Rosie Brennan at Dartmouth.

Following those skiers’ dismissals, the USST released a new set of recommendations that called for elite high school skiers to take time off to train before starting college. That announcement spawned abundant discussion on this web site and within the cross-country community, centered on the role of college programs in the development of the nation’s best skiers. Over the last few weeks, FasterSkier spoke with the dismissed collegiate skiers, as well as the staff of the USST, about how these decisions were made, and about collegiate skiing in general.

According to USST staff, these three skiers—and the other four that were dismissed from the team—were not dropped because they were attending college, per se. Instead, they were dropped due to a simple lack of improvement, and a lack of integration into an international-caliber development pipeline.

According to the athletes, the sacrifices they make to participate in a college skiing program are more than offset by the other benefits that their schools have to offer: financial support, opportunities for intellectual development, and—with a social life—a distraction and respite from the rigors of a full-time program. And, some still argue, it can provide a platform for international success.

Toward International Success

According to USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg, for the nation’s best high school skiers, the college route just hasn’t worked as it is currently structured.

In an e-mail to FasterSkier, Vordenberg wrote that most young American skiers start out behind their international counterparts in terms of fitness. In order to catch up, these athletes need the highest possible level of training and racing—at “the closest level to the best that we can design and carry out,” he wrote.

The closest level to the best, Vordenberg continued, means year-round training on an individually-designed plan; closely monitored and coached training and recovery; and racing as much as possible at the highest level.

Turzian and Brennan were dropped from the USST this year, while Stephen, Mannix, and Arritola were retained
Turzian and Brennan were dropped from the USST this year, while Stephen, Mannix, and Arritola were retained

Potentially, Vordenberg wrote, college programs could provide this level of training and development necessary for international success, but that recently, this has not been the case.

“Can a college program provide [the type of support] described above? I don’t see why not,” he wrote. “Can college programs bring skiers toward international success? Again, why not? Have the skiers we have had on the USST and on NCAA teams progressed at the same rate as our non-college athletes? No. And this is where the discussions started.”

“We have had college skiers on the USST for many years, and over the past three years there was a concerted effort to build stronger partnerships with college teams by being sure to work with college skiers and post-collegiate skiers who showed promise and commitment,” Vordenberg wrote. However, he continued, “the way this partnership was working has not been good enough for the athletes.”

Gelso was dropped from the USST, while Hoffman was retained
Gelso was dropped from the USST, while Hoffman was retained

However, Vordenberg added, the three college skiers were not cut specifically because they were in school.

“This was not college driven,” he wrote. “This was performance and pathway driven…We cut athletes whose results were not showing that they were on track to international success.”

College’s Draw

According to the three collegiate skiers dropped from the USST, there were other considerations in their decisions to attend school aside from support for skiing. First, there’s economics. According to Gelso, CU offers him a scholarship, as well as financial support for training and racing.

“On top of…paying for all the trips and training, if you’re on a scholarship you have tuition and books, which is huge,” he said. Referring to his decision to attend and remain in college, he said that he though he was “a little too economic, but I was thinking, ‘this huge package of benefits and funding—I don’t want to let that go.”

Then, there’s the academic stimulation that academics provide, which Gelso and Turzian said helps them to function better as skiers.

“I kind of need that second thing—I go crazy with just training and I get overloaded with it,” Turzian said. “I think maybe later in life, right before the [2014] Olympics, definitely I’m going to put my full focus into skiing, but really, [college] keeps a good balance. When I was skiing my best in my senior year of high school, I was still playing soccer and taking AP classes.”

Finally, Gelso said, college provides a social scene.

“I know what training camp is like—it’s mind numbing,” he said. “I think time is better spent going training in the morning, going to class, training in the afternoon, hanging out with some friends later—I think school provides a good balance.”

The collegiate skiers interviewed by FasterSkier acknowledged that attending college resulted in moderate limitations on their training and racing, but they also said that they did not feel they were sacrificing their potential for international success.

Gelso said that while college skiers can only feasibly train about 600 hours a year, simply opting to attend school did not necessarily limit your potential.

“I think racing at NCAAs and getting the experience at college—I don’t think that limits your ability to ski fast,” he said. “I think some of the college races have better FIS points than a lot of the SuperTours. They’re competitive races, and they’re every weekend.”

Brennan said that having experienced college, she would still have made the same decision to go to school rather than ski full-time.

“The opportunities in terms of training that I have at Dartmouth are much better than I could have gotten anywhere else,” she said. “I have a great coach, and great teammates.”

Brennan added that she probably would be able to do more hours if she were training full-time, but that she had still been able to increase her training load every year that she’d been at Dartmouth. She also said that she felt that the USST had not given her enough time to fulfill her potential.

“It was my understanding…that Alexa [Turzian] and I were guinea pigs at that point, to see if we could make this work,” she said. “To really make that a good test project we would need to complete college, so I felt kind of short-handed in that regard…Freshman year of college is a little iffy; I’m only a sophomore, so I felt like I didn’t have enough time to see if it was going to work.”

With regard to Brennan and Turzian’s situation, Vordenberg wrote that the USST has a policy to not discuss team issues publicly, but he did write that “the general guideline for being on the team is two years minimum.”

“We try to look closely at the athletes all the way along the way and make changes and adjustments,” he continued. “But at some point, even with injury, we have to say ‘look, something isn’t working here.’ And if something isn’t working, we have to make a change.”

According to Kevin Cutts, who attends Northern Michigan University, colleges can train skiers at an internationally competitive level—it just depends on the commitment of the coaches and the skiers.

One of the problems, he said, is that “half the coaches at these programs don’t know what the hell they’re doing.”

Cutts said that he knew of a number of programs where coaches did little more than drive vans, or import European skiers who already have been training and racing at a high level and require little actual coaching. At NMU, he said, both of his coaches have masters’ degrees in exercise physiology, and their system has produced four skiers in the past few years that have been on the USST.

“College skiers just need to get more education about training,” he said. “They need to realize how hard they actually have to train, and define for themselves whether they’re going to commit to this.”

College, Cutts said, is the closest thing the United States will ever have to a club system.

“Our culture isn’t going to support the actual regional club system like they have in Europe, because our focus is on major, mass media sports like football and basketball,” he said. The problem right now, he said, is “a lack of communication between the college programs and the USST. If they decided they wanted to work together more, you’d see a lot more progress.”

Other Paths

One thing that the dropped athletes said they had realized was that the USST was not the only path to international success.

“My ultimate goal is just to make the Olympics,” Turzian said, “and I now realize that it’s not a part of the USST.”

Brennan said that while she also thought there were other pathways to success, “sometimes, you’re fighting a political battle as well, if you’re not on the [USST].”

According to Farra, the Nordic program director for USSA, qualification for the Olympics and World Championships is based on objective criteria, and “anybody can make that.”
However, for those who are not members of the USST, coming up with the funding to train and race can be difficult.

Caitlin Compton, who attended NMU and was passed over by the USST, has managed to ski full-time for the last four years, but said that she sometimes struggles supporting her training and racing.

“The door is wide open—they say that and they mean that,” she said, referring to qualification for international competition. “The one thing that does become tricky is that without the national team title…you do miss the opportunities sometimes.”

Compton said that while she was able to attend the recent USST camp in Bend, she had missed out on other training camps, trips to New Zealand, and funding.

“You get these opportunities, but you only get one shot, or you get a very small window,” she said. “If you want to be on the international circuit on an ongoing basis, you have to nail those big races.”

Farra said that for the USST and USSA, with their limited resources, “it’s about looking at our imperative: our job is to medal at the Olympics in 2014.”

“How we’re going to do that with limited money is by investing in people we believe are going to be the ones that are going to get it done with us,” he said. “If we had more money, we’d widen the scope.”

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • Mike Trecker

    June 24, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Great article Nat, good research, nice digging. Thanks to all the athletes also.

  • nordic_dave

    June 24, 2009 at 8:33 am

    How refreshing, Fasterskier posted an article based on the concept of jounalistic objectivity, i.e. check the facts, get both sides of the story, etc.

  • bhusaby

    June 24, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Thank you for the objectivity! This is a very tough subject- the elephant in the room for coaches and parents of our top juniors. It was nice to see both sides.

  • chadsalmela

    June 24, 2009 at 11:36 am

    We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say one thing then loath the performance on the international level. I don’t think anyone can come down on the personal decisions of these talented athletes to go to college, but those athletes cannot in turn come down on the USST staff for lack of performance internationally. The FIS points graphs are pretty convincing data that support something that already makes sense. Cutts’ insight is very bright. Colleges can support the efforts of the USST, but they cannot be the relied-upon system if we are serious about international success, at least not if an NCAA championship is the only goal. These programs have no incentive to support the USST, and I’ve not yet heard this important point discussed. Nobody can diminish Gelso, Turzian, and Brennan for their decisions. In fact, it’s clearly the right decision for them personally and will probably lead to better instant opportunities beyond skiing, but they have to understand what Pete’s job is, and their long-term economic viability as a well-rounded, educated professional in the job market, is not Pete’s concern. Olympic medals is. They should not feel bruised by the USST and understand the business at hand. Training for the level at which the USST is requiring, is mundane a lot of the time. If that level is not for these athletes, being an Olympic medalist in cross country skiing is probably not either.

    I am a college ski coach.

  • chadsalmela

    June 24, 2009 at 11:41 am

    PS. Also, saying an athlete can have international success from college is ridiculous since it has never been done. Making the Olympic team is not international success. It’s showing up. When it has been done, then say it can be done. Until then, Pete’s argument is pretty sound.

  • Scott Jerome

    June 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Nat, good job with journalism. It’s very nice to see in the age of blogs. Chad, I guess it depends on your definition of “international success”. I agree that we have not maximized what other NCAA sports have done (swimming, track & field, rifle, volleyball, etc.), but let’s not forget Nina Kemppel and Carl Swenson. They performed pretty well internationally. Would they have been better without college? Who knows? I think only Ms. Kemppel and Mr. Swenson can answer that intelligently. But, they did pretty well. They may be models of what is possible in skiing.

  • dvoisin

    June 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Great article Nat and great points by Chad. Not to pick on anyone, but the notion of an athlete having a goal of making the Olympic Ski Team does not serve the US Ski community in any way. It is clearly the goal of countless US athletes: to make the Olympics. The goal needs to be bigger – podiums, top tens, medals. It has to be centered around performance on the largest of stages, be it World Champs, Olympics,or World Cup. Pete’s “game changing” strategy is in line with this, as it should be.

    To Gelso, Brennan and Turzian: you guys rock. I will be cheering you on and hoping you prove everyone wrong!

  • chadsalmela

    June 24, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Scott, I’m talking about systemic, sustained international success. I am not trying to diminish anything or anyone who has worked so hard. Nina and Carl did exceedingly well under a national approach to skiing that has a history of being splintered in effort. It is also not my intention to diminish NCAA skiing, nor do I believe is it the USST’s. My point was that if you want to qualify NCAA skiing as a way to become internationally successful–like would the Norwegian national program (or German, or Russian, etc… say NCAA skiing is a proven development model as manifested in the careers I Nina or Carl?–I think we cannot point to NCAA skiing as THE devlopment tool for international success. I feel the current USST could be seen as the greatest unifying force in the job since I’ve been involved. Hard things to accomplish are rarely done by making everyone feel good about their spot in the process. It takes hard stances, choices, and honest analysis of the charge. This staff is holding our feet to the fire about what it’s going to take to win regularly internationally with clean athletes. My comments are in support of that stance, not in the diminishment of anyone’s efforts–Nina’s, Carls, Matt’s, Alexa’s, Rosie’s, or anyone else’s.

  • nordic_dave

    June 24, 2009 at 5:46 pm


    As in right now:
    U.S. upsets Spain (world’s number 1 ranked team) Set for Confederation Cup Final against Brazil. U.S. Men’s soccer has come a long way in the last 20 years. How has this once woeful sport turned it around in the U.S.?

    The youth club system and greater professionalism in training and coaching. Everyone benefitted from it, Colleges & the National Team. In fact the best youth club teams are sending great players and talent to our junior national teams who perform very well internationally. Guess what happens from there?

    The exact same is true in swimming, this is nonsense about college swimming as an example to follow. Anybody that knows this sport knows how strong the swim club system is in producing Olympic champions.

    Perhaps lost in all of this discussion should be a thanks to all those great cross country club coaches trying to raise the level of performance in xc so that we will have less to debate going forward about having limited talent and the individual/anecdotal life defining decisions these really cool kids make.

    I would strongly encourage Fasterskier to delve into some fact finding information as to who and why some of the stronger ski club programs are consistently producing the talent and results that they do. To constantly be looking at the top of the pryamid is reactionary at best!


  • rodney

    June 24, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Listen to those college skiers – wise beyond their years! You are making the right decision. You will be of far greater value to society and yourself down the road – and you can still race at the top! Do not miss out on a great college experience – especially if your options are so good.

    This monolithic focus on winning is a kind of sickness. Do we even see that anymore? What happened to the glory of the amateur? Go back and read that book about rowing. Pro sports are sick. Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean you have to. Just like you shouldn’t take drugs even if that is what it takes to win, you shouldn’t alter the trajectory of your entire young adult life if that is what it takes. Have some class and don’t do it. Instead, be you.

    What happened to the beauty of skiing, of developing, of being a mere mortal? Would you sacrifice your entire development as a person to some misguided attempt to make the Olympics? I hope not. Remember – that’s forever. You will be spiritually impoverished if you do.

    What could be more boring than the professional, full time athlete? Anything? Read a few of the “today I grunted for six hours – me go pretty good” blog entries of the so-called “pros” and ask yourself if that is a big enough world for you.

    Sounds like these college skiers have their heads on straight. Ski well, but more importantly, be well.

  • morganarritola

    June 25, 2009 at 8:28 am

    I am not one to comment but I have to respond to the last comment posted by rodney. Every athlete is different and has a variety of needs far beyond skiing and development. I have put college on hold but by no means am I the “moron-drone” you seem to think those who for-go college are. I am well educated and driven to be the best at what I am doing right now and I love it. Don’t generalize, it makes you sound like the uneducated one.

  • stevephillips

    June 25, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Regarding comments by “rodney”: One should never assume that rushing off to college at age 18 is the best path for all skiers, or for all students in general. All skiing factors aside, far too many people hustle off to college straight from high school with no clue what they want to study or realistic expectations of a career- on mommy and daddy’s dime and/or chained to rediculous indebtedness. I know far too many people who pile on $20K, $50K, even $100K for a great education before finally figuring out what they want to do, or ended up with a degree in with no viable job prospects besides waiting tables at Applebee’s. On the other hand I know plenty who dropped out of college after a year or postponed college, who then return to school in their mid-20’s and are having great sucess, largely due to increased maturity and finding an academic focus.

    Who’s to say that a skier who postpones college for a few years or more is “missing out” career-wise more than someone who obtains a college degree at age 22? For most skiers without superstar potential, college skiing is obviously the best route. It may even be the best route for many skiers with elite potential who need the intellectual/athletic balance. But for some it may not be the best career path to go to college directly. Every person is different.

    I think it is extremely judgemental to assume that a skier postponing college is throwing away a future or posseses a lack of intelligence. If you were to follow the lives of skiers who skip/postpone college- they would do just fine over the course of their life and are just as intelligent as those in college.

  • nordic_dave

    June 25, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Thanks Morgan!
    I think of you as an example and a good one at that.
    Your former SVSEF teamate Alexa has chosen a different path.
    You’re both great role models for kids who look up to though.
    I can easily see that once your quest in skiing has been completed that you will be a very successful person in other future endeavors. Personally, I looked at Rodney’s comment as making broad societal steroetypes of people and the way it should be according to him , i.e. MUST GO TO COLLEGE AT 18/19 is just plain WRONG! Somewhat of an irony to all the altruisms he also got preachy about.
    Morgan and Alexa are pursuing their dreams and aspirations according to how they see it, PERFECT!

  • Espen

    June 25, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    In the interest of “objectivity”, it would be interesting to take a look at the difference between the FIS points average noted on the graphs, and the athletes standing on the final points lists for the given year. It would also be interesting to also add in the other athletes dropped from USST this season into the journalistic analysis, and take a look at their standing on the final FIS points list.

    Example: in one case, a post college athlete, who is in a well noted year around training program, showed significant improvement in FIS points, and was dropped from the B Team. In two other cases, athletes who were retained by USST, had a reverse trend in FIS points, per the final list ’09 as compared to ’08. The FIS points list is internationally accepted as a measure of performance. How is this consistent with the USST selection criteria based on international level improvement?

  • patrickkidd

    June 25, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Great article Nat. They had kick wax or no kick wax, and this is the topic of our generation.

    Morgan on Rodney: Some people should to listen to Rodney, and if you don’t then you know why you don’t all on your own. More importantly, he’s getting at a point that is important for all of us to keep in the back of our minds when problem-solving those “Aim-High” goals. “The glory of the amateur” – I couldn’t put it any better.

    Steven Phillips: Eu-friggin-reka! Also, it’s an out-of-date idea that postponing college will make it even harder to get back in down the road. The new mantra goes “30 is the new 20.” Further, one of the biggest problems we have in the US is that everyone knows that there’s a bigger future in college and career than in becoming a pro skier, and becoming a pro skier just isn’t cool! Which is the opposite of our European counterparts. No wonder skiers quit after college.

    Espen: All good points I’d like to see on the table as well.

    Digression warning…

    This topic of developing fundamentals at younger ages in the US is intriguing. It’s easy to get stuck thinking about the physiological metric that is suggested with comments like “you should be training 600 hours by the age of 18” and forget about the psychological athletic maturity that is developed during this 1400-1800 hour period.

    It seems like “growing” young skiers that have an unquestionably strong base on the fundamentals of living the life of a training athlete would obviously have to happen pre-college, but that college programs are the closest thing we have here to continue that development for all the reasons above. As stated, the model isn’t perfect but it seems like the last chance in the pipeline that athletes would get to develop before they’re slammed with the burden of being labeled a professional.

    When you’ve spent 3-4 years at 9hrs/wk in high school (boys: just wanting to hook up with the chicks, girls: just wanting to ski around with friends in custom sports bras) and then get slammed with long-term decisions about olympic development, you miss that whole “serious play” phase. That’s the phase where they take their athletic aspirations seriously but also without the pressure of needing to produce something to show for it right away.

    I’ll use APU as an example here. While there are quite a few things that wig me out about APUNSC (they’re a workaholic cliquy black box social enigma even in Anchorage), I have to mention that they are doing a hell of a job as a comprehensive junior program for middle school to sub-elite athletes. Charlie, Holly, and Dylan stress a well-rounded attitude that encourages those kids to become mature adult athletes. This is something inspiring that I haven’t seen since the Harry Johnson days (see FS article about Kikkan’s High school coach).

    I know a ton of collegiate (or USST) skiers that quit skiing competitively early because they’d missed that whole stage of athletic development. Some of these people were junior national champions that found no life in college skiing. They got to college at 18 or 19 where things were finally serious but maybe didn’t have the athletic maturity to withstand the workload and mentality.

  • davord

    June 26, 2009 at 12:42 am

    This is ‘almost’ as fun as political debates. Should tax more or tax less, lol. Whichever way you look at it, these discussions are quite entertaining. Anyway, I tend to look at school first, because you never know how far sports can take you (injury, lack of motivation, etc) then sports. But as some people have mentioned, everybody is different, and we all have different needs and wants. It is how well you want to deal with those needs and wants, make plans and how you strive to be a top notch skier or top notch lawyer, doctor, school teacher, rapper, truck driver, etc. I agree with morgan’s comment, lets not generalize and attack people whether they chose skiing first or education or both, because people that start attacking are usually the ones that are jealous of others achievements or are ‘has beens’ or wannabe’s who don’t know what to do with themselves on a day to day basis. Let the skiers ski and stop the bickering. If you want to be good at something, you better commit to it. Isn’t that what life is all about anyways, challenges?

  • Mike Trecker

    June 26, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Well rounded or specialist? Hmmm, as far as Rodney and Morgan’s takes. This is an ongoing debate in and of itself. Let’s remember many of the “well rounded” are a “Jack of all trades and master of none”. I just heard a story on NPR about a company that had to train new employees to be welders instead of hiring welders with experience. The pressure in America is to go to college instead of vocational trade work, and now how many young people with Bachelors or Masters degrees and debt can’t get a good job?

    That’s the thing about living in America, we have the freedom to make our own choices, and that goes for young people also. But we need to remember that we alone are responsible for those choices, not our parents, coaches or mentors but us, and when we’re done, there’s no excuses. That’s why I like to put the pressure back on the kids for performance. They need to feel that weight of responsibility, pick up the ball and execute, otherwise accept the failure. Make educated decisions and live with them. Whatever direction, whatever you decide, you gotta own it.

    Morgan, rock on

  • Tim Kelley

    June 26, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Back in the 70’s I remember hearing Swedish National Team skiers Thomas Magnusson and Tommy Limby (when they were in the US for some late season races) talk about their national team selection. If they were invited to join the national team and they accepted, they signed a contract and had something like 3 years to win a World Cup race and 5 years to medal in the Worlds or Olympics. If the time past and they didn’t obtain these performance metrics – they were encouraged to keep racing if they wanted. But they wouldn’t be supported by the Swedish National Team. Seems like the Swedes had a simple, fair, quantifiable and goal oriented national team selection process 30 years ago. It’s good to see the USST finally moving in this direction.

  • Martin Hall

    June 26, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Hello All–I’ve gone thru all this back in the 70s with the US program—so, I know the outcomes for the college guys and the ski team people in the years after the team and college and essentially they all come out winners. These are highly motivated, self directed individuals—this sport seems to attract these kinds of people and they are goood at making the right choice for themselves. Remember, making the national team is quite a chore when you think of the thousands of Bill Kocher age bracket skiers there are when they begin this long trip. The pyramid is very steep, especially at the end—simply it is survival of the fittest—that, being, taking into account all the variables that are in the equation for success at the international level. Oh, one last thing about the guys who go the ski route first—they do not turn out to be ski bums—has any one checked on Nina and Carl to see what they have become. I know the histories of one hell of a lot of national team skiers, since I was in this ball game for better then 20 years, and across the board they are doing very well.
    The colleges are there to take everyones money no matter what their age is, and you can go thru college however you want to.
    I commend Pete and his staff for being transparent with there new direction, as it will help make it easier for the skiers to make their decision on what direction to take and very clearly know what they have to do.
    Now lets get back to who should do what! There have to be certain signals that have to start to pop up if you are going to put school off and try to get into one of the programs that will support your continued development. There are programed international hours you must be doing (these are known), you need to be at the top of the junior competition system (by 16-17 yrs), you should be being selected for international trips—easy to ID these—but doing them is another thing. Right now we are not producing enough of these people—especially when it comes to the international levels of training necessary. I always shudder when I see the statements that we are not training hard enough—when it really is, we are not training enough hours—-and especially early enough. Pure and simple we do not have enough skier doing international hours as younger juniors and once you get behind it hard to get caught up. It is easier early then it is to try and catch up later (almost proven to be impossible).
    The other thing that stands out in my mind is that the pressure or the big change I’ve seen in the last decade is that younger skiers who are being told to keep doing mutliple sports–when they are 15-17 yrs of age are on the path to making this a harder goal to reach again. For example, 10 years ago, roller skiing in May was not deemed as a must do–it is now. Same thing for intensities—not necessary until late July or early August–get ready to hurt in May. It almost dictates specialization. If you are doing another sport, you had better be supplementing it with some xc ski training. These other sports may help you athletically but they are de-training you for xc skiing.
    Anyone who chooses this sport has chosen the toughest of the endurance/sprinting sports to do—oops! here come all the arguments that this sport is tougher or this one is—well, they aren’t. Here is how we’ll decide this—you pick the sport and their top athlete and put them up against skiing’s best skier in lets say a 20 or 30 km ski—you choose the technique. Competition is done—-now the skier will go take this person on in their sport—-for the same time frame. Competition done—who is the winner? Anyway, xc ski racing is the toughest and in dealing with all the variables it doesn’t take much to get you outside the equation.
    For those who choose the college route, I think they know the game they are playing. There are no, or not enough models to say this is a viable way and that you are now on a really slippery slope.
    Schools have their requirements that you have to meet to be there and stay there, so, what is wrong with the USST having it’s requirements that you have to meet if you want to play in their ball park.
    This is professional sport—if you think these athletes are one tracked—then you are not reading enough of their blogs. They are leading the type of lives they have choosen—-it is one hell of a lot of work—but listen to them talk about it—such enthusiam, excitement for their training, racing and experiences —you can tell they love what they are doing—-we just need a lot more of them doing it!!

  • EricStrabel

    June 26, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    “Jack of all trades and master of none” That would be a good description of my experience.

    At age 19, finishing my freshman year in college, Miles Minson informed me that I had met the criteria to be on the National Development Group. By that time I had 3-4 years of what Patrickkidd called “serious play”. I was very focused, I believed that I trained more and harder than at least my regional peers, and I wanted to be wherever I could develop the best.

    As a requirement to be on the NTG, I would have to pack my bags and move to Park City. I declined the offer for two reasons. First, living in Alaska had never been a detriment to my development before, and second, I was sold on the idea that the NCAA system would not compromise, and perhaps even enhance, further development.

    It took many years, but my second assumption proved wrong in my case. Not only could I not train nearly as much as a full-time trainer, but the quality of my education was compromised as well. After college I was not skiing much faster than when I had entered and I came out with regrets that I couldn’t take full advantage of the academics.

    I have to think that the ideal order of things after high school, for the aspiring world class skier, is to train full-time while taking a light course load near the best training facilities. If the skiing doesn’t pan out or once the athlete finishes an illustrious career, the student can commit 100% to getting the best education possible wherever they want (not just the schools with ski teams). This is exactly what very successful foreign NCAA skiers do. After developing several years further than American 18 year olds, they can stay in shape with 500 hrs per year, win NCAA titles, and are able to study very hard.

    I understand the “glory of the amateur”. It is very personally rewarding and I strove for it for years. But until FIS accepts this concept, it will never compare to the results of full-time specialists and shouldn’t hold water with USST policy (which is the topic of this article).

    All professions are competitive. If one wants to be the best in theirs, they will have to work harder than anyone else IN THAT PROFESSION. If the debate is how committed older juniors and young seniors need to be to the sport to be internationally competitive, then there is no debate – simply more committed than those internationally. How much room is there for college courses, jobs, video games, and others before it takes away from all that is required to develop at world class rates? Not much. Alex Harvey takes one class per semester. Kikkan Randall takes about the same.

    It has been said at least twice by others that the college system is the best model we currently have. This is not true. Someday, it could be, if some NCAA rules were changed. At the very least, NCAA coaches should be allowed to coach more than half the year and athletes should have a reduced “full-time” course load. Nevertheless, we now have very strong clubs that can support world class development. APUNSC, SVSEF, CXC have all that is necessary to guide uncompromised development. One of these clubs supported a World Championship Silver medalist.

    Moreover, for the high school graduate looking to be the best skier they can be, there is no reason not to defer FULL-TIME college enrollment and make a academic or athletic decision a couple of years later. This document sheds some light on what is possible while keeping college skiing in your back pocket:

    Finally, the simple answer that we are all searching for will involve getting our young skiers training better than others’. That is what we try to do everyday in our “workaholic cliquy black box social enigma”.

  • Tim Kelley

    June 27, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Eric – you make some good points about deferring education until a skier’s potential is determined. And you are correct, IMO, that entering college a few years later and being more mature and focused makes time spent in college more worthwhile.

    But a factor young skiers and their families should consider, again in my opinion, is whether they can afford to delay education. For some people it is a killer deal to get a full-ride skiing scholarship at a university. For some families that is the only way their kids can afford to go to college. Yes, it is not a perfect environment for developing skiers or for learning. But nothing is perfect in this world.

    Too often it seems that young skiers can’t avoid the trap of drifting through a long career of being good, but not really good, and get to their 30’s and have to start from, or close to, ground zero. Their chances of getting a scholarship in their 30’s is much less or nil. And if a skier, that passed on a scholarship in his or her teens, doesn’t have enough means to pay for an education in their 30’s … their options get much more limited.

    Another thing that doesn’t seem to be discussed here is that often an undergraduate degree is only part of the education one needs if they want to have a good life. After college there is often the need for post-graduate, professional or specialist training for many lines of work. This all costs money, lots of money. If you have to add this cost on top of the college education you could have gotten free – the costs can be too much.

    Bottom line: There can be a huge opportunity cost for skiers saying “No” to school if a scholarship is offered. A $100,000 dollar 4 year scholarship for an 18 year old might work its way up to a $200,000 cost should the retired skier want to pay for the same education when they are in their 30s. Saying “No” to college, to ski race instead, has a $200,000 cost in this example. Young skiers and their families need to think long-term, and think about life after elite ski racing. What’s best for the USST and elite clubs today (total commitment w/o full-time school), may not always be the best choice for the quality of skiers’ lives later on.

  • EricStrabel

    June 27, 2009 at 7:14 pm


    The students can delay full-time college education without any adverse consequences or marketability for athletic scholarship. As long as the athlete doesn’t enroll full-time, does not represent an NCAA institution, and does not receive money beyond actual and necessary expenses, the athlete’s 5-Year clock for Division I does not start until after his or her 21st birthday. The athlete may even profit financially for two years after high school graduation and still have 10 semesters left of competition for Division II.

    Obviously, the athlete couldn’t earn a scholarship in their 30’s. However, the 2-3 years of delaying full-time enrollment will be invaluable to the athlete. After this period, the athlete should be much more prepared for a world class ski career. Or, if they prefer to turn towards the NCAA, will be offered more scholarship from more colleges because they are simply that much better. As Pete said weeks ago, an athlete delaying full-time enrollment for a couple of years is a win-win.

  • adam st.pierre

    June 27, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    I don’t think anyone is advocating for all juniors to opt to postpone college, especially not till their 30s. As Marty said, the choice is primarily for the top juniors (who should already have been identified based on results and Jr and Sr Nationals, selection to elite camps and trips). If after 2-3 years of full time training, a skier is unable to compete at the international level he/she should then be able to at least compete for a scholarship to continue training and racing at the NCAA level.

    I’d like to see some statistics (maybe our intrepid author could find them):
    1) how many NCAA ski programs are there?
    2) how many programs offer athletic scholarships for skiing?
    3) how many of those scholarships are held by American skiers?

    I do believe that college skiing is a great place to develop as an athlete, and that some athletes can flourish in the college environment. To be a great ski racer, one has to have in unbelievable amount of intrinsic motivation. I am frequently reminded of something I heard at a USST presentation at Dartmouth College some years back, I think it was Matt Whitcomb. He said (I paraphrase somewhat, but was intrigued by this statement enough to write it down):

    Not every college program is world class, but any program has the chance to be world class, it depends on the athlete.

    This is a great discussion, but we all have to remember that every athlete is different and each must do what is best for himself/herself. For some this will be college right after high school, for others a few years of full-time training then college, and for a few others full-time training then international success.

  • patrickkidd

    June 28, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    USA 2 BRA 0 at the half.

  • joeconn4

    June 28, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    In response to Adam’s questions…

    1) There are approximately 30 active NCAA ski programs in the EISA, CCSA and RMISA. A lot more schools check off the Skiing box on the NCAA sports sponsorship form, some race in the USCSA, but in terms of what it seems that we’re talking about in this discussion, consider 30 the number.

    2) As for athletic scholarships, the limit is 7.0 for women and 6.3 for men for DI schools and 6.3 for both genders for DII schools. This is Nordic and Alpine combined. For the CCSA schools, obviously all available scholarships that a school chooses to offer will go to Nordic skiers but in the EISA and RMISA I am not aware of any schools who give athletic scholarships for skiing who don’t split between Alpine and Nordic. There may be some, I’m just not aware of any. Also, keep in mind that certain schools may be able to give scholarships under NCAA regs, but their conference affiliation may not allow athletic scholarships (Ivy League comes to mind). In the EISA I believe only UVM and UNH award athletic scholarships in Skiing. That doesn’t mean skiers at other colleges don’t get scholarships, just that they’re not considered athletic scholarships. Big picture, nationwide the ratio of academic + civic scholarships money to athletic scholarships money is 16 to 1.

  • Tim Kelley

    June 28, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Eric, I agree, mostly. Delaying school for 2-3 years can be a win-win situation – if the skier has potential. If the skier doesn’t have potential, and can’t get to USST or ski-scholarship level, it is more a win situation for the elite ski program via the revenues that come in from the skier’s family. Families of such kids would save money by not paying 2-3 years of elite ski club costs and using that money for full-time tuition.

    To be more succinct regarding my previous post – my point is that quite often it seems that US skiers that aren’t scoring WC points don’t know when to pull the plug on full-time ski racing and get a life. And they often pay for it if they drift in that mode into their late 20’s and 30’s … and then have to start from ground zero without much education or work experience. You and I know plenty of folks like this. It’s a dumb thing to do to your life, especially in the new-world economy we have today. And you would think it would happen a lot less. Who’s fault is it? The athlete’s? Ski programs and teams that support and enable mediocrity to perpetuate? It’s probably a combination of both.

  • patrickkidd

    June 29, 2009 at 1:16 am

    Tim, since you like recalling skiing in the seventies, this might be a good topic to throw in your comment on my blog about how you used to ski because costs were paid for you. How did that work? Am I off base?

  • skier1

    July 12, 2009 at 4:16 am

    One of the most important aspects of young adulthood is to make one’s own decisions and define one’s life by one’s own values. That people be supported to find their own way is more important that what way they choose. People should not be pressured to go to college or to forgo college. People should not be pressured or told what decisions to make about their lives.

  • Jamey Holstein

    July 12, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    College now or later? Does not matter as, if one is a real genetic freak and capable of consistant top-20’s in WC, that talent will shine through after a few years of top-end training. If you got the talent, are a gentic freak, you can go to school at least part time and still do the training and traveling needed.

    If you are not capable of at least 3 top 30 WC placings a year by say age 26 (given 3 seasons of starts), you will never make it and should finish college or win the lottery (or both).

    P.S. Tim Kelley is a good example of why you should NOT ski race and go to college (and Ivy at that) …the guy clearly has frozen too many brain cells skiing where nobody else would dare to.

    Real issue if getting more kids to ski race … NOT just the ststus quo of moslty affluent white people. Let USSA do what it is getting money for … grow our sport at the grass roots as a non-profit should, and let ski racing community and the free market take care of the USST and running professional ski racing at the highest level.

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