As a freshman at the University of Anchorage, Amy Glen skied to a fourth place finish in the skate sprint at the 2009 U.S. National Championships. She only raced two other sprint races that whole winter: one at the World Junior Championships, and the other at a local race series in Alaska.
Her story is a common one at the college level—with most programs focused on the distance races that will qualify their racers for the NCAA championships, athletes have little time to dedicate to sprint racing.
Of the three NCAA skiing conferences—the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA); the Central Collegiate Ski Association (CCSA); and the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA)—only the EISA has a sprint event on its race calendar. There is no sprint at the NCAA Championships.
Two years ago, University of New Hampshire Coach Cory Schwartz brought a proposal to the NCAA skiing committee to bring sprinting to the collegiate championships once every other year. That proposal failed, and despite the discipline’s growth both domestically and internationally, Schwartz says that there hasn’t been a change in attitude among college coaches.
“I’m sort of spinning in the snow,” he said.
Embracing the sprint?
According to U.S. Sprint Coach Chris Grover, while some of the best domestic sprinters are currently attending or have graduated from college, NCAA skiers are not getting enough opportunities to focus on sprinting.
“I would love to see the NCAA skiing community embrace the sprint,” Grover said. “As long as we don’t, we’re going to be missing that key age group in terms of the development of sprint athletes.”
Right now, he continued, most of the country’s juniors and U-23 competitors aren’t getting enough experience in the event.
“Two or three chances a year is not giving you a chance to come back next year and do something better,” he said.
University of Utah Head Nordic Coach Eli Brown said that for college skiing, sprinting is a natural fit because the athletes are busy, and can still excel at sprinting on slightly less training. And, given the growth of the discipline at the elite level, he said, it makes sense.
“There are things that we can do as college coaches and programs to better develop athletes, and one of them is make our events fit what’s happening on the world scene,” Brown said.
Schwartz said that when he presented his proposal at the NCAA skiing committee meeting, none of the three conferences supported it.
One major obstacle to adding a sprint to the NCAA championships is that in order to do so, it would most likely have to drop one of the two distance races that currently make up the event, in order to preserve the balance between alpine and nordic.
In conversations with Schwartz, Joe Haggenmiller, and Bruce Cranmer, who were representatives at the NCAA committee meeting from the EISA, CCSA, and RMISA, respectively, the coaches cited a number of other hurdles to incorporating sprinting into college competition, including team scoring, venues, and recruiting.
“At the NCAA championships, the team race is a really big factor,” said Haggenmiller, who is the head coach of the Michigan Tech University nordic ski team.
“Sprint racing can be quite a bit more unpredictable than individual starts, or even a 20 and 15k mass start,” he said. “Those events [the 20 and 15 k’s] are not going to have some really fluky results—you’re not going to have someone who’s won every race of the season break a pole and be out in 30th place.”
As for venues, Hagenmiller continued, NCAA championships are already limited to locations with both good alpine and nordic areas. If the nordic site required a good sprint course in addition to a distance course, that would further restrict the number of options.
Schwartz said that one other problem was that some colleges with limited scholarships might not want to use one for an athlete who could only be competitive in sprint races.
As opposed to the NCAA championships, the individual ski conferences could more easily incorporate a sprint race into their existing race calendars, since each one has five or six race weekends.
However, Cranmer said that since sprints at a regional meets wouldn’t count towards NCAA qualification unless the event was introduced at the NCAA championships, schools would be reluctant to travel to competitions where there was only one NCAA qualifying race.
“When schools are spending a lot of money, they want the best opportunities to qualify,” he said. “Right now we’re kind of pressed as far as budgets are concerned—we’re just hanging on.”
Cranmer said that he thinks coaches are open to the idea of scheduling more sprint races, but right now, “it’s not a priority.”
Brown said that those financial problems are exactly the reason that collegiate skiing should consider introducing more sprint events.
“With [University of] Nevada on the rocks, with Western State [College] getting cut last year, we’re going to be forced pretty soon here to have to be more creative,” he said. “I think sprinting is going to be one of the things that’s going to help us out.”
According to Brown, the problems of venues, team scoring, and race format are smaller issues that could be worked out by coaches and the NCAA skiing committee.
In fact, he added, sprinting actually opens up new venues, at alpine areas, which in turn creates opportunities for more programs.
“I think college skiing does have to be about fitting into the pipeline, so that we can develop athletes,” Brown said. “Therefore we need to be progressive and look at different events, and in my book sprinting fits really well.”
Schwartz said that the excitement of sprint racing would attract more fans to the sport, and that the growing importance of the discipline on the national and international level is another reason to consider adding more events.
Sprinting probably shouldn’t be an NCAA championships event every year, Schwartz added, but including it even once every three or four years would allow collegiate skiers to get more experience and improve.
Hagenmiller said that most regions already have opportunities for athletes who are interested in the discipline. He cited U.S. National Championships, Junior Olympic Qualifying Races, and the SuperTour as places where collegiate athletes could get experience.
But Mike Hinckley, who graduated from Denver University last year and placed second in the sprint at U.S. Nationals in Anchorage, said that he had only been able to enter two or three sprint races each year.
“Maybe one or two of those was against national people who were actually focused on sprinting,” he said.
Glen, fourth at the U.S. National Championships last year, said that she also was not getting enough opportunities.
“It’s definitely hard on kids who have sprinting talent…to do college skiing, especially in the west, because they don’t have any races,” she said. “It’s hard to get experience when you’re just doing those 15ks.”
Nonetheless, Glen said that she still tries to train specifically for sprinting, and that her coaches have been supportive of her preference.
Next year, Glen will be skiing for the University of Vermont in the EISA, where, she said, it will be good to have “just that one sprint.”
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.