The IOC hasn’t yet decided on a location for the 2018 Winter Olympics. But it’s safe to say that the road to those Games travels through Slovenia, at least for some of America’s cross country skiers.
Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the National Cross Country Ski Education Foundation (NCCSEF), and more funding from the U.S. Ski Team, a group of 15 athletes has set up shop in the resort town of Rogla. There, the skiers are contesting this weekend’s OPA Cup Finals—skiing’s equivalent of a minor league World Series.
It’s the first time in recent memory that such a large contingent has traveled to race on the circuit overseas, and officials back home are hoping that the opportunity to mix it up with the Europeans will help make the Americans more competitive at an earlier age.
“If someone is in the pipeline, and they want to be a part of the future of the sport…they need to get some European experience,” said John Farra, who directs the cross country program at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). “That’s the right model.”
USSA has funded small OPA Cup trips in the past, and another was planned for this year. But with the economic crisis hitting the organization hard, Farra said that the U.S. Ski Team (an arm of USSA) only had money in its budget for one coach, one wax tech, and two athletes—albeit with a few more spaces on the trip for skiers who could pay their own way.
That was when NCCSEF stepped in. Created in 1995 by junior coaches Reid Lutter and Rick Kapala, the foundation has given travel grants to developing skiers since 1997—including, for example, one that helped future Olympian Kris Freeman attend his first World Junior Championships in 1998.
For the OPA Cup trip, their $10,000 contribution went towards bringing additional coaches, as well helping to pay for lodging and vans for other, non USSA-funded athletes who wanted to go. While these skiers still had to pay their way to get to Europe, Farra said the NCCSEF funding reduced total trip costs by $400 to $500 per athlete.
In addition to his role at USSA, Farra is also on the board of NCCSEF, and he said that the two groups had been in discussions since the summer about finding a way to send a bigger OPA Cup trip.
“In the past, a couple of stragglers have kind of tagged along [on the U.S. Ski Team OPA trip],” Farra said. “This year, the concept was, ‘we need a trip.’”
NCCSEF’s funding for the additional coaches allowed administrators to open the trip up to a much larger number of athletes than previously planned. There were no selection criteria—anyone who wanted to go could go.
In order to make the trip more inviting, USSA didn’t schedule any big domestic races in early March. Basically, Farra said, the message for developing skiers was that “if you’re not in the Junior Olympics and you’re not in NCAA’s, then you’ve got to be doing OPA.”
The group started with two races last weekend in La Feclaz, France, and finishes with three more in Slovenia. The competition on the OPA Cup is fierce, including a number of athletes with World Cup experience—and that’s exactly what the American coaches want to see.
“This group is looking for…experience outside of their comfort zones, knocking heads with some of the best developing racers in Europe,” said Matt Whitcomb, a U.S. Ski team coach on the trip, in an interview from La Feclaz.
Along with deep fields, Whitcomb said that the OPA Cup races also offer good opportunities for the Americans to improve their FIS points, which should trickle back down into the U.S. once the group returns home.
Indeed, the athletes on the trip have been popping solid points races left and right: Brian Gregg, Mike Sinnott, and Peter Kling all have posted career-bests on the trip.
And for athletes who will be spending most of their winters competing outside the United States if they ever become World Cup regulars, even the simple (or sometimes not-so-simple) experience of traveling and dealing with logistics should help them down the road.
While NCCSEF was almost defunct last year, chair Dave Knoop said that a new board and some big donations from key donors this year have given it new life. This year, the foundation also helped fund the U.S. teams at the U-23/World Junior and J-1 Scandinavian Championships, as well as the OPA Cup trip.
The hope, Knoop said, is ultimately for NCCSEF to be able to provide even more money for those trips, as well as for other initiatives—even helping athletes travel to Junior Nationals, for example. With a handful of generous donors—and a large bequest from a master skier who recently passed away—the foundation has some lofty goals for the future.
While NCCSEF isn’t capable of funding deeper down into the pipeline right now, Knoop says that “it’s a vision.”
“It will take a little bit more time and momentum to be able to hand out enough scholarships, if you will, to make a difference,” he said. “There’s certainly a greater picture that can be achieved.”
For athletes’ perspectives on the trip, check out the numerous blog posts to the left of the main column and in our XCFeeds section, as well as this post from TeamToday.org. To learn more about NCCSEF, visit their web site.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.