Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by XC Oregon and was not written by FasterSkier.
With a third Olympic cycle in the books, the XC Oregon elite development program based in Bend, Oregon is already starting to look ahead towards the next four years. Currently highlighted by elite athletes such as Evelyn Dong, Kristina Strandberg, Marshall Greene, and Brayton Osgood — XC Oregon maintains a diverse roster of nearly 20 athletes. XC Oregon’s all-everything (Founder, Coach, Director, Fundraiser, etc.) J.D. Downing is optimistic for continued success for one of the longest-running elite programs in North American ski history.
Here is Q & A with J.D. Downing looking at the past, present, and future of XC Oregon.
XC Oregon has been around since 1998 and is still going strong after 12 years when so many other similar programs have fizzled out in a fraction of that time over the last 30 years or so. Why has this program not only survived — but thrived — when others could not?
J.D. Downing: Well, for sure the first 6-7 years when I was volunteering my time and we were scraping by on a total budget of a couple grand a year it was a combination of me simply being too stubborn or too foolish to quit, incredible patience on the part of my family, and the program being flat out lucky to still attract quality skiers and people despite having next to no support dollars.
Since then our support base and roster depth has grown significantly, but our philosophy hasn’t really changed. So probably in the last couple Olympic cycles the biggest reasons we’ve continued to succeed are that we’ve been able to get skiers that are the right fit for how we do things and we just don’t try to be something we aren’t.
When people ask you “what is XC Oregon”, what do you tell them?
J.D. Downing: We are a non-profit 501c3, elite development program for adult cross-country skiers. Originally I set an age window of 18-35 years, but we’ve been around long enough that window has been adapted to fit emerging trends both on both ends of that range. Now I’d say our core demographic on the roster is more like 20-40 years plus we do a growing amount of work with masters up the age ladder. Most of our top athletes have been post-collegiate skiers, but we’ve also had a lot of amazing success stories with athletes that were still working on academic degrees as well as athletes that were well past college when they sought out our help to become faster skiers.
What makes us unique compared to most other elite teams is that on our annual roster we’ll have skiers that can ramble with the best in the nation right along with skiers that are still working towards being really good at a regional level. So there is a super wide ability range and that’s something I value highly.
With all our athletes, the annual goal is simple. Do whatever we can to help support and nurture elite development at the international, national, and/or regional level. With our national/international group we provide a substantial amount of financial support to help with training, travel and racing expenses. All this on top of basic team operations, sports science support, etc.. With our associate athletes the support is typically more basic with coaching and logistical support being the biggest assets to those skiers.
Regardless of the racing standard, one rule has always been consistent within our structure and that is that none of our athletes pay to be a part of the program. Instead, we require all our athletes to annually give back to the community in a wide variety of ways.
Along with our very inclusive roster design, we also work very hard to build long-term relationships with a nationwide family of patrons, (primarily) Oregon corporate partners, and a wide variety of organizations throughout the state of Oregon. We are very proud of how strong our relationship is with our support base. It really is a family.
It was written up on-line this past fall in an interview with Brayton Osgood that XC Oregon tends to fly a bit under the radar nationally compared to programs like APU and CXC, is that intentional?
J.D. Downing: It’s not so much intentional as just a function of how we operate. For one thing, I don’t travel with our athletes very often at all. Ironically those first 6-7 years when I was a volunteer I traveled to all the usual stuff — Nationals, SuperTour-type events, etc. — but these days it’s rare. There are many reasons why, but mainly it comes down to simple economics in terms of stretching our support dollars as far as possible while also meeting the needs of the athletes.
In addition, we have a long-standing policy of letting our athletes let their industry affiliations (ski companies, etc.) take center stage when the athletes are outside Oregon. Our local/regional sponsors absolutely still benefit when someone like Evelyn Dong wins the 2010 Boulder Mountain Tour. But we have figured out a way to let the industry have their due while also balancing our program needs closer to home.
I’m sure at times having a lower profile means we miss out on a few athletes that would otherwise consider XC Oregon. But I’ve always operated things under the principle that skiers that are the right fit for how we do things have always find a way to find us.
How do you feel you stack up against the other elite development programs in terms of what you can offer athletes?
J.D. Downing: I hate to compare programs because I’ve been saying since we got rolling in ’98 that what we absolutely need in this country is a whole lot of XC Oregon’s spaced around the country. There are a ton of “right” ways to help athletes succeed so I don’t have time or patience for deciding if one program is more right than another. Just let the athletes decide where they feel happy and be content with who is coming your way is I prefer to look at it.
I got things going just about the same time Jim Galanes was beginning Gold 2002 (which later became APU) and I never for a second felt I ever “competed” with Jim in those days anymore than I feel XC Oregon competes with all the elite programs across the country today. I’m just happy to see all these opportunities for athletes.
Now in terms of just what we can do for athletes, if we haven’t proven we can do the job the right way in 12 years of blood, sweat, and tears — well, I guess people aren’t ever going to be convinced. When you talk about the post-collegiate demographic, I’m pretty sure I’ve become the old man of the sea which is hilarious since I’m barely in my mid-40s. So we have the experience. We have the track record. Folks can see all the amazing strengths of our home on our website (www.xcoregon.org). There is a reason the only gold medalist in North American XC ski history loved living in Bend along with dozens of other Olympians and World Cup skiers over the years. Make no mistake — we’ve got the goods to produce great skiers as well as happy people.
We also have been able to be very strong of late in providing tangible financial support for athletes which is even more of a necessity in today’s world than perhaps any time in the past 40 years. I’ll say that I’m pretty good at getting blood from a stone when it comes to stretching small budgets and our general design prioritizes helping athletes above all else so that is a proven strength.
Really what it boils down to is whether a given athlete wants to live in Bend, Oregon — is going to thrive in our type of organizational structure — and can put the life pieces together to make skiing at the level they are shooting for work over time. We’ve had a ton of athletes that put all those pieces in place and their progress with us was everything that they could have gotten with a similar program anywhere in the world. So we are very, very confident in what we can do for any level of athlete.
Where do you see things going in the next few years for XC Oregon?
J.D. Downing : I’m happy to say that XC Oregon is on track to carry not only tangible resources into the next Olympic cycle — but also continued support from many sources. With so many non-profits struggling to survive, I think we are very fortunate to be in at least a pretty good position for the immediate future.
With the roster I anticipate we’ll have a natural amount of “moving on in life” amongst some of our national/international group and that creates the opportunity to add several new athletes at our highest level of support in 2010/2011. I recently updated some things on our website to reflect our status circa Winter 2010 and we’ll continue to update information as we go into the Spring. So this is the perfect time for interested athletes to check us out, contact me, and begin to look at options for the future.
On a program level we are very ready to keep on trucking no matter which way the economic winds blow. Sure, the economy is going to present some challenges — but there are also opportunities. We’ve proven our model can adapt and ride out radical changes in financial support and that’s a big reason I feel fairly at ease that we can keep helping athletes succeed no matter what. Again, the key is continuing to have athletes find us that are going to be a good fit for this area, this program, this approach to elite racing. When that happens — it’s magic.
For more information about XC Oregon programs please visit www.xcoregon.org.