“Driven,” “opinionated,” and “uncompromising” are probably three of the best words to describe U.S. Ski Team (USST) coach Pete Vordenberg, but you can’t forget “thoughtful,” too.
Vordenberg, the team’s head coach from 2006 until this spring, is one of the few ski coaches out there who can claim to have authored a book. With his blend of pragmatism and passion, he sat at the helm of USST for four years, during which the program went from being on the cusp to in the mix.
While Vordenberg can’t claim full credit for the team’s successes during his tenure, he can certainly be seen as responsible for a shift in its attitude. As he puts it, World Cup podiums and World Championship medals are no longer a dream—“it’s something that we’ve done.”
The next step—the one he’d set as a goal since the start of his stint as head coach—was that elusive Olympic medal. And while the USST came into the 2010 Games with a number of legitimate chances for gold, none materialized. In April, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association announced that Vordenberg’s time was up, and that he would be replaced by Chris Grover.
Vordenberg has remained with the team in a new position, and FasterSkier caught up with him at the USST’s camp in Lake Placid last week. He talked about his time as head coach, his experience at the Games, and his new role.
FasterSkier: It was announced this spring that you were switching roles—can you tell us what your new position is going to entail?
Pete Vordenberg: The job description—it entails a lot of the same stuff, especially going into the winter. Going to a lot of World Cups still, and doing the same kind of roles there. But then, the biggest change in the winter is also going to more Continental Cup races. From Muonio [Finland], where the whole team is, I’ll probably take a crew over to Rovaniemi, while the World Cup crew goes to Sweden. And then I’ll take that Continental Cup crew to some more races over in Sweden. So, just below World Cup-type races.
FS: Is it nice to get back down to a slightly lower level?
PV: For sure. I mean, I’m psyched to be doing both—I wouldn’t want to just be doing that. For a lot of reasons—I have history on the World Cup, and with the athletes that will mostly be racing World Cup, so I wouldn’t want to just give that up. But I feel like the next developing level is something we need to—it’s a real big area of opportunity for us, so I’m excited about that.
FS: Is that something you missed when you were the head coach?
PV: I didn’t feel that I missed it at the time—that’s for sure. I was engaged in what I was doing. But looking at it now, yeah, I like that.
FS: Can you tell us how the position switch came about?
PV: Well, I guess it happens in a bunch of ways. Almost everything that we do happens like, we just talk about it, work on it amongst ourselves. So, it’s never just like one person making the decision. It’s always talked about.
For sure, from the upper end of things, the Olympics plays a big role, too—that’s a factor. And then from the staffing side of things, it’s the perfect time to have a renewed energy and a different head coach, for sure. And [newly-appointed Head Coach Chris] Grover’s just like the perfect guy for that. We still work the same way, where we just all talk and make decisions together.
FS: So, looking back on your time as head coach, you had set three big goals: fitness, continuity, and partnership. Can you tell us how you think you did?
PV: It’s a conflicted feeling about it, for sure, because those three goals were really important, but the big outcome goal was to win a medal at those Olympics. That’s something that I certainly would like to have done. So, the big outcome goal wasn’t reached, but on the other hand, the process goals—but also some of the results goals—we did meet. And we can’t just ignore those.
It’s similar when we look at those three specific goals. Fitness got unbelievably better. Continuity definitely got better. I mean, we’ve had the same wax staff for a long time—maybe not everybody, but a really good core. And the actual staff, the coaching staff, has been the same for longer than I can think about. The continuity with the programming has been pretty good. I’m pretty happy about that—over those four years we went from five guys on the World Cup team to having a World Cup team and Continental Cup team, and we saw people legitimately move from the Continental Cup Team onto the World Cup Team.
Partnership, probably, is the most conflicting one. I think that we do have better partnership, with programs and other coaches. But at the same time, maybe if I could have gone back, I would have been stricter with some of our programs, and not had quite as big a structure that an athlete could fit into, and still be on the team. I think in some ways we did a disservice to some athletes, in that maybe we could have pushed harder with them, and maybe pushed them along better. It’s hard to say—we’ll see. But I’m happy that we do have more partners than we used to have, and the feeling in the community is still pretty good. It’s better than it was four years ago. And those partners—I think especially with the economy, we have to rely on them even more than we have in the past. This summer, we’ve tried to get a lot more feedback from everybody—probably more than I had in the past.
FS: What do you mean by that?
PV: At each of the regional elite group camps, we talked to the regional leaders, or at least the coaches who were at those camps, and we were like, ‘well, what can the Ski Team do better for you guys? What kind of direction should we take?’ This is especially with regard to development. So, we’ve been trying to get the feedback together, and make it into something. Which is why, other than the winter, my job description is a little bit vague, still, because we’ve got to see: What will my role really become? And that’ll depend on what the regions want to see us do, and then also what we feel will be successful.
FS: So do you see partnership as Grover’s biggest challenge? If not, what is?
PV: His biggest challenge—I don’t know. I think we face a lot of the same challenges. We have a large number of young skiers, but we don’t have a large-enough number of young skiers training and developing along a path we think will lead to success. So, a big part of our challenge—not just Grover, but just our challenge in general—as a ski country, is just to motivate more people to do the right things. I think the information is out there, but motivating people to utilize that—to use us, and stuff—maybe that’s our biggest challenge.
FS: You mean, just, engagement?
I think so. Especially with [new U.S. Ski Team coach Bryan] Fish, who’s this ultra-motivated, organized, engineer-ski coach kind of guy, we’re revamping our education system, and building it in a better way. But we still have to get people to do it. And it’s kind of frustrating, because when we had the national coach’s conference here [in 2005 in Lake Placid], we asked, ‘what do you guys want from us?’ And almost everybody said, ‘coach’s ed.’ And I think we have like 80 level 100 coaches, or something like that. It’s not that many. We have to motivate better.
FS: Is it a question of reaching more coaches, or reaching the athletes directly?
PV: I think ultimately, we have to reach the athletes, and they’ll demand from their coaches what they think they need. And I’d like to motivate the athletes, primarily—they’re the ones that do the actual work.
FS: So, you had those three goals—those aren’t really as quantifiable. You already touched on results a bit, but looking at those, specifically—outside of the Olympics, do you see those as reflecting success?
PV: For sure, absolutely. Just World Cup points, World Cup podiums—all those things. From a historical perspective, for me, especially as an athlete—where I was, and where my generation of skiers was, and even before that, too, when I was growing up as a skier—even then, Bill Koch was history. We looked at this guy as a historical figure. When we looked at the skiers who came after Bill Koch, it was like, not even close—it was literally just a dream.
And then, with World Cup podiums, it’s not a dream. It’s something that we’ve done. The next step was the Olympic medal. Kikkan [Randall] got a World Championship medal—that’s awesome—but the Olympics is the big prize, of course.
FS: So, by that measure, you look at those results as a reflection of the fact that you did a solid job?
PV: I don’t look at anything as this or that. We made big improvements and we took great steps. So, I see those things, and I also see what’s yet to be done. Of course, the things that didn’t go well, we have to look at and say, ‘well, they didn’t go well.’ It’s not, ‘well, that’s a failure.’ It’s something that didn’t go well—what are we going to learn from that? How are we going to step forward from those things that didn’t go well?
FS: It’s an interesting question as a coach, that balance between looking at process and results as a measure of your success. Because it seems like athletes can be faced with the same type of questions—the results are the bottom line, but you can also look at what you were doing to get there, and using that as a measure.
PV: Skiing, as far as subjective and objective measures, so far, it’s been hard. Nobody’s come up with a sum or measure of how training is going, like running or swimming, where it’s just punching a clock, and it’s like, ‘there’s your answer.’ That stretches out into the whole picture of what skiing is, and how you measure these steps.
We can’t just punch a thing and say, ‘yeah, Andy Newell—he’s fast enough, and he’s strong enough to do it.’ We have to gain confidence from any kind of workout, from any kind of result. For example, it would be a terrible disservice to Kikkan Randall to say, ‘we screwed up at the Olympics.’ And Kikkan Randall says, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa—that’s my best-ever classic sprint, and you’re telling me that’s a failure?’ That’s a terrible disservice to Kikkan. But it’s also a terrible disservice to the U.S. ski community to say ‘U.S. skiing is a failure because of this Olympics.’ That destroys so much confidence, and so much that we should have confidence in and build upon. It was a huge bummer not to have the results at the Olympics that we’re capable of, but it doesn’t destroy anything else…It just shouldn’t.
FS: Looking the Olympics, the results, obviously weren’t what you wanted. But looking back at the process, do you actually have any regrets? Or do you still feel like you did everything you could?
PV: Everything you could—at the time, you feel like you did everything you could, and then looking back, it’s like, ‘oh, maybe we could have done this and that.’ But, when it comes to the Olympics, it’s more looking at each individual. As far as the program goes, I think we really felt like we did what we needed to do. We prepared well at the venue, and we really were familiar with the area. And we did prepare for media, and that sort of stuff.
But, we didn’t do well with the media, and we didn’t do well at the venue, either. I think we did have good skis, but we didn’t have the best skis. So, we did what we thought we needed to do, and were successful in many ways, but ultimately, I think, these failures on the coaching end of things, and everywhere else, with each individual, didn’t go well. I mean, Liz [Stephen] didn’t have a good season, at all. So, that’s not a program thing, that’s how we prepared Liz.
FS: Do you think that the Olympics could have been viewed as a success without winning a medal? Like, if Andy Newell had finished seventh, and Kris Freeman had finished fifth? Do you think that the expectations were at a point where it was a medal or nothing, and people couldn’t be satisfied?
PV: Well, I don’t know about people. If you talk to each individual…Andy felt like he went into the Olympics in the best shape ever. And really prepared. When he looks back, he doesn’t think he would have done anything differently. For sure, Kikkan—she had a great Olympics.
I guess I still have to look at it as each individual. Kikkan had a successful Olympics. There’s things that I, for sure, would have done differently with Andy. And I would have done differently with Torin, as well. Because he qualified second in Canmore. He didn’t lose his fitness at the Olympics. So, I would have, for sure, done some things differently. Same with Kris. But a lot of the things that I would have done differently with Kris may or may not have
had any difference, because there’s a lot of variables. I don’t want to dwell too much on that, but hopefully the things that I would have done differently, we will have learned and incorporate in the next World Championships in Oslo.
FS: It seems like you guys have a really intense focus on those World Championship and Olympic medals—do you feel like that makes your guys’ job harder, in that after those successes of getting people on the World Cup podium, it doesn’t mean as much? And in terms of the organization, you’re not getting as much credit?
PV: That’s probably true. But the failure to recognize those World Cup successes is more mine. I don’t know how Andy [Newell] looks at it, compared to me. But I look at those, and I’m already looking ahead too much, instead of being like, ‘okay, here’s a step that we made.’
I always have to remind myself, ‘okay, that was a success we just had today, and let’s look at that.’ As an athlete, I was terrible that way, too, and I’ve just been learning since then. I didn’t connect all the dots between where I was and where I wanted to be, and I was always looking too far ahead, and falling, and not being able to move forward. And I think that being able to recognize those steps and those successes is something I have to do a better job with.
As far as the organization, I mean, I think they see those World Cup results, and they recognize—I mean, [U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO] Bill Marolt, he’s been with the team long enough to know that there were a lot of years where we didn’t even come close to that. I think he sees that, too, even though he definitely wants the big picture. I guess when I say ‘he,’ I mean the organization, but he runs it.
FS: You talked about this engagement issue already, a little bit. But looking back at the Games, it seems like there was indeed some vitriol being thrown around a little bit. I know that’s something you guys have dealt with in the past—do you feel like you have settled on the right balance with the media, with websites and blogs and such, in terms of paying attention, reading comments, criticism, feedback, versus knowing when to step back and ignore that stuff?
PV: I think we all have different strategies, and some are better than others. My own is really extreme—I mean, I don’t pay attention to it. It’s a complete distraction, and I’m unable to balance it at all. I’ve never learned anything from those comments, so I just don’t do that at all. It’s not helpful to me. Maybe some other people are able to draw something constructive from it, but I’m not at all.
FS: Do you read the not-comments part? Do you read ski websites at all?
PV: Not at all. Not at all.
FS: So, do you feel like you’re missing out on anything?
PV: No, because I used to, and now I don’t, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything except for the distraction. And if anything happened when I was reading those, I would find myself trying to bend to satisfy people, and not trying to satisfy the right people. To be unpopular is not fun, but to be popular is not a goal. I need to do the right things for the right reason, and if anything, those kind of websites and comments—it would only lead me to do things for the wrong reason.
The only kind of feedback that has ever helped me is direct, so a phone call, e-mail, or whatever. Everything else has just been a distraction.
FS: And so you feel that the approach you’ve taken, where you’re asking for more direct feedback—that works well for you?
PV: No. Well, not in a public thing—like, when I ask people to e-mail me on [the website of] NCCSEF [the National Cross-Country Ski Education Foundation], I don’t hear very much, at all. But, what is great is like at the REG’s [regional camps], talking directly to people, or when it comes to a specific
athlete, talking to a coach. That really helps. But I hear very little from people that are like, ‘hey, I saw something on NCCSEF—what do you think about this?’ Most of the time, it’s just like, ‘hey, who was that in this picture?’
FS: Thinking about some of the new media, with Facebook, Twitter, etc.—is that something the Ski Team could utilize a little bit better?
PV: Oh, 100 percent. We have a Facebook site; I don’t even know if there’s Twitter. We have those things, but we don’t do a good job with them. I think that our marketing and our media department—they have their outlets, but I don’t think that those outlets are connected to our community. So, we do have to do a better job of connecting our media outlets to our community. Right now, our community is connected to you guys, and that is what it is, but for us, it’s not a success. It’s a media failure, and a communication failure on our part.
FS: Is that a priority for you guys? Something that you’re really trying to work on?
PV: It should be a priority. It’s on the list, let’s say that. But I don’t know that it can be that high on the list.
FS: Is that stuff the responsibility of the coaches? Or is it more the responsibility of your marketing department at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association?
PV: I’d love to say that it should be somebody else’s responsibility, but it’s our responsibility, for sure. If that is something we feel strongly about, we need to do it. Or we need to push our marketing department harder to do that. But, they have a humongous job as well. We’re accountable to what happens with our team.
FS: Do you feel like the U.S. Ski Team is understaffed? It seems like you guys are working harder than just about anyone.
PV: That’s hard to answer, because it would be great to have more staff. What’s hard about that question is that there’s no end to what we could potentially be doing. I think that with this-sized staff, and with the staff that we have, we can accomplish our goals. Looking more long-term—how do we maintain growth and raise our goals? Then, I don’t know. I tried to grow—I was the head coach in an environment where growth was more realistic, at least initially, so I tried to grow as much as possible.
FS: That’s another thing, in that it seems like it’s hard to create growth and build for the future when you’re in an environment that’s so sensitive to the fluctuations of the economy.
PV: I mean, who isn’t? I think that that’s what partnership, and things like NCCSEF, can support. If those partners can help create a platform underneath, that helps see the Ski Team through ups and downs. Even if we were totally rich, we would still desire their partnership and their support.
FS: I was going to ask you about NCCSEF—you’ve taken a role in helping them grow…
PV: Publicly, I’m pretty involved because I put those posts up. I wanted to bring what we’re doing to more and more people, and make them excited about it.
FS: What do you see as the next step for them? Is there anything else about your work with NCCSEF or your work with the Ski Team that you wanted to highlight? You sent me a lot of links and information when we were setting up this interview.
PV: I think I more or less said it. We’ve created a lot of information—if somebody wants to see how to take a kid that’s just starting skiing and bring them step-by-step up all the way to the national team, I think you can see basically how it’s done. We’re ready to answer questions. We’re not the be-all experts, but we have the resources to answer anything.
FS: Why aren’t there more people coming to you guys for information? It seems like there are a lot of people out there who are motivated, but they’re not knocking you’re your door.
PV: That’s a huge question in my mind. I guess we haven’t capitalized on the success that we have had. I think maybe the historical view of U.S. skiing
had been lost, a little bit, and probably the Olympics helped hurt that. People saw—their view back in time was, ‘hey, here’s these guys who have gotten on the World Cup podium,’ and so on and so forth. ‘No Olympic medals? Forget about that.’
I definitely feel like there was a hitch in the momentum. Where it felt like the momentum had been building and building, and was going pretty well—maybe it did slow down. Probably it did, and I think that that’s in large part to do with our failure to capitalize on the successes that we had, and the momentum that we were building. Somehow, we have failed to motivate—at least, failed to motivate as much as I would be happy with.
FS: A related question—one thing still that keeps coming up is that a lot of young athletes still aren’t training enough. What do you think, and what needs to happen to change that?
PV: It appears that training has stepped up, and technique is for sure better, compared to what it was. But it’s not enough—not enough people are doing it at a high level. And more objectively, I think we have more top-30 results at Junior Worlds, but we need to see more top-10s.
From our side of things, there’s a sphere we can be influential within. So we’re going to try to focus on that, and the top skiers that we do have some connection with. We need to make sure that they’re doing it. We have this National Elite Group and the National Training Group—they’ve been pretty good programs, and we’ve gotten pretty good connections with skiers and their coaches, but not good enough. Somehow, some way, that’s where I want to step in, and make that much more solid.
We’re looking at things like a junior national team, and evolving that J2 [talent identification] camp…Continuing to build down—I mean, J2 camp is something that was great on the national level, and we should continue with that, but also continue to add more J2 connections on the regional level. I think that maybe it feeds back into the website stuff—I mean, we can’t overly concern ourselves with that kind of media outreach. We need to really reach the people we can influence much more directly. And that would be reaching down even further to, like, J2 levels, and the actual coaches. That’s probably where we need to focus.
FS: You’ve been with the U.S. Ski Team for a number of years—do you see yourself continuing for a while?
PV: All along, I’m only motivated if I feel like I’m contributing, and filling a role that I have strengths to contribute towards. As long as I still feel like I’m doing that, then yeah. I’ve also got family—I need to think about how to balance that as well. But as long as I can contribute, then yes.
It’s a good question. I always ask myself, ‘well, if we won a medal, would I have been more likely to have stopped?’ Because that would have been a big goal achieved. But looking back, in 2006, when Andy did get that first podium, that was a huge goal achieved as well: a World Cup podium. And the last thing that occurred to me then was ‘ah, success, I’m done!’ It was more like, ‘okay, now we can really achieve some stuff!’ So, I wonder, if we had gotten that medal, if I just would have been like ‘now we’re going to go and kick some butt.’ So I don’t know. And I’m trying not to look at it so much that way—to practice what I preach and really look at each little step and each day.
—Topher Sabot contributed reporting
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.