A recent change in management should have minimal impact on the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team (USAST) in the upcoming season, with competition schedules remaining the same through the winter.
Late last week, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) announced that it would take control of Paralympic alpine and cross-country skiing from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA).
One administrator lost her position as part of the change, but despite some initial uncertainty, coaches and athletes with the cross-country program said that their plans for the race season would not be disrupted—and that the transition could result in some long-term improvements.
“What I am hearing from a lot of people is that it shouldn’t affect us in a negative way,” said Sean Halsted, a member of the adaptive cross-country national team. “Hopefully, this can lead to good changes.”
The USAST currently consists of six disabled athletes, who compete domestically and internationally against others with similar handicaps.
In previous years, the USOC had delegated the management of the team to USSA, but in an interview, USOC Paralympics Chief Charlie Huebner said that his organization had decided to make a change as part of an “ongoing assessment” of its programs.
He said all the funding for the adaptive ski team would be transferred as part of the shift, and that athletes should feel “zero impact.”
“The seasonal schedule for competitions and travel is not scheduled to change,” Huebner said.
For the remainder of the year, the USAST’s competitive programs will actually be overseen by U.S. Biathlon, which Halsted said should make things easier on the athletes.
On the Paralympic World Cup, many disabled skiers compete in both biathlon and cross-country races, which are typically held at the same venue.
“It’s pretty much the same sport. It tends to be four or five races in a week, and if you’re just doing cross-country, you get a rest day while they’re shooting biathlon,” Halsted said. “If you do both, then you get to race every day, and that’s not uncommon.”
In the past, with the American adaptive biathlon and cross-country teams falling under separate management, Halsted said that there had occasionally been tensions between the two different coaching staffs—especially as the fledgling biathlon program sprung up over the past few years.
“They [were] not on the same sheet of music,” he said. “There would say something like there was no animosity, but you could tell there was fear in their voice that somebody was taking what they wanted. [The cross-country coaches] were defensive about biathlon guys coming in and taking their athletes.”
Jon Kreamelmeyer, a USAST staff member who has served as both a national team and development coach, denied that there had been any politics between the biathlon and cross-country staffs. But both he and Halsted agreed that the programs would be better off under one umbrella.
“In my mind, it should be one team, and I think that’s the direction it’s going,” Kreamelmeyer said.
While U.S. Biathlon will be in charge of overseeing the adaptive teams at competitions, the USAST staff, including Kreamelmeyer, will all continue with the program as contract labor at least until the end of the year, Huebner said.
Sandy Metzger, the USAST program director, lost her job as part of the transition. Reached by phone, she referred FasterSkier to Tom Kelly, a USSA spokesman, but neither he nor Huebner would comment on Metzger’s departure. However, Greg Rawlings, a member of the USAST’s coaching staff, said that Metzger’s position was dissolved because the USOC already had an employee of its own who could cover her responsibilities.
Huebner said that the USOC had had “multiple conversations” with “constituents, athletes, administrators, coaches” and supporting organizations about the changes, but Kreamelmeyer, Halsted, and Kelly Underkofler, another adaptive athlete, all said that they were not informed of the transition until after it had begun.
Initially, Kreamelmeyer said, it was implied to him that he was out of a job—only later did he find out that he would continue in his position through the end of the season. Both Underkofler and Halsted learned of the changes in an e-mail that Kreamelmeyer sent to his friends and athletes announcing his departure.
“It was very abrupt, actually, from my point of view,” said Underkofler, who is on both the national biathlon team and the cross-country development squad. “There was no forewarning, or anything like that.”
However, Underkofler said that she thinks that affiliating the adaptive program with U.S. Biathlon is ultimately “a better fit.”
Underkofler spent six years on the USAST earlier in the decade. During that time, she said, she felt USSA’s attitude towards adaptive sports was that “we weren’t worth as much time and attention.”
“We always…felt kind of like the ugly stepchild, and I just assumed that it was because we were a Paralympic sport, and didn’t get the same kind of attention that able-bodied sport gets in this country,” she said.
But when she joined the biathlon program, she said, “they loved us.”
“They’re so incredibly supportive. They’re very excited about adaptive,” she said. “I think it’s a better fit, just from my perspective.”
Halsted, on the other hand, said that he never had any problems with USSA’s management.
“I just went with the system in place. And the hoops that were provided for me to jump through, I jump through them, and whatever I get, I get,” he said.
Kelly, the USSA spokesman, refused to address Underkofler’s accusations. But he did say that his organization had struggled to manage its adaptive skiing program since 2004, when the International Paralympic Committee took over governance of the sport from the International Ski Federation.
“The fact is that we lost all of our governance capabilities, through no fault of ours,” he said. “It’s just the way the sport chose to manage itself…We had no ability to play any kind of a role in the direction of the sport internationally—cross-country or alpine.”
For his part, U.S. Biathlon CEO Max Cobb—himself a former guide for a visually impaired skier—said that his organization has “plenty of work to do,” after taking over management of the USAST.
“That’s where our focus has been,” he said, “to make sure that the athletes are really well-supported.”
–Chelsea Little 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.