For the sixth time, in the nearly 60 year history of the NCAA Skiing Championship, the University of Vermont will host the four day competition to determine the nation’s top individual skiers as well as the country’s best collegiate ski team.
Since the first NCAA Skiing Championship, held in 1954, the competition program has changed to reflect the evolution of the sport. Early collegiate championships featured downhill and slalom from the Alpine disciplines as well as an individual 15 kilometer cross country race and ski jumping to represent the Nordic disciplines. During the first two decades, in addition to recognizing the individual winners in each of the disciplines, a skimeister was named, who achieved the highest point total in all four events. Through 1976, Alpine Combined and Nordic Combined Champions were also named based on the best combined results of the two Alpine, and two Nordic events.
Following a couple of tragic accidents, the downhill was replaced by a giant slalom event in 1976. In a controversial decision, the NCAA skiing committee dropped jumping from the program in 1981 and replaced it with a cross country relay. In 1983, skiing became one of the first collegiate sports to combine the results of both men’s and women’s teams into one, overall championship. In 1989, international acceptance of the skating technique in cross country led to the replacement of the relay with a second individual event, permitting one cross country race in the traditional, classic technique and the other in the skating or freestyle technique.
Historically, the NCAA Skiing Championship has alternated between eastern and western sites. There was a time when western Alpine skiers dreaded racing at eastern venues like Stowe, VT, Lake Placid, NY or Sugarloaf, ME because they were apt to encounter icy conditions uncommon in the west. Conversely, eastern Alpine skiers knew that a late starting number at Steamboat Springs, CO, Bridger Bowl, MT or Park City, UT meant skiing through knee-deep ruts on the slalom course.
In the Nordic events, the geographical issue is altitude. Since the ability of the body to transport Oxygen to the muscles is a significant issue in endurance events, athletes who live and train at altitude have a distinct advantage over those who live and train at sea level. Not surprisingly, when the NCAA’s are in the Rocky Mountains, the skiers from eastern schools tend to have a tough time, when the races are in the east, altitude is not a deciding factor.
Another unique aspect of the NCAA Skiing Championship is the wide variety of schools that participate, from huge, Division I, state universities with many thousands of undergraduates, to small, Division III, private colleges with relative modest athletic programs. In the past, some of the major university programs with the luxury of athletic scholarships, have recruited virtually their entire ski teams from Scandinavia and Central Europe. As a result, the overall team award has been dominated through the years by three schools: Denver University which has won the championship 21 times, the University of Colorado, overall champions 16 times, and the University of Utah, NCAA skiing champions 10 times. This domination occurred in spite of the fact that during the past half century, 66 colleges and universities have participated in the event.
In contrast, some of the smaller schools attend the championship with no possibility of winning the team trophy, but with individual skiers capable of earning recognition in specific events. While the team trophy has been won by only seven different schools during its 57 year history (University of Vermont, Dartmouth, Wyoming and New Mexico are the other team champions), 25 institutions have provided individual champions. While the battle for the overall team trophy, in all likelihood, will be among the three or four usual contenders, there is the potential for plenty of surprises in the individual standings.
At least some of the excitement around this year’s NCAA Championship focuses on the competition venues. Skiers at Stowe’s Spruce Peak are enjoying the results of a recently completed, multi-million dollar renovation. Both the slalom and the G.S. will be held on the Mainstreet trail, one of the best Alpine ski slopes for spectators anywhere.
The Nordic events at Trapp Family Lodge will be conducted on the recently completed racing loop, one of only a handful in the United States that are certified for international competition by the FIS (International Ski Federation). In addition to meeting all the technical standards of a World Cup course, the new racing trail at Trapp’s was designed to be spectator friendly, bringing the athletes back within sight of the start/finish area multiple times during an event. Both Johannes Von Trapp and his son, Sam, have remarked that an added benefit of the new race course is its independence from the highly popular recreational ski trails. Although Trapp’s has hosted major cross country events in the past, including several NCAA competitions, for the first time racers will not encounter recreational skiers on the course and guests at the lodge will not find the trails that they love closed for a competition.
If you are not yet convinced to take in some of the NCAA skiing action in Stowe, consider this: through the years, literally dozens of NCAA skiers have gone on to compete in the Winter Olympic Games. The list comprises a “who’s who” of American skiing, including Colorado’s Buddy Werner, Bill Marolt, and Jimmy Heuga, Utah’s Marv Melville, Luke Bodensteiner and John Aalberg, as well as Denver’s Rick Chaffee and Dennis McCoy. You may even see Olympic medalists like Vermont’s Beth Heiden, who made the switch from a bronze medal speed skating performance in the Lake Placid Winter Games, to winning the NCAA cross country skiing event in 1983, or Dartmouth’s Chiharu Igaya who represented Japan in 1952, ‘56 and ’60, winning silver in the slalom at Cortina.
Blessed with abundant snow cover, mid-winter temperatures early in March and two recently renovated world-class venues, the 2011 NCAA Skiing Championship , hosted by the University of Vermont at Spruce Peak and Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe promises to be an exciting event, worthy of its impressive half century tradition.
John Morton finished second in the 1968 NCAA cross country event, and coached the Dartmouth Men’s Ski Team at 11 Championships from 1978-1989. As the founder of Morton Trails, he has designed more than 130 recreational trails and competition venues from Maine to Alaska. He and his business colleague, former Dartmouth skier, David Lindahl, Ph.D., designed and homologated the race course at Trapp Family Lodge. Contact them at www.mortontrails.com.