Amidst Coaching Turnover and Changing Structure at CXC, Athletes React to Uncertainty

Audrey ManganMay 3, 20126
Jessie Diggins (r) and Jennie Bender of CXC racing at US Nationals in Rumford, Maine, 2012.

With the news that Jason Cork will be joining the U.S. Ski Team staff as the new men’s coach comes the realization that Central Cross Country (CXC) has now lost two of its Elite Team coaches this spring (the other being Gus Kaeding to Stratton) on the heels of a hugely successful season.

Under their combined leadership of the senior program, CXC collectively tallied the best domestic results over the course of the winter. That, and Jessie Diggins finished her debut World Cup season in the distance Red Group. What’s next for CXC now that both coaches are gone?

Its junior development coach, Igor Badamshin, will move up to become the head coach of the entire program. Badamshin has worked with CXC in some capacity for several years, and before that was a World Championships medalist for Russia.

In addition to new leadership, CXC’s Executive and Athletic Director Yuriy Gusev said that the structure of their elite team will be somewhat different than in years past, a change that was in the works even before Cork left. As the head coach of the entire athletic program, Badamshin will focus on the elites, but will also oversee what Gusev called a “seamless transition” from the junior level through senior racing. A junior development assistant will be brought on, but the structure is a departure from the one in which Cork and Kaeding were both dedicated elite-level coaches.

The number of elite athletes on the team will also be smaller to focus “more resources on those fewer athletes” in addition to junior athletes, said Gusev.

The changes, he explained, are in an effort to focus their resources on replicating Diggins’ model trajectory from the local high school level to CXC’s elite team to one of the top 30 skiers on the World Cup at the age of 20.

“We are looking more at that model; at providing those opportunities,” to younger athletes, said Gusev. For the coming year that means that CXC, as a regional governing body, will focus more on developing identified talent in younger skiers while continuing to support a smaller group of older athletes on its elite team to be leaders and role models.

Cork’s departure was not part of that original plan, for CXC or for Cork himself. The USST announced Pete Vordenberg would be leaving last Wednesday, and their call to Cork a few days before was the first he heard of the news.

While excited for his new job, Cork acknowledged that the move changes things for CXC. He added that club coaches moving on to the national team was inevitable when the number of qualified coaches for the highest level in the US is essentially limited to those already in critical leadership positions at the regional level.

“I think it’s tough. You need a certain level of competence to fill those roles, and for whatever reason in the US there’s not that many people at that level,” said Cork. “When you get down to it, how many people would be able to step into that job if someone left APU? Coaching-wise, funding-wise, logistically — not many people can do that.”

CXC has now lost two of its elite coaches to the USST in three years — Bryan Fish became the USST development coach in 2010. Though not ideal for CXC, Gusev pointed out that this fact is indicative of the level of coaching that CXC offers, and presented a chance for someone new to step up.

“It’s definitely not an ideal scenario, but it’s nice for Jason making that next important career step,” said Gusev. “It shows again for our program, now providing two coaches for the USST in three years, it’s a big thing for our program… It’s an opportunity for another coach to step into our program looking to develop.”

Changes for Elite Team Athletes

For the athletes themselves, whose contracts expired on May 1, the combination of a departing coach and an unclear shift in focus at CXC has created some uncertainty as to how next year’s team will operate and what the roster will look like. Gusev said they have to figure out “who is willing to be part of the program with a slightly different philosophy… It definitely set us back because Jason was involved in talking to athletes.”

Gusev expects to know who will be on the roster by June 1.

The most prominent question is Diggins, who as of Wednesday was uncertain as to her club affiliation or her home base for the coming season.

“I don’t know as of right now where I’ll be based out of; I’m not sure I’ll continue to be with CXC,” said Diggins. “Things have been up in the air; I just got back from vacation and things are changing really fast.”

She expected to choose her team for 2012-2013 by the end of next week.

Though a move to a new club would be a big change for an athlete who has been based out of Minnesota for her entire career, from a coaching perspective not much will be new for Diggins next season. Cork was her coach at CXC, and will continue to be now that he is with the USST. She expected his presence on the World Cup throughout the winter to be an improvement over last season.

“It’ll be nice to have him on the road; it makes it easier to adjust my training [in-season],” she said.

Jennie Bender, who finished last season ranked second to Diggins in the overall SuperTour standings, had decided on Wednesday to remain at CXC after deliberating whether she wanted to find a new team.

“There’s a lot of things that might be changing with the program, but I decided kind of for the sake of funding but also the support I’ve gathered around me here in the Midwest,” said Bender. “There’s a lot of awesome people who want to see me succeed, so I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who think you can do it. I already picked up and moved my whole life once.”

Bender is from Vermont, and joined CXC after graduating from the University of Vermont in 2010. With the changes now taking place at CXC she considered moving to APU, but ultimately decided that sticking with her existing support network made the most sense.

“APU is great, but I’m hoping to race in Europe next winter and I won’t be around then, and if I plan to go to USST camps, those are all down here so I’d have to fly to them… Sometimes it’s good to stick in one place for a little while,” Bender concluded.

CXC also claimed the third-ranked woman on the SuperTour last season, Caitlin Gregg. Her status with the team was still undecided as of Wednesday evening, but overall her future plans have more to do with where she is in her career. She will train through 2014, the next Olympic year, but is in the process of planning for what comes next. This summer Gregg is taking prerequisite classes in preparation for eventually going back to school to become a physician’s assistant, and was uncertain as to whether she will ski for CXC next season.

“At some point you have to you have to say, ‘It’s your future,’” said Gregg. “You can’t just say ‘I’ll ski race to the end and not worry about anything.’ People think it’s cool to go to the Olympics, but it’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s a good salary, boom.’”

Because Gregg is at a different point in her career than her younger teammates, she recognized that her take on Cork’s departure might be different than theirs.

“I guess because I’m older, I’ve fulfilled my goals and can say I feel pretty good about that. But I don’t think everyone does,” she said.

“Jason getting a job with the USST, personally I think it’s awesome. He’s worked extremely hard…and when success happens like that, it should definitely be rewarded.”

On the men’s side, Karl Nygren finished the season as the second-ranked domestic skier, and said he plans to continue working with CXC. But he also noted that at this point, “nothing is for sure…it’s a little unknown how the program will be,” he said.

Brian Gregg, who finished third in the overall SuperTour this season, will not be racing in CXC’s red suit next year, and will instead be working with a new team. He plans to announce the details in the coming weeks, but the plan involves working with his high school coach Scott Johnston again, who has also coached the Methow Olympic Development Project in Washington. The plan began developing at the end of last season, when Gregg saw a need for something new after a winter where his results “felt flat.”

“I’m trying something new for this coming year, before an Olympic year,” said Gregg. “Scott is a fantastic technique coach…and your body after a certain time gets used to that routine, so I’m trying to shock it with different types of training. Whether we were going to do that with CXC or independently, that’s something we’ve been trying to piece together this spring.”

With regards to coaching turnover, Gregg was happy for Cork but also noted that any time a coach leaves, it’s hard for the athlete to begin working with a new one.

“The benefits of working with a coach grows exponentially each year,” he said. “It takes a year to understand the coach and for the coach to understand you as an athlete and person.”

On the other had, he also thought bringing Badamshin up from the junior to senior coaching level would benefit the CXC juniors about to make a similar transition. Cork made the same jump when he took over Fish’s position.

“I think that’s actually a good structure. A lot of athletes [Badamshin] has been coaching were planning on stepping up to be part of the PG team to train with the elite team,” he said.

There is also the fact that a number of CXC athletes finished at the top of the SuperTour rankings last season, stand a chance at earning World Cup start rights over the course of the upcoming one, and would work with Cork again.

“That progression is good,” said Gregg.

Gregg has decided on the independent route, and Caitlin may or may not follow suit. Diggins is unsure of her future at CXC, while Bender and Nygren have tentatively decided to stay on. One thing is for sure: in the span of a week the makeup of last winter’s most successful elite team is in flux, and will continue to change as its athletes decide how move forward.

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Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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  • freeheels

    May 4, 2012 at 11:30 am

    Shouldn’t there be more transparency in the hiring of a new USST coach. I’m certain there is many coaches in this country who would have seen themselves qualified for the position and APPLIED. Seems strange.

  • davord

    May 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Transparency and USST don’t match, or so it seems to me, freeheels. There are coaches who are qualified to lead the USST, but I am guessing the vast majority of those people didn’t bother sending in an application. In the last few years, in fact, since Christer Skog finished his coaching duties, there seems to be a ‘musical chairs,’ type of situation, except there are enough chairs for everyone involved, even with a low amount of chairs. I know you, you know me, he knows us…good enough for me, let’s hire him, sort of deal. Having said that, it seems Cork, with his background and the sort of results he has delivered with CXC, it should work. There is more than enough talent in this country to actually rival and get ahead of Norway, Russia, Sweden, Finland, etc. It’s just a matter of developing and nurturing that talent. Hopefully recent international results keep going and more talented/hard working athletes come to the fore and keep the ball rolling, whoever the coach(es).

  • freeheels

    May 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    There was no ill will intended toward Jason. He’s obviously qualified. It was more a question of USST is funded in part from our licenses and fee’s and it would seem appointing coaches isn’t in our best interest.

  • chadsalmela

    May 4, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    This was a necessarily quick hire based on exhibited ability and aptitude. The importance of being a World Cup coach is access and experience to the World Cup, OPA Cup, or maybe Junior Worlds, but that’s even not remotely the same thing–not 5, 10, 20, or 30 years ago, but very recently. So, no there really aren’t a ton of people who would fit that description. Are there others with the aptitude? Of course. But the USST has some seriously good mojo right now. You want to bring in someone to plug the hole Pete leaves who will not only plug it well, but plug it really well. Personality, experience with the athletes in question, maintaining a consistent tone in the current success are all critical in the hire. Take into further consideration no person with a family and any sense at all would (or arguably should) want the job, and if they do, they don’t understand the job. Further, the salaries in context to what is required of you are pretty sad. The coaches on the USST are and have been super, all things considered, and they needed to keep it rolling without Pete. All that considered–no offense to anyone else–Cork is the only choice. It’s not even remotely a shock, and a call for transparency is more a lack of understanding the situation than a potential scandal.

  • Martin Hall

    May 9, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    Chad, so well said—I’m big on coaches education—-but experience and on the job education, and trial by fire are the ingredients that count. Until you have done this job you don’t have a clue as to how hard, consuming and the energy levels it takes to get it done and to be competitive against your fellow coaches. The scope of these international level positions ask for special people.
    I was replaced in the early 70s in my coaching position and it was with in the next year that I really understood the word or term scope of the position. This replacement person was a good friend, a great local coach who was continually producing local talent, but was so out of his element internationally. This is when I realized that all coaches were not meant for all coaching positions–it was as simple as that.
    Jason’s job is easier now with the talent on the team then it would have been 10 years ago—the skiers need big time support around them—-not a ton of coaching—there is a lot of experience from the skiers and if his communicastion skills are good—meaning being a good listener, he should be OK . As he has the spring and summer to get a float and get on top of his coaching of the skiers.
    He has been climbing the ladder steadly and should settle in fairly quickly.
    With all the support people around him, especially the team’s physiologist, and his interest to communicate, he should get a big boost here.
    Be accessible and seek out the sources.
    Best of luck Jason in this trip—you’ll never forget it.

  • davord

    May 10, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Marty, in your opinion, what constitutes having an education? Is it having merely a college degree, a Master’s, a PhD…? Is it one that has a degree in physical education, exercise science/anatomy and physiology/exercise physiology/psychology….that would set others apart in the world of ski coaching? Or would any degree work, say english literature, history, physics, geology, geography, etc? What else would a good coach or in this case, a USST coach need? Would he/she need to have been a competitive and succesful skier or official prior to being named a USST coach? Would they need prior experience with coaching, either at the club, collegiate or international level? Would being involved in other sports/organizations be of any value? Or is having the right connections, good communication and being a good allround bloke the biggest, but not neccessarily the only thing?

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