Alan Ashley has been a skier for a long time.
After growing up on skis, starting his first biathlon race at age 12, and then competing in nordic skiing for the University of Colorado, he stayed involved by coaching his Buffs, becoming their director of skiing, and then working for over a decade at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), where he eventually became a vice president. He’s helped the sports in other ways, too, for instance pushing to keep the Eldora nordic trails open outside of Boulder in the late 1980s.
In the last eight years, Ashley has spread his knowledge to other sports after taking a job at the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), where in 2010 he became the Chief of Sports Performance. Ashley oversees high performance of every Olympic sport, summer and winter – which entails “a lot of different pieces,” he says. Among them are funding the national governing bodies (NGB’s), overseeing the Olympic Training Centers, and providing for sports science and medicine.
But although that sounds bureaucratic, Ashley knows from his own experience that seeing sports and teams on the ground is the best way to understand what they need. We caught up with him by phone to ask about the job, what strengths and challenges he sees for nordic sports, and how his background in skiing helps him plan out what’s best for U.S. teams across the board. In the process, we got a glimpse into how the USOC administers its sports.
FasterSkier: When we last met you were in Ruhpolding watching 2012 Biathlon World Championships. How much of your job do you get to spend visiting teams like that?
Alan Ashley: The bottom line is to try to figure out how we can be as good as we possibly can based on the strengths of each of the different sports and what their needs are in order to compete internationally… I try to get out in the field as much as I possibly can. It’s obviously challenging because there are so many sports and so many disciplines, but over the years I try to chip away at it and interact with the sports periodically over time.
I have a team that is assigned to each of the sports, that really gets in deep with each sport. The objective is to find out as much as we possibly can about [each team] so that we can make their high performance plan and carry on conversations about how to support them – so that we’re as educated and knowledgeable about what their needs are as we possibly can be.
FS: Before this job, you worked for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. How did your experience within an NGB help you then move on to assess many different ones?
AA: It was really an unbelievable training ground. First of all, in USSA there are multiple disciplines and both Paralympic and Olympic, and those disciplines involve different groups of athletes and different challenges with regard to what it took to compete internationally in terms of depth of field and sophistication of the sport. So it was good training to try to balance out the support for each of the disciplines with the objective of being the best in the world, which is the mantra of USSA.
And having a firsthand knowledge of what it is like to work in an NGB, where you’re dealing with everything from working with your membership and your clubs to your international program and national teams, to fundraising and revenue generation, it’s a very complicated environment. The NGB’s have a lot of responsibility. Being able to come to the USOC with a good knowledge of what that responsibility looked like helped me to be able to communicate well and understand the challenges faced by people I work with.
FS: Skiing is a really broad discipline. Now that you have a broader view of what other NGB’s do, do you feel like USSA is doing a good job of being fair and spreading the focus among its sports?
AA: I think they’ve been true to their principles. They are trying to come up with a system to let the very best athletes achieve at the highest level. It’s always going to be a little complicated. From the perspective of the USOC working with USSA, I think we have worked well together and the results show that.
Vancouver was a really big deal. Look at nordic combined. That was a twelve-year journey for those athletes, and it took some significant backbone to continue to support them through the thick and thin, but the results were incredible. And watching the women’s cross country team emerge is another example of why I think things are working really well.
FS: Skiing and biathlon have a huge number of Olympic medals, but they don’t always translate well to an American audience. Is this something that affects the way you think about different NGB’s?
AA: I focus exclusively on performance. Whether there’s 200 members or 20,000 members doesn’t make much difference to me. It affects the pipeline, but I’m looking at a performance standpoint and asking where there are opportunities for international success. And I think that serves our country well.
FS: I know you have been quite involved with the biathlon program. What got you hooked on helping this team?
AA: Well, I did my first biathlon race at age 12, so I’ve known about the sport forever. But what was exciting to me is that there’s really good momentum within the community. You have a great group of athletes, you have really good leadership, and also they way that they have built their coaching staff and the way that coaching staff works with the athletes is creating a really positive competitive environment. It is a convergence of the right athletes, the right coaching, and an understanding of what is needed to get the best athletes to the top. That’s one of the things that we are looking for. Those are places where we have opportunities – we can make strategic investments with the NGB’s, and you can see that the athletes are making progress.
FS: When you see a team like this that is doing what you are looking for, what kind of targeted resources are you able to provide?
AA: For instance with biathlon, they and their coaching staff, and Bernd (Eisenbichler, biathlon’s High Performance Director) has a really good handle on what it takes to be successful. So they are able to develop really good plans that we can strategically invest in – both in terms of the fundamentals and special projects, like last year we worked really hard to get the rollerski loop paved in Lake Placid, which is where the best athletes train. I went out and looked at the asphalt this spring and it was like, wow, it was such a nice job. Little things like that, it all goes back to doing everything we can to make sure that the training environment for the best athletes is even better than the rest of the world.
Biathlon is just like cross country and nordic combined, in that it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to let things mature to the point where you can have success internationally. It’s so competitive and endurance sports always take longer to develop.
FS: With your background as a skier, do you think you appreciate that timescale more than some others?
AA: Yes, I do. But watching any of these endurance sports, you see a common theme which is that you have to be able to set benchmarks and watch the long-term development of your athletes as they move their way up. There are going to be some peaks and some valleys in the progression, but as long as it’s moving in the right direction you just have to be patient. Knowing that has definitely helped me be a better partner.
FS: Do all of the NGB’s have some of the same challenges, or are you and your team having to tackle a lot of different things for each sport?
AA: Each of the sports, and a lot of the times even the disciplines within the sports, there are a whole variety of different challenges that they face. They are common in some ways, for instance trying to identify who are the athletes who are upcoming who are going to be internationally successful and how do you best support them? Coaching is a common theme, and setting up the right training environment. But each sport is different. Some are decentralized, some are centralized, some have personal coaches, some are self-coached – there is a really wide variety of different systems. You have to customize your approach and recognize that while they have some common elements, the way that those elements manifest themselves in a given sport may be different.
FS: Are there any sports that have made particularly impressive turnarounds?
AA: One that I’m really excited about is diving. If you look at what happened in London, where they won four medals and David Boudia won the gold medal, that was a sport where we hadn’t had a lot of success in a few cycles, but we had a storied history in diving. To their credit, as a family they pulled together and found out ways to become a team and to really work together for the benefit of the athletes internationally. They focused on synchronized diving to begin with because you could see that they were really close, based on their scores. They were very close to making it on the podium, so they came up with a strategy to try to start to get back to their previous winning culture. They did it, and it was really fun to watch that success unfold.
FS: Now that you have seen how some of the sports tackle these challenges, do you find you are able to cross-pollinate useful ideas between the NGB’s?
AA: That’s one of the great things we’ve been working on: how do you share best practices between the sports? When you work within an individual sport or discipline, people have an enormous amount of passion for it and they are really focused on their sport. And rightly so. But we try to pull people a little bit out of that environment occasionally and say, hey, why don’t you talk to wrestling, so that you can share some of your challenges and some of your successes? The coaches and high performance directors can really benefit from that, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
For instance, how swimming works with their clubs is a good example. They have a really close partnership with their club programs, and that’s a really good model for other sports. They can look at it and take some good pieces out of it and apply it to their situation.
FS: Is there anything you saw at USSA that you feel like you have been able to share with other sports?
AA: There were lessons that I learned with regard to focus, for example. What that means is that you have to try to figure out what the best nations in the world are doing. What is their training program, their coaching program? How are they organized and set up to support their athletes? I don’t think we should try to reproduce that in the United States, because we have a unique situation in that the NGB’s and the USOC are all privately funded. But in terms of training volumes and periodization and how they work with their coaches – there are things that I learned at USSA that I want to take out to the other sports.
Another thing was that when you have personal coaches or club coaches, everybody has a role. One of the things that I learned at USSA is that every single person in the system has a role to play, and part of that role is that when you have an exceptional athlete, you clear the way for them to do everything they possibly can to be successful – that people don’t ultimately become selfish about, hey, it’s my athlete, it’s your athlete, whatever. Instead, one of your responsibilities is that when you have exhausted your resources to help this athlete achieve success, you hand him off to someone else who has different resources and capabilities. You should be okay with that, and at the same time, the national organization should never forget that you were part of that athlete’s success.
There have been instances where I have run into sports which weren’t doing that as well as they could. Once they began thinking about it like that, it makes a huge difference because people become vested in it whether they are coaching 8-year-olds or the national team.
FS: It has seemed like USOC and NGB’s often focus (and have funding) on a four-year Olympic cycle. Is it frustrating not to be able to think about the long-term?
AA: It’s been really fun over the last few years, because [CEO] Scott Blackmun has really stabilized USOC and we’ve begun to talk a lot more about long-term planning and long-term focus. We’re going to still look at the detailed annual plans in each of the sports, but one of the things we’re trying to do is get more strategic in terms of four- and five-year plans. You start to anticipate retirements, anticipate changes in the landscape in terms of which sports will be competitive and which new disciplines will be added, what challenges are coming at us. I’m excited because I think it provides us the opportunity to be a little more visionary and a little more impactful in our relationships with the NGB’s.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.