DAVOS, Switzerland – Nestled deep in the Alps, surrounded by snow, home of Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Cup champion Dario Cologna, and within driving distance of some of the best racing in the world: you wouldn’t think of Switzerland as a nation that faces many challenges in the world of cross-country skiing.
But if you ask Christian Flury, the coach of the Swiss U24 and development teams, his country faces some difficulties that might seem familiar to a North American audience. Flury spent a year coaching at Alberta World Cup Academy in Canmore, Canada, and says that “you can compare the two jobs.”
At the root, perhaps the most basic similarity is this: Flury is taking young, talented skiers and trying to mold them into senior-level racers who will make the World Cup. What that means is to learn how to treat skiing as a job.
“When we select them onto the team, we want a commitment that they will train professionally,” he said in an interview at his home in Davos. “You can work part-time up to July maybe, but then you have to be here. It’s up to you to invest two or three or four years and do it serious. Maybe after that you say, cross country skiing is great but I’m not becoming a World Cup skier. And that’s fair. But do it right.”
The team ranges from first-year U23’s to older athletes who have a shot at qualifying for the Olympics. Most of the season is spent on the OPA Cup circuit, a highly competitive Continental Cup series in central Europe. Some of the older athletes earn World Cup starts here and there, but Flury says that the racing is good enough on the OPA Cup to provide excellent development opportunities. A podium on the OPA Cup might mean a top 30 on the World Cup.
Like most development programs in North America, Flury can’t offer his athletes any money, just support. And also as in North America, he works with athletes with a range of different backgrounds. Switzerland may be small, but it has four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh) and the 26 cantons function independently, almost analogous to states or provinces.
Here in the canton of Graubunden, there are many options for developing skiers: a canton team with professional coaching, a sports school. But although all cantons have teams, most aren’t as organized as this region around Davos. Some might have a team here and there because parents are interested and decide to start a club for their kids.
(This can have benefits, of course, including local pride: “Some athletes from really small spots, like from the French part, have really good fan groups from their community,” Flury said. This can help out in terms of funding.)
And so at the junior level, most of the best young racers end up here in Davos. That’s good because the national team staff, like Flury, can see them, it’s a good training group, and the sports school allows the young athletes to train more hours.
But it’s also a bad thing. If all of the country’s talent and coaching is concentrated in one area, then what happens everywhere else?
Despite the Alps and Jura mountains, not everyone in Switzerland has easy access to skiing. Three quarters of the 7.91 million people live in the central plains, in cities like Bern, Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich. Other regions have good skiing, but not as much infrastructure. With no consistent club system, it’s hard to keep and develop talent.
“There are some areas that are nothing,” Flury said. “You see on the ranking list maybe they have one 16-year-old, but from there, nothing. Because if there are no kids in the system, then the pyramid, nothing comes out.”
Once athletes sign on to the U24 team, they get a good deal in Davos. The training group is about 15 athletes this year, with two to three coaches. There are plenty of training camps; the team is currently in Oberhof, Germany, training in the ski tunnel. They also have the chance to train often with the senior national team, including Cologna. During the dryland season, Flury shares his calendar with senior team coaches Tor Arne and Guri Hetland and the two teams try to coordinate when possible.
“That’s one of the things we really want to put the focus on,” Flury said. “To have the young ones to have the chance to train with [Cologna], or to see him and say, okay, what do I need to come to this level. Today there was a really young one who tried for half an hour to ski with him, and then boom, off the back. But that is fine. He can still sit in the same van on the drive home.”
For instance, the younger skiers might see how much Cologna and fellow seniors Curdin Perl, Toni Livers, and Remo Fischer train. Or at what pace. And that might make it easier to accept the demands that the coaches place on them as they try to fast-track them towards senior success.
“We have athletes coming form other provinces where they are in the junior national team but they don’t train that often, they do maybe 450 hours, and then we say, look, you should come pretty soon up to 700 or 800 hours as a U23,” Flury said. “We have a huge gap to close, and that’s tough. We don’t know if they can do it. You have to be a really big talent to close that, I think, because it’s a huge step.”
This isn’t a system, though, that expects or accepts burnout. When asking athletes to commit to training professionally, often with a huge increase in hours in the first two years, they also offer an olive branch: they don’t need to see results in the first year. They will stick with their U23’s for the long haul.
“We say, look, if you come to Davos then we will give you enough time to develop,” Flury explained. “Usually you have a tough first season as a senior, so it needs time… and it’s important to us to have them together as a group.”
In 2013, talent and depth were actually another thing that the American and Swiss teams had in common. Each has a hugely successful star: Cologna for Switzerland, and Kikkan Randall for the U.S., who has burst towards championhood in the past few seasons. Behind each is a core group of strong skiers – but much of the national team’s publicity comes from these two figureheads.
“At the moment, Dario is covering a lot,” Flury admitted. “You have to be honest. For sure you have athletes behind him that do good races, like Laurien Van Der Graaf and Bettina Gruber from the girls side. But then we have only three or four more girls, that’s it. On the guys’ side we have Perl, Remo Fischer, and the sprinters did really well [last year]… We have to try because right now Dario is doing the medals. Then we have some top-10 skiers, but a medal skier? Besides Dario? It’s pretty rare.”
(The U.S. finished the World Cup season ranked sixth in the Nations Cup, and Switzerland eighth. These overall results were achieved in similar ways, relying on one stronger team with its star: the American women were fifth and the men eleventh, while the Swiss men were fourth and the women fifteenth.)
Because the community isn’t big enough, or deep enough, to survive any lull in motivation or organization, each talented junior needs to be treated as a resource, and coached towards becoming a talented senior. The women’s team is a particular challenge: by the time skiers hit the junior level, there are about half as many boys as girls. The U24 team is mostly men. Flury and his bosses have tried to brainstorm ways to do a better job keeping girls in the sport, but “we don’t have a lot of ideas, to be honest,” he admitted.
One way not to lose athletes, though, is to keep the cohort together.
“The only chance, I think, is that we don’t have a lot, but we have this U23 group,” Flury said. “We have to bring them together, give them a chance, more than a year, and they have to train, a lot. We have to do the volume step by step for sure, but you have to bring the volume up, bring the intensity up. If they do that, then we have a chance that they are getting better. It’s the only secret.”
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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.