When you’re in charge of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), you can’t view your job with a shortsighted lens.
For 18 years, Bill Marolt led the premier governing body of American snow sports, setting the bar high with the goal of more Olympic medals than any other nation. And since the Winter Olympics come every four years, that made it easy to stick around.
“We put together a four-year plan and we execute pretty carefully along those plans,” Marolt said in a recent phone conversation. “It made sense to transition after Sochi and let the next CEO take over.”
That chief executive officer would be Tiger Shaw, a two-time Olympic alpine skier and nine-time national champion. In late August, USSA announced that the Stowe, Vt., native would be taking over as president and CEO after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
A former Olympian and U.S. alpine team director, Marolt, 70, was going to finish out another quadrennial first.
“It’s not work in the sense of work,” he said. “You like what you’re trying to do. You like the athletes. You like the people you work with. You like the focus of trying to have athletic success.”
Growing up in Aspen, Colo., Marolt won four NCAA Championships and went to the 1964 Olympics before retiring in 1968. A year later, he became head coach at the University of Colorado (CU), where he led the Buffs to seven NCAA titles from 1969 to ’78.
Marolt spent the next six years directing the U.S. Ski Team (USST), and his athletes won three gold and two silver medals at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. After that season, he returned to CU as athletic director, and over the next several years, his Division-I program tallied several more NCAA titles and a national football title in 1990.
In 1996, Marolt returned to the big leagues at USSA as president and CEO.
“When I started, it was basically alpine, nordic and jumping,” he said. “Now we’ve added snowboard and freeskiing … We’re almost twice as big, and in sheer numbers, that’s a challenge.”
In 2008, USSA fell into an economic recession with the rest of America, which took years to climb out of. For the next two seasons, the organization made budget cuts and entered the 2010 Olympics with less financial resources than previous years, Marolt said.
“We had to reduce the size of our staff,” he said, noting that programs also suffered. “The worst places were development and where you try to build for the future. Slowly we’re coming back from that.”
During his tenure, Marolt saw the completion of the Center of Excellence in 2009 in Park City, Utah, where he’s currently living, and the Olympic upgrades to Soldier Hollow in nearby Midway. In 2011, the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center opened for athletes at Copper Mountain in Colorado.
“We have added a lot of world-class support facilities,” Marolt said. “Our staff is much bigger; when I arrived we really had no high-performance staff. … We’ve changed it a lot and it’s all in that line of going for the best in the world.”
In 2010, Marolt started talking about retiring after the 2014 Olympics. It seemed far enough away, but allowed for a smoother transition, he said. A year ago, USSA ramped up the search for his replacement, reaching out to about 100 people, according to Shaw.
“They cast a very wide net across all sports,” Shaw said on the phone from Hanover, N.H., where he’s living until the end of the month. “I’m not really sure who all the candidates were.”
USSA contacted select individuals and asked for input regarding the new hire. It helped that Shaw was a USSA athlete alumni trustee and a former athlete of Marolt’s during a time when the USST “was a difficult team to make,” according to Marolt.
Shaw said he wasn’t an outstanding athlete by his measure of Olympic medals (although he did notch eight World Cup top-10 results), but he understood the lifestyle and environment elite athletes needed to thrive.
“One thing that changed considerably [was] how we trained and prepared,” he said. “We were shooting in the dark. Especially strength and non-event specific training, any given team is much more uniform in how it’s prepared and ready. … It wasn’t nearly as scientific or results-based as it is now.”
“Thanks to sports science and our physiology team, we get it better than most of the countries and they’re sniffing around us to try to figure out what we’re doing,” he added. “That wasn’t the way it used to be.”
Over the next few months, Shaw, 52, will serve as chief operations officer while Marolt and USSA Vice President Luke Bodensteiner head up athletics through Sochi and into next spring.
Shaw has spent the last two years as sales and marketing manager for Global Rescue, an East-Coast company that provides international travel support for corporations and individuals seeking security on their trips.
“People go fishing in some of the craziest places,” Shaw said.
So how did one job lead to another, and how did he end up taking a job with USSA in Park City? Shaw said he wasn’t sure if his Eastern roots helped his application, but he thinks it’ll be an asset to the company.
“I have a huge network in the East and it always pains me to hear anybody talking about USSA and East vs. West,” he said. “What about the Midwest, and Pennsylvania and southern [regions]? There are a huge number of competitors in those areas. I hope to pull those regions together.”
A ski racer at the core who ventured into sales and his own business ventures throughout his career, Shaw spent 12 years as a volunteer coach for the Ford Sayre ski team in Hanover near his alma mater, Dartmouth College.
“My kids grew up ski racing and I’m also very close to the nordic program here,” he said. “I’ve always loved that. It was my passion as an athlete and my passion as a volunteer. I didn’t choose that as a career path; I was interested in starting companies.”
When the USSA position came up, he encouraged himself to go for it.
“It’s always fascinated me because it’s a major business job,” Shaw said. “It’s incredibly complex … from a relationship standpoint and building networks and understanding athletes.
“I inherit an incredibly strong organization, how to keep it that strong and how to move forward is not going to be easy but honestly that’s what it’s been my dream,” he said.
Starting Oct. 1, he’ll jump in by taking a number of trips, meeting sponsors, stakeholders and members, and getting to know athletes across all USSA sports. He also plans to try the various sports: “I can snowboard and I’m not a bad skate skier, so I intend to do those things,” he said. “I’m not going to do the large hill.”
“One of the things I want to do during this, I guess you could say, quiet period is learn about all these sports that have not been a big part of my life: cross-country and jumping, snowboarding, slopestyle,” he said. “That’s important because the number of sports has grown considerably and who knows where it might go. The key thing is to support and maintain where we’ve been the best and build where we aren’t the best.”
“It’s not necessarily going to remain alpine-centric,” he added. “Who knows? You have to have your eyes wide open and be able to shoot your paradigm. Especially on the cross-country side … what they’ve been doing is frankly amazing.”
Shaw brought up Kikkan Randall’s sprint dominance the last two seasons, including her World Championships gold in the team sprint with teammate Jessie Diggins. With such success, paired with methods of watching live races or staying updated on results, Shaw said the popularity of lower-profile sports is growing.
“I think there’s going to be some interesting things going on with Sochi,” he said of social media’s impact. “How many sports are there that USSA governs? Twenty-six? That’s incredible, and you can’t cram that into a two-hour show that’s designed for TV audiences.”
That’s why USSA is paying attention to how much people are looking up online.
“Sixty percent of the information people are getting off the internet now are going to mobile devices,” he said. “Digital means, social media, Pintrest, Facebook, Twitter, those are the communication tools that produce instant measurement and can go viral. Television is different that way; it’s so important still, but there’s so many other ways to consume and follow your sport.”
So what does that mean for sports that get the most attention, whether through webpage views or television viewership? That’s the tricky part, Shaw said.
“From a budget standpoint, we’ve grown and we’re bigger than we’ve ever have been,” he said, but with that comes additional pressure and strain on providing equal resources for each sport.
“Bigger isn’t always better,” he said. “We are bigger mainly because of all the added sports. We have to understand in each sport how the grassroots work. It’s different in every sport.
“It’s not easy to figure that out, but I do know that some sports need more money at a lower level,” Shaw added, referring to newer sports that don’t have deep roots in ski academies like nordic and alpine. “I think everyone would argue that everyone needs more money or more resources.”
Another problem is how to go about funding programs. Most of the money is needed in development, but when you go one tier down on the pyramid, with elite or professional athletes at the top, the number of clubs, programs and people needing assistance grows considerably.
“There’s been lots of debate … especially in jumping; there’s been a lot of growth in these new sports,” he said, specifically referring to USA Ski Jumping, which is independent of USSA. “Do they need a lot of money from USSA? Probably, but the neat thing is, on the fundraising side there’s a lot of capability from passionate people that want to support it.”
“I’m confident that we can raise the money,” he said. “I don’t know where and how it needs to go. I’ll look to Bill and Luke who’ve been guiding it for years to figure out where it needs to go and find the optimal way to apply it.”
In the meantime, Marolt is going to stay involved with fundraising for USSA through programs that are already in place, he said. He’s still the International Ski Federation (FIS) vice president and a U.S. Olympic Committee board member, and is considering moving back to Colorado with his wife, who’s originally from Golden. His youngest daughter just had her first child, and Marolt was headed south to visit them in Phoenix.
As for memories at USSA, Marolt said he’s proud of the organization’s overall growth and emergence as a world leader in sports science.
“For any CEO, kind of the standard is, did you leave it better than you found it? And I would say yes to that,” Marolt said. “We created a $60 million-dollar endowment. We started a U.S. Ski Team academy. We’ve added a lot.
“I think it’s been a good run,” he added. “We’ve had good success and that’s all exciting, but the most fun is what’s ahead. … I think Tiger’s the right guy and he has the right platform. … We’ll have a great leader.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.