DAVOS, Switzerland – With six athletes making the World Cup sprint quarterfinals, including one who made it to the podium and another who notched a career-best result, Sunday was obviously a good day for the U.S. Ski Team.
But besides the results that would make them celebrate no matter which weekend they happened, the cross country skiers had one more reason to be pleased: incoming U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Tiger Shaw and his wife Kristin were on hand to watch and learn about the sport.
Not a bad time to whip out what women’s coach Matt Whitcomb called “one of our best days ever for sprinting.”
“I was impressed,” Shaw said. “We were flabbergasted, really.”
Maybe Shaw’s presence inspired a little something extra – or maybe it as just a great coincidence. Either way, the U.S. was happy to have Shaw on hand to see their hard work pay off.
“It was nice to have them cheering,” Whitcomb said. “I think it just reminded us all how proud we are to represent our country. It’s not often that we have too many direct fans like that over here.”
Coming from an alpine skiing background – Shaw is a two-time Olympian – the new federation CEO was amazed at how exciting the action was on the World Cup today.
“Today was amazing,” he told FasterSkier on the phone from the Zurich airport. “I had heard about sprints and elimination heats and how it all works, and I have to say that I was incredibly impressed by the athleticism and the strength and speed by all of the athletes I saw today, as well as amazed at how well the Americans did. I mean, Kikkan obviously was tremendous, she got beat at the end by two centimeters, unfortunately, but she also got interfered with at least once in her final round.”
In an interview this fall, Shaw mentioned that he wanted to spend some serious time learning about the many ski and snowboard disciplines that USSA governs. Current CEO Bill Marolt is staying involved with the organization until after this winter’s Olympics, giving Shaw some time to learn the ropes of his new job. The trip to Davos is one step in making good on that promise, and Shaw clearly enjoyed himself.
He Saturday evening eating dinner with the American athletes and coaches, who answered his questions and tried to teach him everything there is to know about sprint racing so that he would understand Sunday’s competitions.
“Getting to know the athletes and coaches a little better was a priority, and it worked out great even though we could only pull off spending one night there,” Shaw said. “Everybody was great. They were so welcoming, and they basically explained and taught us everything.”
A former racer at Dartmouth College before going on to the Olympics, Shaw had some passing familiarity with college nordic competitions, but today’s World Cup competitions are quite different than anything he had seen before (when Shaw won the NCAA slalom championship in 1982, for example, skating had barely been invented). And although he had met the team before at the Center of Excellence in Park City, seeing them in action was a completely different experience. And Shaw loved it. He anticipates being better able to support and promote the cross country skiers now that he understands what they are striving for – and achieving.
“I think with the help of Matt and the other coaches, and certainly Luke Bodensteiner, who does such a great job leading athletics and the fact that he is a nordic guy,” Shaw said. “I’ll learn a lot more from him now in future discussions about how to do that. So I see it.”
He’s even on board to try to get the World Cup to return to the U.S. for the first time in years, and thinks that the sprint format is the way to do it.
“We’d love to do one in a city in the United States sometime, if we can make it work financially,” he said. “I know FIS really, really wants us to do that, kind of like the Quebec City one last year. There’s the desire to do a race sometime in New York City. Making that work financially is critical, but you’d think that we could considering the number of people who would come watch it and probably be amazed at how fast everybody goes.”
If that happens, the Americans will be ready to deliver on the results. When asked whether he ever expected to watch his team win three quarterfinal heats in a row, Whitcomb was dead serious: yes.
“They train together a lot and they fight together a lot in training,” he said. “They’re ready for situations that they encounter out here. A few years ago our elbows were soft and dull. They’re sharp and hardened now. So we know where we can go. We don’t get pushed around as much anymore, and I have good confidence.”
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.