Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series about U.S. Nordic Combined, which was recently informed it would no longer receive direct USSA team funding after July 31, 2014. Stay tuned for updates and more on how USSA makes financial decisions.
Imagine being a 23-year-old athlete with what you believe to be the best days ahead of you in terms of performance. In four years’ time, you could very well be at the top of your game in what would be your third Olympics. At least that’s what the plan is.
Then imagine having that dream take a major hit when you’re told you might have to pay your own way to achieve it. Four more years of coming up with some $40,000 dollars a season for travel and racing expenses — not including coaches and other support staff.
That’s the reality that Taylor Fletcher faced Monday morning while sitting alongside his brother and teammate Bryan in a meeting with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) president and vice president. The two U.S. Nordic Combined skiers, along with teammate Billy Demong, were informed that their sport would no longer receive financial support from USSA.
“You work so hard and you put your effort toward becoming the best athlete you can,” Fletcher said on the phone Wednesday. “To get that message and to have that happen at the beginning of a new season and beginning of a World Championship year, it takes a lot of steam out of you and it really pisses me off.”
The estimated $3 million dollars that previously funded their team for a four-year Olympic cycle was now gone. Annually that broke down to between $580,000 and $650,000 in a non-Olympic year, a figure USSA Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner first told Steamboat Today and confirmed with FasterSkier on Wednesday.
“I’m still trying to grasp what’s going on and why they don’t see that our team has the potential,” Fletcher added. “We had a World Championship medal last year, I’ve had an individual [World Cup] podium, Bryan’s had an individual podium … and we’ve had the last two Olympic flag bearers. No one else on USSA has done that.”
Now put yourself in Bryan’s shoes. Now 27, he teamed up with his brother, Demong, and the recently retired Todd Lodwick to capture an unprecedented bronze in the 2013 World Championships team event. Bryan is outside the realm of his parent’s health insurance and will no longer have medical costs covered by USSA. That’s a big deal for anyone, let alone someone who rockets some 95 kilometers per hour down a jump and into the air, and pushes their body to extreme limits in cross-country ski races.
To top that off, Bryan’s got a wedding to pay for with his fiancé, Nicole Thorsen, in late September.
“I don’t know if I’m gonna end up having to work to pay for the season,” Bryan said. “In all reality for me, it’s not really an option. I have some school that I’ve already signed up for, I have a wedding to plan in September and to pay for, too. The cards are stacked against me a little bit. … Going into the season, it’s unclear as to how much we’re gonna have to step up. … I think that for most of us athletes, we’ve given all we can give and we’re riding it out.”
That’s the case for most of the athletes and coaches at U.S. Nordic Combined after the team learned the news early Monday morning at USSA’s headquarters in Park City, Utah. In a phone conversation, head coach Dave Jarrett said he was surprised by the decision, considering it was the beginning of a new quadrennial, or four-year Olympic cycle. In retrospect, he said maybe he shouldn’t have been.
“I had a sense for a while that something wasn’t right,” Jarrett said. “Planning started as normal and then it took a slight detour with the timeline of how you get things done. It became clear that something wasn’t right. I knew something wasn’t totally clear.”
Jarrett said Bodensteiner had given them a heads up that this was a possibility beforehand.
“We got a message Saturday night saying that we were gonna have an all-coaches-and-staff meeting with [CEO] Tiger [Shaw] and Luke,” Taylor recalled. “From that I could grasp that it wasn’t gonna be good. I was hoping for a budget cut at the most.
“They sat us down and they were kind of like, yeah, budget cuts are going around the table left and right and we have to invest in the sports we feel are a worthy investment,” he added. “Unfortunately, it brought us to the decision that we can no longer support nordic combined and based off the data that we have we don’t feel that there’s podium potential in 2018 or 2022. We’re gonna do what we can keep you guys afloat, but as of July 31st, if you guys don’t have the funds, you’re on your own. And they kind of just got up and left.”
According to Bodensteiner, who spoke with FasterSkier during his lunch break on Wednesday, the decision was part of a long-term plan that had been part of USSA’s discussions since 2008.
“It’s a decision that’s obviously taken a while to make because it’s not an easy decision and it’s not one that anybody wants to have to make,” Bodensteiner said.
The foundation for such decisions, what Bodensteiner referred to as “an overall strategic planning framework and a resource allocation process,” was essentially laid in 2008 and approved by USSA’s board in 2010. After the Vancouver Winter Olympics that year, USSA stopped funding three sports as national teams: ski jumping, ski cross and parallel snowboarding. It was a new model USSA was trying: maintain a partnership with these sports while leaving them to self govern.
From USSA’s perspective, “… it’s more of an opportunistic way to manage [those sports],” Bodensteiner said. Doing so lifts restrictions on sponsorships, such as those that might appear on one’s uniform, and gives athletes of those sports greater freedom when it comes to reaching out for money — all of which goes directly to them. The catch is, they have to generate it themselves.
At the same time, USSA directly funds athletes at “the very top level,” he said. “It’s not the easiest model — it definitely takes more relationship management. It puts more emphasis on sports-specific support groups to shoulder a lot of the administrative side of the sports, but it’s also been used with success. I look back to World Championships in 2013 and athletes from each one of those sports [ski jumping, ski cross and parallel snowboarding] won medals.”
By why cut a sport whose athletes have already proven they can win medals, and a lot of them? At the 2010 Olympics, nordic combined took home four medals — 44 percent of those awarded in their sport. Since 2007, the team has tallied six World Championships medals, including the aforementioned bronze — the first time U.S. Nordic Combined medaled in a team event at worlds.
“They tell you every year: better results, more money,” Taylor said. “Since 2003, Johnny [Spillane] got a World Championship medal, 2007: Bill got a World Championship medal, 2009: they swept the individual events at World Championships, 2010: we got Olympic medals, 2013: World Championship medal. I don’t know what else you really need to do. We’ve never had the money to go and contest for the [World Cup] overalls in the last couple years. We’ve always had to skip one or two competitions to make it work. That’s the hard part to swallow.”
Bodensteiner said it was a matter of assessing future performance potential, which USSA has done over the last several years.
“You’ve got Lodwick who’s retired, you’ve got Demong who may ski past next season, but that’s not certain, but then you also look at results, trends in terms of where those athletes have come from and where they’re headed,” he said. “It’s not to say, in our assessment, that Bryan and Taylor don’t have the potential to win a medal in PyeongChang, [South Korea,] the differentiation comes in how strong that chance is and where you have an athlete that has a potential for a medal, that may be a smaller statistical probability than an athlete in another sport who’s a very strong, likely medal candidate.”
As for Demong, there’s a chance he may not continue his career into next season. While he hadn’t planned on another Olympics, he told FasterSkier after the end of the Sochi Games that he was considering competing for another season to help bridge the gap in developing the sport. On Tuesday, he didn’t say he was retiring, but told Steamboat Today, “I’ve had a pretty good run. To me it really discourages the legacy we worked so hard to build. It has had its head cut off.”
The bottom line is, USSA has a published vision to be “the best in the world” in Olympic skiing and snowboarding. Part of the nonprofit’s decision to stop funding nordic combined after July 31, 2014, stems from their analysis of the sport at all levels — including development — and performance projections through not only the 2018 Olympics, but the 2022 Winter Games as well.
Bodensteiner explained that USSA uses a number of different measures to determine if an athlete is destined for greatness, or Olympic medals, or not. Some of the most effective methods involve “retroactive statistical analysis,” looking at a pool of international skiers who’ve had success at the highest levels going back to see when they hit “key performance markers, i.e. how good does an athlete have to be statistically at Junior Worlds or at what age do they have to score their first World Cup points,” he said.
From there, they can generally determine whether a given athlete is on that track or not. “Of course there are now and again outliers to that system, but what your’e really trying to look for is the trend of an athlete’s performance,” he added.
They also look at Olympic performances over the last four Olympic cycles (16 years) to predict medal-earning potential based on an athlete’s long list of rankings or results.
“It’s tough to project … [but] it’s actually been fairly reliable,” Bodensteiner said. “We’ve been able to project our overall Olympic achievements with not great accuracy, but enough to really get a sense of where we steer our resources.”
So that’s the decision, one that Jarrett encouraged his athletes and the U.S. nordic-combined community to find solutions to rather than fight it.
“I think everyone’s upset and they don’t understand how an NGB cannot be supporting any of the sports it’s supposed to be a national governing body of,” Jarrett said. “That’s a business decision. … They’re not gonna change their mind no matter how hard you try. Let’s reach out to contacts and see if we can’t find a solution.”
According to the Fletcher brothers, that’s what they’ll be doing over the next several weeks — trying to seek ways to fund their future in the sport. But first, they said Demong encouraged them to get back to training, work hard and focus on their job as athletes, and they’ll sit down and brainstorm next week.
“The development team, they have to pay for their skis,” Taylor said. “They have to pay for a fair share amount of their expenses. The NNF [National Nordic Foundation] has stepped in and thank God for them because half the guys on the team wouldn’t be able to do this because we don’t have the money. Then to have to pay for airfare, lodging, food while we’re over there, that’s gonna be running upwards of forty grand a year to go to all the competitions. I don’t have that and I know Bryan’s the same way, and I definitely don’t want to be taking out loans to do a sport just because you love it.”
While the big question is whether nordic combined can raise enough money on its own to support its coaches and staff, USSA reserves some funds to provide top athletes. As for how much that might be, Bodensteiner said that will likely be decided in early May. The organization is halfway through its budgeting process, which takes three to four (and sometimes more) weeks, he said.
Based on what teams like women’s ski jumping have received, Taylor believed that would be in the ballpark of around $40,000, and he was unsure whether that would be allocated individually or shared throughout the team.
“They [told us], if you guys can’t come up with the funding, then we’ll turn to direct athlete support and that will go to the top guys on the team,” Taylor said. “They didn’t give any sense of how much that is. Everyone’s kind of left in the dark. I think based off ladies’ ski jumping it was, I think, $40,000 for the team. In that case, that’s not gonna go very far.”
Bodensteiner explained that money is tight — as it usually is — at the start of a new Olympic cycle. USSA is operating with a smaller budget its usual $20 million dollars, a figure Bodensteiner published on USSA’s website last July. Roughly more than 20 percent of that comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), according to the USOC’s 990 tax form. A spokesperson for the USOC could not be immediately reached to explain how grant money is allocated to USSA.
Ideally, USSA would like for the Olympic Committee to fund it evenly across a four-year period for greater stability in financial resources, but as it stands, the grant money flows in greater quantities for the Olympics and takes a hit the year after, Bodensteiner explained.
“They haven’t set their funding for next year, but they made it clear to all winter NGB’s that, hey we are not gonna provide the same level resources to you that we have in the past. We’re shifting to summer now,” he said, adding that the USOC is now focused on the Summer Olympics. “That’s been the case as long as I’ve worked with USOC so it’s not unpredictable, but certainly it creates some challenges each post-Olympics season.”
As for what will happen to the USOC grant money that previously went to nordic combined, Bodensteiner said it will be spread across the remaining USSA sports.
“All the revenue comes into one space at the end of the day and gets allocated out,” he explained. “Where we’ve been able to reduce expenses on nordic combined, either by spending less or raising more through an alternative funding stream, what it’s allowed us to do is reduce less out of the other sports. We’ve been challenged this year to basically reduce the athletic budget by a given amount.
“The choices that we have to make are, do we reduce everybody by the same percent, and everybody takes a hit? Are there places that we can extract more so that we’re protecting other programs in different ways? If you think about taking that much resource that we’ve typically spent on nordic combined, that’s resource that we don’t have to take out of cross-country or out of snowboarding or freestyle or alpine.”
Asked how much the budget was reduced and how much USSA spends on other sports annually, like cross-country skiing and alpine, Bodensteiner declined to answer. However, he said nordic combined’s $580,000-$650,000 yearly budget made it the third most costly sport at USSA, behind cross-country skiing and alpine — listed in no particular order.
“We stay away from budget figures because what we want to avoid — I just told you cross-country spends more than freestyle or snowboarding, for example — we want to get away from those kind of discussions, i.e. cross country hasn’t won an Olympic medal since 1976 and mogul skiing has won every year,” Bodensteiner said. “What we’ve really done is set up a funding mechanism that’s far more analytical and strategic, and we essentially make decisions that way versus having kind of unfounded debates at the board level about what’s more popular, what’s had a better track record.”
At the end of the day, USSA took a sizable chunk of its pie to put toward other sports within its financial umbrella. Now, those with a vested interested in U.S. nordic combined are looking toward the future.
“There’s a lot of people that believe in us and I think we believe in ourselves and we can find these funds and we can continue to build a strong program,” Bryan said. “Nordic combined was on the rise in North America in popularity and definitely in Europe. We have one of the largest TV viewerships of any sport. I think that eventually you put it out there that we need the support and hopefully people will come.”
“I feel like I’m just getting to my potential and I definitely don’t wanna give this dream up,” Taylor explained. “I mean, this is what I’ve lived for and trained for and this is what I want to do for the next four years at least. I have no doubts that 2018 is the best opportunity for me to capture Olympic medals. I definitely don’t want to give this up for something that I had no control of.”
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.