What Separates the U.S. From Scandinavia? An American Coach in Sweden Weighs In

Chelsea LittleSeptember 29, 20141
Kevin Cutts is now
Kevin Cutts is now the assistant coach at Timra gymnasium in Sundsvall, Sweden. Photo: timra.se

Kevin Cutts was a top junior racer in New England, qualifying 9th in the World Junior Championships sprint in 2008, before going on to a standout career at Northern Michigan University.

By the time he graduated, though, he was burnt out on racing and ready to leave the ski world. But he moved to Sundsvall, Sweden, with Marie Helen Söderman, his girlfriend from NMU – and found that the best job he could find was as a coach. After volunteering with the local club for a winter, he was hired as the assistant at the local Timrå ski gymnasium.

The experience has reinvigorated Cutts’ relationship with skiing.

“When I quit skiing in 2012, I wasn’t really super motivated to do much with it,” he said in a skype interview. “I was burnt out on the whole scene and I lost sight of what was really fun about the whole skiing scene. When I got into coaching and bringing some fresh new energy to the team, it reminded me of everything that I enjoyed about it. So it was healthy for me to be able to try to steer the kids out of the bad habits that lead to burnout. It was a happy accident I guess.”

He’s now coaching alongside Henrik Forsberg, the husband of legendary biathlete Magdalena Forsberg and an incredibly successful World Cup and Olympic competitor himself.

The experience has drawn him to conclude that while a lot of things are done differently in the U.S. and Sweden, his home country isn’t as far behind the Scandinavian ski powerhouse as it often believes.

For example?

“The thing that people should realize – the thing I miss about the U.S. is the training,” he laughed. “Rollerski roads, for example. Vermont? I would give anything to rollerski in Vermont. The roads here? They are terrible. They are scary as h*ll to rollerski on. I don’t even enjoy it as a coach, watching my kids rollerski. People need to realize that it’s not like heaven here. There’s not that much separating the Swedes from the U.S. skiers.”

FasterSkier Editor-At-Large Chelsea Little, who spent a year in Sweden herself, caught up with Cutts to talk about some more of his observations about skier development in Sweden and differences between the two countries. This interview has been edited and condensed.

FasterSkier: Can you tell me a little bit about the program you coach?

Kevin Cutts: It’s actually not very many kids. One thing that I think a lot of people would be surprised about is that there are not very many kids who apply to ski high school. I think last year in all of Sweden there were 172 in the whole country. So last year we had 7 students. Two graduated last year and one quit, so it’s pretty small. We have four.

FS: So what’s a ski gymnasium really like?

KC: You could almost compare it to Stratton Mountain or a Burke Academy. It’s similar.

Every ski gymnasium is really just a program of a regional public school. You have the five national schools, which are not only funded by the school district that they’re in, but also by the Swedish ski federation. Then there are nine other schools including mine, which are just funded at a local/regional level. They are a little easier to get into and not as competitive – not in terms of the quality of training, but in terms of, they are not as selective. Anybody can go.

The schools block out time in the mornings for training, so the whole school has that time off, and we just use it to train. The other kids get to sleep in or do whatever.

There’s only 14 ski schools, and anyone who wants to go can go. Even if you grew up in the south and haven’t skied much. If you want to go to a ski high school, you can. That’s a big difference. Imagine if every kid in the U.S. who wanted to could go to a program like Stratton Mountain School, with that level of individualized attention and the school bending over backwards to make the schedule work for you. In Sweden, that’s reality.

FS: What level are the skiers at? Are they trying to make World Juniors?

KC: At Timrå, we have one biathlete and three nordic skiers. One guy who is a last-year senior student, who is looking really good. I think on the Swedish junior cup level, if he stays healthy, he might be top 15’s or top 20’s. The rest of the kids, they’ve just been sick for so long. It’s been a real struggle to keep them healthy.

FS: What do you think the biggest difference is between coaching in the U.S. and in Sweden? Even though you haven’t coached in the U.S. actually, but what do you think?

KC: The biggest difference comes down to organization. The Swedish ski federation does an incredible job pushing out information and education to the clubs. When I started at the club, they had everything organized. They had a group of 8- and 9-year-olds who were just hammering around. For every age from 5- or 6-year-olds up to teenagers, there is a specific group and they train together twice a week. There’s a coach who has at least some experience. And that’s every single club. Imagine having an APU in every single ski town in the U.S.

That makes a big difference in terms of pushing the pipeline. [In the U.S.] you get a lot of talent coming through the big clubs, like Sun Valley, Alaska Winter Stars, whatever. Imagine if they were coming from all over, if there were hundreds of those clubs.

I don’t want to say anything bad about the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, but compared to the Swedish federation, they don’t support cross country as well. A lot of things that the national Swedish federation does is left to regional organizations in the U.S., and of course they don’t have so many funds either. In Sweden it’s organized by the federation and then the local municipalities take a huge ownership of sports. And, for instance, the clubs get bonuses from the ski federation for performances. Imagine if we had that system in the U.S., where local clubs could get a monetary bonus for [developing good athletes].

FS: In my time in Sweden, it seemed like the federation is definitely really organized, for instance with their centralized race entry system.

KC: Yeah, it’s so easy for athletes. Kids here never have to pay for their race entry fees, the clubs pay for it. Imagine in the U.S. going to National Championships and not having to pay an entry fee! That’s a couple hundred bucks off your plate that you don’t have to go ask mom and dad for.

There’s a lot of little things that the ski federation has done, too. Every kid up to a certain age here – maybe 15 or 16 – is only allowed to have one pair of skate skis and one pair of classic skis that are their race skis. They get a sticker that goes on their skis to identify which ones are their race skis, and they can’t have more than that. It’s a good thing, I think, because then it doesn’t come down to, well, John has Fischer Carbonlites, but I don’t. Yeah, you’re going to have kids who have better equipment than others, but you’re not going to have 12-year-olds showing up to a race with 30 pairs of test skis and a full wax team.

The Swedish ski federation also has recommended training volumes for each age group. 430 hours is the recommended amount, not including strength training, at 16 years old. And then increasing by 15 to 20% every year. At the early years, that’s not that insane. The difference is that time adds up year after year after year. It’s focused, and they probably have access to the top training partners, like having an REG camp all the time. On top of that, the programs have biathlon too, so you can combine skate intervals with those guys.

So it’s the little things. You don’t have certain clubs that do a much better job than the others. The general level is just higher.

FS: How is this possible financially?

KC: It’s all volunteer. There’s no paid coaches at the club level. They do a very good job of getting sponsorships [from local businesses], which brings in a lot of money to the club. The yearly fee for my girlfriend and I plus her parents, we paid the club fee for the year and it was less than $200 for the whole family. I mean, come on. If you’re going to join CXC at an elite level, you’re looking at a thousand or more for the year. So it’s a big difference not to have the financial monkey on the backs of a lot of skiers, and it also makes a big difference for the parents having incentive to keep going with it.

And races are really fun [because of the sponsorship]. They hand out the wackiest prizes. Kids can win blenders and toolboxes. It’s cool, because instead of just getting a ribbon, you get something you can take home with you.

FS: What happens to skiers after they graduate from the ski gymnasium?

KC: It depends. There’s a huge burnout rate. Many of them will quit right after they finish.

Most of them will go to a university, Ostersund or Umea. There, you have really good local club systems and it’s easy to combine your studies with training, and then just hope for the best. You figure out if you can still support themselves with skiing. They have to do quite a bit of work to find their own personal sponsors, so that can also lead to burnout. But, school is free here, and a portion of the loans they receive is actually free from the government.

That’s the most common route. A few who have had really good success right away can hop straight onto the national team.


FS: One thing that surprised me in Sweden was that there actually aren’t that many senior racers. The depth really tails off after the high school age group. So is the perceived problem we have in the U.S. of skier dropout not actually such a unique problem?

KC: I’m just going to throw this out for the U.S. ski world to hear: The U.S. senior nationals is one of the best-attended races I’ve ever seen in the world, except for in Norway. Sweden this year at senior nationals in the women’s races, I think there were 42 starters. 42 in all of Sweden. Granted, the top 10 probably could all podium on the World Cup, but it definitely drops off a lot. And the men’s wasn’t much better.

In the U.S., when you go to junior nationals, it’s hundreds of kids there. In Sweden, it’s, like, maybe 100. People just need to realize that it isn’t as gigantic of a system as people think. And it’s really only the northern half of Sweden that skis.

FS: Now that you’ve seen the development side of things, what do you think the U.S. would have to do to catch up?

KC: It’s already on its way. Look at the U.S. women. It’s not a training volume thing – there’s a lot of little pieces that have to fall into place for the U.S. to really get up to a competitive level, as a system-wide thing.

But if you look at the U.S. and look at who is really doing well, the women’s A team have been doing really well, and they have been doing really well together for a couple of years. A lot of the people who get to show up on the World Cup, it’s hit or miss. There’s not a whole lot of depth. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just that a lot of those girls train together, and they also have had a lot of opportunity to go train with the Swedish girls, the Norwegian girls, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, and stuff like that. When you get exposure to it, it makes a difference.

Whereas here you might grow up 500 meters down the road from Charlotte Kalla. Now the U.S. women are getting to that level of “if they can do it, I can do it.” Nobody really had that attitude ten years ago. And it’s because they have created these opportunities. It would be good for the men to do that.

On the organization side of things, it would be good to get more clubs going and get more people in the pipeline. But from a training standpoint, there’s a whole lot more education in the system now, which I think is incredible. The pieces are falling into place. It will just take some time.

FS: What about the other way around? Is there anything the U.S. is really good at?

KC: One thing that the U.S. has that Sweden isn’t really good at is adding fun into training. The U.S. skiers don’t really take themselves that seriously. It can almost be a little bit stifling here at the higher levels. People are so focused, that I think it leads to burnout. They put so much pressure on themselves. The U.S. girls have showed the world that you can have fun, train really hard, and have results, but you don’t have to be as stiff as a rock.

Jessie Diggins is huge here. Whenever anyone meets me in the ski world here, their first question is, ‘Do you know Jessie Diggins? She’s so fun!’ They love how the U.S. girls always have the face paint and the socks. They’ve never seen that before, to have a skier take that route and have fun with it that way. They say it’s easy to cheer for the Americans because they are so full of energy and full of life.

And they still don’t have any arrogance about it. When they show up on the World Cup they don’t have this expectation that they’re supposed to win. That’s something that has sort of plagued some other nations. Because they come from a very strong national program, there’s a sense of entitlement about their results. That’s why it’s easy to cheer for the U.S. skiers. It’s like cheering for the underdogs, even though they aren’t underdogs anymore in any sense.

Chelsea Little

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.

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One comment

  • chadsalmela

    October 9, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Great article and insights. Really valuable. Glad to see you and Marie landed on your feet over there! Watch out for Henrik. He can be a klutz sometimes…

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