GeneralNewsRacingChanging Times and NCAA’s: (Part I) Could Sprinting Become a College Thing?

Avatar Gabby NaranjaMarch 17, 2016
Mads Strøm of the University of Colorado racing to a first place finish in the men’s 10 K freestyle race at the 2016 NCAA Skiing Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Photo: CUBuffs/Buffzone.com)
Mads Strøm of the University of Colorado racing to first place in the men’’s 10 k freestyle at 2016 NCAA Skiing Championships last week in Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Photo: CUBuffs/Buffzone.com)

Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Ethan Townsend as of Thursday, March 17. 

With the conclusion of the collegiate season taking place at the 2016 NCAA Skiing Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colo., last week, FasterSkier provides a look at the some of the latest involving school, sport and the Championship races. Part I examines the tradition behind the NCAA Skiing Championships format, and what it would take to change it.

A Brief History of NCAA Skiing Championships

5 k/10 k. 15 k/20 k. Scrolling through the archives of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship events for nordic skiing is akin to strolling through a 1950s U.S. ‘Levittown’ neighborhood: Variation zero to none. Another online record for the past 16 years of NCAA Skiing Championships provides a similar finding. Nordic races at this event are traditionally two races for each gender: women race 5 kilometers and 15 k, while the men race 10 k and 20 k. Though the discipline alters between freestyle and classic, the distances for each respective gender remain the same.

A phone conversation earlier this season with Cami Thompson-Graves, Dartmouth College women’s head nordic coach and director of skiing, NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee member, Chair of the USSA Cross Country Committee, and most recently, a member of the International Ski Federation (FIS) Ladies’ Cross Country Committee, revealed a similar story.

Dartmouth head coach, Cami Thompson-Graves (r) at 2016 U.S. nationals in Houghton, Michigan.
Dartmouth women’s coach Cami Thompson-Graves (r) at 2016 U.S. nationals in Houghton, Mich.

“So as long as I can remember, [the championships] have been two races,” Thompson-Graves explained. “Way back when … it was an individual race and a relay. But then when skating came along, we went with one classic race and one skate race. Pretty much for the last 25 years, we’ve alternated every two years and done a long mass start of one and a shorter of the other.”

So what if the championship races have stayed the same for the past 25 plus years? Why should anyone in or out of the college-race scene care?

“I skied in the East and tradition is a big deal in the East,” Chad Salmela, head nordic coach of The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., said on the phone. “People like tradition, but at the same time, tradition can limit your outlook as to what the future could possibly hold.”

Coaches, Committee Members and Athletes on Change

According to Salmela, the championship event controls quite a bit of what events college racers will compete in during the regular season. 

“Let’s face it, the championships really drive what happens in the regular season because everybody is trying to qualify,” Salmela said.

That’s certainly the case for the 2016 Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA) nordic race schedule, with all but one weekend following the 5 k/10 k and 15 k/20 k format.

“It varies from region to region,” Thompson-Graves said of the 5 k/ 10k and 15 k/20 k race distances in the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) schedule. “If those are the [championship] events, we’ll try to do those races one weekend back to back early in the season and our regional championship is usually similar to the NCAA Championship.”

This year, the EISA schedule included a men’s and women’s 1.5 k classic sprint, as well as a men’s and women’s sprint relay event.

Kelsey Phinney, a senior at Middlebury College from Boulder, Colo.
Kelsey Phinney, a Middlebury College senior from Boulder, Colo. competing at 2013 NCAA Skiing Championships at the Rikert Nordic Center near Middlebury, Vt.

Still, a few individuals question if this is enough and whether the current NCAA Championships nordic skiing schedule necessitates change. 

“I love sprinting and I would love to see it in the championship events for college races,” Kelsey Phinney, a senior at Middlebury College, said on the phone.

“I think sprinting is a really good development tool in terms of gaining speed and applying tactics during your races. It’s such an exciting part of our sport right now and it has such a presence on the World Cup that in terms of development, it makes a lot of sense to include it,” Phinney added.

Raleigh Goessling, a senior at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), agrees.

“I think that sprinting is already a really big part of nordic skiing at every other level, except the college level,” Goessling said on the phone. “I think that college programs should get on board with that.”

Goessling’s point was bolstered further by Salmela.

“I’m very much in favor personally of adding sprinting to the championship,” Salmela said. “I think it modernizes the sport and it’s inevitable. The question is when and how.”

Attempting to Answer ‘How’ 

In an effort to resolve the question of ‘how,’ Salmela — whose four year term on the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee expired this past September — and committee members created a proposal for the 2016/2017 race season.

The proposal, submitted last spring to the NCAA for review, included a menu offering championship race organizers the opportunity to select the race lengths and format, based on the courses and course crews available to the championship event host-site.

“What we proposed to the NCAA put the onus on the organizer of the championships to decide on a menu of FIS distances and disciplines,” Salmela said. “The idea was to leave it up to the committee to steer it in a way that sprinting becomes a part of NCAA skiing, but is not necessarily a mandated thing every year.”

Thus, any International Ski Federation (FIS) event, from a sprint to a 30 k, had the potential to show up at a championship race series.

However, the proposal was returned this past fall to the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee for further review.

Ethan Townsend (l) current chair for the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee and Saint Lawrence University nordic head coach, congratulates Mads Strøm  of the University of Colorado after he won the men's 10 k freestyle race at the 2016 NCAA Championship races in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. (Photo: CUBuffs/Buffzone.com)
Ethan Townsend (l), chair of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee and St. Lawrence University head nordic coach, congratulates the 2016 NCAA 10 k freestyle champion, Mads Strøm of the University of Colorado. (Photo: Joel Riechenburger/Daily Camera via CUBuffs/Buffzone.com)

“It’s not been denied,” Ethan Townsend, chair of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee and St. Lawrence University head nordic coach, explained on the phone prior to the championship. “It’s just kind of a big change and the NCAA wanted us to vet it out a bit more.”

The most recent discussion regarding the proposal took place last week in Steamboat Springs, Colo. at the 2016 NCAA Championships.

“I think we are looking to re-propose what the skiing committee approved this past summer with some changes,” Townsend wrote in an email post-2016 NCAA’s. “I’m not really confident we will get that change through but we are going to try.”

With the next NCAA Men’s and Women’s Rules Committee meeting taking place in early June, Townsend predicts changes to the NCAA Championship event won’t be implemented for another season or two.

“Any changes will take at least until 17/18 I think,” Townsend wrote, “it’s too late to have this in place for next season.”

While select coaches from the east, west, and central locations convened last week to go over a number of NCAA issues–including the proposition of holding NCAA Championships in Alaska, a topic Townsend described in an email as “more concerning in the immediate term for a variety of reasons”–athletes remained topics of conversation, but not contributors to the dialogue.

At some levels, the lack of voice is not a deliberate choice. Currently, there is no athlete representation on the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Rules Committee.

“That’s not our call,” Salmela said. “The committee makeup is entirely driven by the NCAA … I think it would be awesome to have an athlete or a couple athletes on each sport committee, but that’s not a skiing issue, that’s an NCAA sport-wide issue.”

That doesn’t mean that student athletes’ don’t have plenty to say. 

“Although I’m personally not a sprinter, I think it is a good move if we want to develop competitive skiers to race on the World Cup,” Dartmouth senior Oscar Friedman said on the phone. “That being said, I would probably support a calendar that more closely mirrors the World Cup. If there’s only two races at NCAA’s, I don’t think it makes sense to have a sprint. I would prefer there be three races; one can be a sprint and two distance races.”

While many might agree with Friedman, financial restrictions decrease the feasibility of adding another race day.

“We are only funded by the NCAA for 5.5 days and we currently have four races days, alternating Nordic and Alpine events,” Fredrik Landstedt, the secretary-rules editor for the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee and head nordic coach for the University of New Mexico, wrote in an email. “It is very unlikely that the NCAA will increase their spending on the Skiing Championships to add extra days.”

Landstedt also extrapolated that the the duality of NCAA skiing — shared scoring between alpine and nordic, as well as combined points between men’s and women’s teams in order to win a championship title — makes bringing a sprint into the championship particularly complicated.

Fans at the 2015 NCAA Championships.
Fans at the 2015 NCAA Skiing Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.

“A sprinter can be tripped or obstructed and your entire team can lose the Championship because of something that was not related to the strength of the skiers on your team,” Landstedt wrote. “This happens all the time in sprinting. When it is an individual race for individual glory, it is very different compared to when it affects not only the rest of the Nordic team, but the Alpine team as well.”

Instead, Landstedt suggested that an “Individual Sprint Championship” be incorporated into NCAA Championships.

I believe that we could add an Individual sprint championship race where the winners will be recognized by the Collegiate Ski Coaches Association as the NCAA Sprint Champions,” Landstedt explained. “It might mean that there are 3 Nordic races in a 4 day span but if the sprint race is an individual race, slow sprinters and some skiers from the teams that are competing for the team trophies might chose to skip this race.”

A Way Out of the NCAA’s Quagmire?

A change to NCAA Championships is particularly complex.

We’re basically only going to be allowed to have two races at the championships and so how are we going to pick those two races and make it fair for everyone?” Thompson-Graves questioned.

“… Program budgets are probably all over the map and we all have to follow different rules,” she pointed out. “[Dartmouth has] to follow Ivy League rules and Division I rules, Middlebury, Colby, Bates, and Williams are following NESCAC [New England Small College Athletic Conference] rules and Division III rules. We’re all trying to compete head to head and yet we face a lot of different kinds of issues.”

School budgetary divides and division differences are just the beginning.

Landstedt also wondered whether adding sprinting will encourage sprint racers to become more specialized in college racing and if schools with larger budgets will be at an advantage to recruit and travel to sprint venues for training.

“Major concerns include how to fit sprinting in to a team format, having highly educated officials and a jury that can handle lots of protests and rule correctly on obstruction and interference issues common in sprint races, limited number of race venues with good sprint courses, expense related issues, recruiting,” he explained. I also believe that sprint racers will become more and more specialized and that it will be harder and harder for distance skiers to compete in sprints and vice versa.”

“People like tradition. But at the same time, tradition can limit your outlook as to what the future could possibly hold.” — Chad Salmela, College of St. Scholastica head coach and former member of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Skiing Rules Committee

All of these concerns compressed into two days of competition makes for a challenge. But it’s a challenge that Salmela feels cannot go untouched.

“If you look a the repertoire of what FIS has for nordic skiing right now, it’s a multitude of events,” he said. “To cap for that in two days is probably one of the greatest challenges the committee faces in trying to be a relevant piece of ski racing — not just American ski racing — but ski racing. And I think that’s why sprinting needs to be looked at. The sport has to be relevant.”

An Issue of Relevancy: College Racing and The World Cup

How much focus should college skiing in the U.S. place on preparing athletes for higher levels of nordic competition? How many skiers move on past college to ski professionally? Would this number grow if changes were made to NCAA Championships?

“There’s a very tenuous argument, I feel, that NCAA skiing is the best path for the top talent in the country to develop into World Class skiers,” Salmela said. “I think that it’s a wonderful and lucky mechanism for retaining athletes who maybe don’t progress at the international pace for their age.

“From a U.S. Olympic Committee perspective, the NCAA is a safety net that you don’t have to fund to keep talented skiers developing,” he added.

From 2005 to 2009, Simi Hamilton, 28, raced for Middlebury, where he was a three-time NCAA All-American, before he made the leap to the U.S. Ski Team. Hamilton nabbed two individual podiums this season on the World Cup, first in a freestyle sprint in Toblach, Italy, and again at the freestyle sprint earlier this month in Gatineau, Québec.

“When the question comes up of how college ski racing affects/overlaps with the overall development of a racer that wants to race full time (World Cup or domestic circuit) after school, it’s always tricky to answer,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “I don’t think there’s any way one person can say, ‘Yes, it fits in great’ or ‘no, the two don’t mesh at all.’ If I were answering the question based on what it did for me, I would definitely say that it helped. Skiing throughout college gave me an opportunity to stay in touch with racing, while giving me enough space from the sport to become more mature as an athlete and as an adult.”

Sophie Caldwell soaks up her first World Cup win on Tuesday at the Tour de Ski Stage 4 classic sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)
Sophie Caldwell soaks up her first World Cup win at the Tour de Ski Stage 4 classic sprint in Oberstdorf, Germany. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

Caldwell, a 2012 Dartmouth graduate and five-time NCAA All-American, who won her first individual World Cup in January at the the women’s classic sprint in Obsterdorf, Germany, also explained college ski racing was the right decision for her.

“I don’t think I was mature enough or mentally ready to ski full time right after high school, so I think having the balance of skiing and school in college worked out really well for me” Caldwell wrote in an email. “By the time I graduated from Dartmouth, I was four years older and more experienced, and ready to give professional skiing a stab.”

Though both have seen recent success on the World Cup and both agree that development varies from person to person, they also confer on the point that perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate race distances at NCAA’s.

“Sprinting is becoming more popular and almost half of the World Cup races are now sprints, so it definitely would be worth considering for college racing,” Caldwell wrote. 

Hamilton pushed the point even further.

“I think that NCAA needs to do some serious restructuring of their planning and scheduling in college xc ski racing,” he wrote. “It’s crazy to me that athletes still go to the championships and only race one middle distance race and one long distance race.

“It’s hard to be too critical about the current system that is in place now because I am successful at what I do and I think I have quite a few years left of skiing successfully on the World Cup circuit, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for the NCAA to keep things exactly the way they have been for the last 30+ years,” he added.

In conclusion, Hamilton added two primary goals college skiing should strive for within the U.S.

“The first is giving young athletes a chance to be a part of something in college that is great,” he wrote. “The importance of being part of a team, no matter what kind of team, cannot be overstated. Regardless of whether an athlete wants to ski after college or not, college skiing should provide every xc athlete with a really fun chance to work hard at something and focus on achieving goals beyond the classroom.”

While Hamilton’s first objective of college skiing revolved around teamwork and team skiing, his second goal emphasized individual aspirations.

“The other goal that college ski racing should strive for is giving young races a chance to develop into the kind of athlete they want to become after college, if that is something they are serious about pursuing,” he wrote. “Personally speaking, if I had been given more opportunities while I was in school to focus on sprinting, there’s no doubt that I would have entered the World Cup circuit with more confidence and better prepared.”

“Personally speaking, if I had been given more opportunities while I was in school to focus on sprinting, there’s no doubt that I would have entered the World Cup circuit with more confidence and better prepared.” — Simi Hamilton, U.S. Ski Team sprinter and former Middlebury skier 

As a place where athletes have the opportunity to compete and train at a relatively low cost, college does seem to provide a great opportunity to further develop nordic skiers and skiing in the U.S.

“Most of these college programs are providing coaching and transportation and waxing and all those things to make it easy for athletes to race, which they maybe don’t appreciate until they’re out of school and trying to do it on their own,” Thompson-Graves said.

Yet, lumping U.S. college racing and the World Cup all in one does not appear to be the answer, either.

“I think the challenge is that we’re trying to accommodate a lot of different kinds of athletes in college racing,” Thompson-Graves added, pointing out that “some programs are just happy to race carnivals,” while other U.S. college programs “challenge [athletes] to think bigger and do more if that’s what they want to do.”

Ultimately, however, most believed that it should be a priority that skiing in the U.S. stays relevant.

“I guess I fall into the camp that would like to see us doing, in college skiing, races that are sort of done in the national and international calendar,” Thompson-Graves said. “To me, it’s important that our athletes are learning to race whatever the current races are throughout the world. That’s important to me.”

“I’ve thought for a while that sprinting needs to be looked at just to keep it relevant,” Salmela said. “If we become archaic, it’s not good for any of us.”

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Gabby Naranja

Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.

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