UNM Lobo on the Human Cost of Cutting Skiing

Gavin KentchApril 17, 2017
Current members of the University of New Mexico ski team advocate for their team’s continued survival. (Photo: saveunmskiteam.com)

When viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the most prominent names from the 2015 Western Regional Elite Group (REG) hill climb time trial are easy to pick out from the results. There’s current University of Alaska Anchorage skier Hailey Swirbul in second, tenths of a second off the win. There’s current U.S. Ski Team D-Team athlete Hannah Halvorsen in fifth. And slightly farther down the results sheet, but still in the running, there’s then-recent Park City High School grad Brenna Egan in 10th.

Less than two years later, Swirbul and Halvorsen would be standing at Egan’s home course, Soldier Hollow, with historic Junior World Championships medals around their necks. And Egan, a sophomore on the University of New Mexico (UNM) Ski Team, would be fighting for her future as a competitive skier.

Brenna Egan of the University of New Mexico racing at 2017 NCAA Skiing Championships on March 9 at the Jackson Ski Touring Center in Jackson, N.H. (Photo: flyingpointroad.com)

Egan is the first to admit that she’s not a skier at the level of Swirbul or Halvorsen – indeed, judging from the results of this year’s World Juniors, few are.

But she’s certainly of a certain caliber. Egan posted a top-10 finish at Junior Nationals in her final year of eligibility as a U20. She was third in the junior women’s classic sprint at the 2016 Spring Series races in Craftsbury, earning a mention in the USSA press release alongside Jessie Diggins and a passel of APU skiers with World Cup starts. There was the REG camp invite the summer after high school. It’s a résumé that most American junior skiers would kill for. And together it was enough for Egan to realize her longtime goal when UNM coach Fredrik Landsted gave her the opportunity to ski for a Division I ski team.

“I was thrilled,” Egan has written, “as this had been a goal of mine for years. Over these last two years, New Mexico has become my home, and this team has become my family. I have improved so much under Fredrik’s coaching, and I was really looking forward to becoming even stronger. I am so grateful for the time I have had here, but also heartbroken that it is being taken away from me so suddenly. I have two full years of school left, and I am nowhere close to being ready to give up skiing.”

Last week’s announcement that UNM would be cutting its ski team was a shock to many. Particularly to the athletes, who found themselves scrambling for a place to ski next year, while suddenly in competition with the calendar, their own teammates, and any other American skier looking for one of the very few scholarship spots on any NCAA ski team.

FasterSkier previously quoted a current UNM athlete, senior alpine skier Patrick Brachner, as saying that the mid-April timing of this announcement means that “It’s too late to transfer to other ski teams; spots are taken.” Frank Mercogliano, assistant athletic director of communications at UNM, begged to differ, saying of Brachner’s sentiment, “I don’t think that’s correct.” Mercogliano noted that other schools “have basically had us on speed-dial,” and offered his reassurance that other NCAA schools are “going to find room for kids that can win podiums on the circuit. They’ll do that.”

Some Facebook commenters on that article begged to differ. “What coaches are on speed dial? I’m sure some members of the team would love to know,” wrote Colorado-based alpine skier Taylor Grauer.

If Mercogliano is correct, and in an era of tightened budgets and contracted opportunities some other school will have room for UNM’s displaced athletes, his perspective begs the question: what about athletes not on the podium? By definition, only three skiers can be on the podium of any given race. There’s a lot more athletes than that in an NCAA race. What about them?

If Egan is a fair representative of this underclass – good enough to ski on a competitive RMISA team, not quite a podium contender, at least not yet – then the future may be grim. In a candid email to FasterSkier over the weekend, Egan held little back about her current options and emotions:

“Basically, it’s going to be very difficult to get on to new teams. Lack of spots is obviously going to be a problem, but the issue also extends to tuition. Coaches rarely give out full scholarships, and the money is typically saved for people who are consistently skiing in the top ten. I, and a few of my teammates, are not these kinds of skiers. We all have something to offer, through a combination of academics, being great teammates, working hard etc. – all the things that are required to have a great team. However, since we are not podium contenders, coaches from other schools are not going to give us any money.

The University of New Mexico is great because it offers amazing academic scholarships – I am here on the Amigo scholarship. Without that, there is no way I could go to school out of Utah without acquiring crippling debt. Unfortunately, few schools offer the same kind of scholarships, so it will be next to impossible for me to ski for another school.

All of this in addition to the fact that we have been informed about this so late that IT IS TOO LATE TO APPLY TO MANY SCHOLARSHIPS. Of course I am going to do everything I can, but every indication is pointing to the end of my ski career.

The unfairness of this situation makes me sick to my stomach. I have been working incredibly hard with Fredrik [Landsted] to make progress in my training, and have put an unbelievable amount of time and energy into training so I can be a competitive skier in the Mountain West region. I deserved to know about this budget cut months ago, so I could have begun to make the appropriate arrangements, and so I could have a chance to continue the ski career I have worked so hard for. I feel like the decision to stop being a competitive skier was made for me by a man in an office who knows nothing about me or my sport. But he is not oblivious to the reality of this situation when it comes to recruitment and scholarships. I feel like I was viewed as a faceless number, rather than a valuable member of the athletic department.

Currently, I am spending every moment I can fighting for this team, while also trying to figure out my new options, all while continuing as a full time student. I am exhausted and overwhelmed, and totally heartbroken.

As for next year, I am a little lost. I had just settled on a major here at UNM (Environmental Science, which is not offered at the University of Utah, where I am likely headed next) and was ready to register for classes for Fall 2017. I will be applying for a few other schools and contacting coaches and crossing my fingers. Without UNM skiing and no scholarships, I will certainly be done skiing, whether I want it or not.”

When Egan graduated from high school, two years ago this spring, local paper The Park Record ran a flattering profile of Egan and some of her club teammates entitled, “Park City Nordic Ski Club [PCNSC] honors top athletes.”

The piece concluded, “PCNSC has become one of the preeminent cross-country ski programs in the nation, and it wishes these young skiers and the other PCNSC grads currently skiing in college all the best as they continue their ski journey. It’s a real testament to how the program has grown over the years, and how, with hard work, dedication and a sound program, some ski dreams will come true.”

Some dreams do come true. Some dreams never come true. And some dreams are lived for two years but then abruptly snuffed out, two years too early.

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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