InterviewsNewsAfter 23 Years, Luke Bodensteiner Exits U.S. Ski & Snowboard

Jason Albert Jason AlbertJuly 15, 2019
Luke Bodensteiner (Photo: U.S. Ski and Snowboard)

Singularly focused on winning and the commensurate hardware that validates that supremacy, 48-year-old Luke Bodensteiner will leave U.S. Ski & Snowboard after a 23 year run with the organization. For the last 12 years, Bodensteiner has served as the organization’s Chief of Sport. His job description placed him at the helm of  US Ski & Snowboard’s teams. Bodensteiner was a cross-country athlete at the University of Utah, a U.S. Ski Team member, and a two-time Olympian.

During his tenure, Bodensteiner saw the alpine, freeski, freestyle, snowboard, and cross-country ski teams excel. 

FasterSkier: We read in a press release that you’ll be stepping away from your job. Can you comment on how you are feeling about stepping away?

Luke Bodensteiner: I have been at US Ski and Snowboard for a long time. I will tell you that. I have been here for 23 years and basically, it has really been my only real employer. I went to work there really straight out of college and straight out of ski racing, within weeks of graduating college which is also the year I stopped ski racing.

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I have been at the organization for a longtime and doing the job I have been doing now for 12 years which is honestly a pretty long time for that type of job. 

There are other things I want to do with my time. As you said, I am coming into the prime of my life, there are still some things I want to try to tackle and accomplish. I also think it is really healthy for an organization to get some new energy or new ways of doing things after a certain amount of time. 

You are always trying to innovate in a job like that I mean, it can be hard to continue to bring new things to the table and an organization will need that sometimes. 

FS: Can you talk about any plans you might have for the future?

LB: My job today, particularly for the last twelve years, has been focused on high performance achievement at the Olympic Games and other top level events in the elite performance side of things. I think there are two pretty fascinating angles honestly going on in sports right now. I am going to continue to work in sport and be involved with sport. 

One is how youth sports have developed particularly in a place like America. And some of the interesting flaws with youth sport society here. And some are really interesting — I see some perspectives of how to change that for the better and actually being a part of that change is something that I find really challenging and really interesting. 

The other area that has been super fascinating for me is the whole idea of what it means to be an elite athlete ad the transformation we are seeing with elite athletes now where they want to be far more empowered. They understand that their sports career is about far more than winning ski races or medals and want those organizations to take a more holistic look at their careers. And really what it means to be a high performing or achieving athlete at that end. Less on the performance side and more on the athlete lifestyle side. Which is an interesting evolution for me to see. 

It has something we at the ski team have been going through a lot of this evolution as well. I think in today’s athletes minds, performance at the end of the day or how you are awarded or what you win or don’t win is still important and still a driving factor for athletes…but brought so much more to the table in terms of what you can do with that platform as an athlete what kind of impact  you can make what kind of ownership you can have over your career. And what you learn or achieve along the way to having that kind of performance. 

So there is some pretty interesting work to be done there. Not that we are not interested in doing that at the ski team, but there are a lot of pretty cool avenues to go down that path. 

FS: How has the sport evolved?

Luke Bodensteiner: I think sport, in general, has evolved and in some of the ways it has evolved is both positive and potentially negative ways. I think one of the things and I am going to talk specifically about cross-country skiing here, one of the things I had the privilege of having a birds eye view watching evolve over the last twenty years was the professionalization of what goes on at that club level. I think that is one of, if not the biggest factor in the success that you see with American cross country skiing. Right now is the fact that there are more professional coaches who are completely devoted to training athletes and clubs and structures that are capable of supporting athletes down to the entry level of the sport. 

That has been a real positive factor. I think we all recognize the potential negative factors and more the potential of real negative factors in some cases just in terms of what that means to the cost of the sport and kid’s ability to access the sport. 

It can be pretty restrictive and more expensive than it needs to be. It can cut people out more quickly than they probably should be cut out. It does not retain athletes as long as it can or should. 

FS: What are you most proud of in your career with US Ski & Snowboard?

LB: It is funny. I got involved with the team when I decided to stop ski racing in 1996. I decided to stop just because the program was in lousy shape. We did not have really great support or leadership or any clue about what we were doing. I was 25 years old and I just decided I am graduating from school this year and I am moving on. I  have got more productive things to do. 

But I did tell the USSA at the time, I said ‘hey if you want my perspective on what I think you could do better and what the experience of the athlete was like, I will come and share that with you because I know you guys always have this congress in the spring in Park City. And so they invited me to do that and I spent a couple of hours walking people through what my experience was and my impressions and where they could do better. And two weeks later they called me and asked me to show up for work on a Monday. 

It was great because I walked in and they did not know who I was going to report to and they didn’t really know what my job was going to be. They basically pulled a card table out of a closet and plugged a phone in the wall and then told me you have got some ideas so get at it.

I came from a place like how do we make cross-country skiing better and do a better job with the cross-country team? So for me, if I think back to why I got involved in the first place, my proudest moment is what the team has achieved today because I think that has been a real collective partnership with the clubs and the communities and to just see all the levels of success that have gone on in the sport right now. 

That is just so much fun for me. 

FS: You led all the teams as Chief of Sport. That’s a diverse collection of niche sport cultures under one umbrella. We’re talking baggy slopestyle to aero-lycra. You come from the lycra and skinny skis side of things. Was that tough to fall in love with such wide-ranging cultures other than the one you had been immersed in for so long as an athlete?

LB: I was super into it. It is really easy to fall in love with all these other sports. And they all have something you can take away from each other and give to the other sports. 

You mentioned slopestyle, there is an incredible culture in that sport and in those teams. And they are so much fun to work with. That was not a problem. I just got right into it. 

The harder part for me is when I took responsibility for the whole team, all the U.S. teams, I had to be really careful to make decisions about cross-country in a different way. Because I didn’t feel it was right for me to be quote-unquote, “the cross-country guy”, and do what I wanted to do with that program or that team at the expense of everything else. 

I really had to force myself to think about the greater good. Look, when I got hired into this job as Chief of Sport, my boss, Bill Marolt at the time, I asked him “what do you want to get out of this position what does success look like for me?”

And he said, “well, give me a team that is the best in the world.”

So I completely bought into that. And that created a different decision making dynamic for me. Prior to that, I spent a ton of time fighting for resources for cross-country, fighting for attention trying to push things forward. And then when I got responsibility for all the sports, I just did not, I could not do that anymore. I had to take a different approach.

FS: Do you have a different idea now of what it means to be the best in the world than maybe you did at the outset?

Great question. That is a great question. And I don’t have an answer. I think the organization being the ski team and I think it is not easy. I think a lot of sports organizations in the U.S. and around the world are starting to ask themselves the same question. Is it just about winning more medals at the Olympics?

We have always taken the approach that that outcome validates a lot of the work that we did.  But, at the same time when you are so focused on that kind of outcome, it influences the way you make decisions. And like I said, you tend to make shorter term decisions and things like that. I think there is probably a different definition out there. I think a lot of organizations right now are asking themselves what that is and how you know when you have achieved that or arrived there and how you use those metrics to really challenge yourself to drive forward with urgency and full commitment.

That was one of the great things when Bill Marolt said we are going to be the best in the world, and he was really definitive about what that looked like, it just supercharges the entire organization. Everybody got focused and pushed so hard towards that goal. 

It became this incredible rallying cry. What the next rallying cry is that creates that same sort of urgency and effort, it is important to find it. I am not certain we have the answer yet. 

FS: As part of bringing change to skiing and youth sports, you spent some time in Norway learning from some of the best. What did you learn?

You guys are aware I have been spending a lot of time with the sport leadership in Norway and you guys wrote an article about some of the stuff I did most recently there. They have got a youth sport culture that deservedly is gaining a lot of attention and I think has people focusing on some really interesting aspects of what they do and what that has done for kids and for the sport in general in Norway. 

And so, working towards trying to activate some of those principles in a culture, a youth sports culture that is far different than that is pretty compelling leadership task. 

FS: What were you actually seeing in Norway? I mean we are still talking about a culture that produces not just happy kids, but some athletes that are all about crushing the competition.

This whole thing started for me post PyeongChang where Norway had such an incredible performance there. And I told myself and my team, ‘hey we really have to understand what is going on there and what has led to this and we have to spend time there and spend some time with the leaders there and quiz them on what they do. And get a feel for what they believe and things like that. 

We did that and I spent a bunch of time with Inge Andersen, who was the head of the Olympic committee there for many many years and who is one of the people who has really been driving this kind of sport culture. 

It is the real deal. I think people will always find examples where you will have a kid who is super driven to win medals or has parents who are super driven by results or things like that. But from an overarching cultural perspective, the culture that sets the expectation for the people that are working in that system does everything that HBO and others have promoted that they do

And it is a real ethos that built that culture through leadership and expectation I think it is not easy to perpetuate that. That’s because I think they see sports are under pressure by parents and there is a city dynamic where it is families, whether it is near Oslo or some of the larger populations, that are just driven to have their kids win and be a superstar personality in sport. 

And look, half of my family lives in Norway, so I am super familiar with a kids experience in youth sport there and it is all of those things that they say – it is super inclusive. It is very welcoming. It is very much focused on personal development and fun and comradery. 

And of course they have hundreds of hundreds of experts with incredible technical and tactical knowledge of sport who can do a great job coaching but it really is about getting kids out there and making sure that they have fun. And they explore and work together and all these things that we hear about are really true. 

FS: You are Chief of Sport, but I am hearing you talk like someone who is less focused on medals. Is this is something you have learned and absorbed at US Ski & Snowboard over twenty some odd years?

LB: You are exactly right, you get pigeonholed after you have been known as somebody who is single mindedly chasing medals at the Olympics for twelve years. That becomes your brand or your persona. It is important to, it is better to not let that happen at the end of the day. 

I think it has been an evolution. And I would say in our work at the U.S. Ski Team, while we have really, I would not say single-mindedly chased performance at the Olympics although that is something that my team thought about and worked on every single day for the twelve years I was there, I think we also built out programs and philosophies and plans on where we were going. 

We were also recognizing that that is a real short term perspective and there are things that you might do in the short term that will yield those kinds of results that don’t create a sustainable foundation. And so I think we have always had some level of emphasis on club development or coaches education and important things like that.

But I will tell you what, post-2018 for me was a real turning point philosophically because I had seen, we obviously in 2010 became the best in the world, we set the world record for the most medals won at an Olympic Games with a ski and snowboard theme and it was amazing. When you do that, the only next success is to do it again and win even more medals. 

What happens is you start to get into these short term cycles of OK, four years from now how do we take what we have and make that even better?

What I have found I that you exhaust that over time. Versus what Norway did which is totally interesting to me, is they built something over 30 years. They really started down this path in the early 90s. And while it took them many years to get to that outcome of being the best ski and snowboard nation in the world. 

That is going to perpetuate. They have built something that is sustainable. It won’t just peel away in four years or eight years or twelve years. 

That to me became really interesting in terms of how do you create that kind of culture and system that just does the right thing with kids and is super inclusive and retains kids. Teaches them all the great things about sport without being in a rush to cut them out. To focus resources and things like that. And what can that ultimately do for the health and quality and the brand of sport in your community.

FS: The idea that an NGB is obligated to an athlete during that period of post-Olympics or post-retirement when they may have been in the system for eight years or ten years is gaining traction. And what I mean is, even for those athletes skiing on the World Cup, on the cusp of the World Cup, in your mind what are the obligations of an NGB to help those athletes navigate that next piece of their lives? And it may be in the form of stipends for education or ensuring affordable health care for a window of time, I am just curious about what your thoughts are?

LB: I think there is a big obligation there. I think it obviously the athletes who are involved in elite sport are driven for whatever reason drives them. There is an obligation by the NGBs and the teams to empower that desire in those athletes and do it again to provide those athletes with guidance and expertise that allows them to get the most out of their capabilities. And look, the NGBs get a lot out of the athletes as well when they do that. 

It is a very symbiotic relationship the athletes, also because we create such an interesting and fulfilling pathway for athletes that isn’t always a career oriented pathway. Most of the athletes aren’t making any money, they quit when they are 30 years old and may not have had a job and may not have an education and that is a problem. There is an obligation to help an athlete through that transition into their second career. What that looks like is variable by NGB and I think the USOC can play a big role in that. 

But I think there’s an obligation to help shepherd that athlete through and to get them on their way to their second career whether that is helping through education or through mentoring or through connecting them through possible careers, sort of those things. I think it is on the shoulders on the NGBs. 

If the NGBs have not been able to help that athlete establish their sport as a professional career then I think you know the NBG has also taken something from that athlete’s success. 

It is different by NGB as well. The best NGB is not trying to be flush in money and suck that out the athletes, they are trying to create value with the athletes and to give back to the athletes. There is some balance necessary between the resources that you used to help an athlete achieve that dream — the NGB has a responsibility to carry that forward with the athletes. 

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Jason Albert

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.