Last year, 174 athletes in the male and female U18 categories competed at Junior Nationals in Anchorage, AK. This number represents a small fraction of the cross country skiers throughout the country in that age category. As there are only about 30 NCAA programs nationwide that offer Division I or Division II cross country skiing, the opportunity for high-level training and racing narrows significantly after a skier graduates from high school.
However, the door to continue to pursue collegiate nordic skiing does not shut on an athlete who does not make or does not wish to compete for an NCAA team. While lesser known, the United States Collegiate Ski Association (USCSA) has created an opportunity for hundreds of additional skiers throughout the U.S. to continue to participate and compete in cross country skiing. In essence, USCSA is Division III skiing, however, because it is not under the NCAA jurisdiction, it allows for much broader entry, making it accessible to both club and varsity programs.
The mission statement states, “The USCSA asserts that student-athletes, of ALL levels and abilities, should have access to a quality and exciting venue of competition.”
USCSA programs can be found throughout the majority of the country at schools like Cornell University, West Point, St. Olaf College, University of Wyoming, and Colorado Mesa University.
Much like the NCAA, regional USCSA coordinators organize a season of races, each hosted by a member school, leading up to a regional championship in late February. These races are held at many of the same venues as the NCAA races. At the end of the season, the top teams and individuals from each region compete at a five-day national championship in early March in conjunction with the other snowsport disciplines of USCSA. These championships have been held at prestigious venues across the country including Jackson Hole, WY in 2019, Lake Placid, NY in 2018, and Mt. Bachelor, OR in 2017.
In contrast to an NCAA program, both men and women race the same distances in both sprint and distance events, promoting equality across genders. The USCSA also prides itself in being team-centric, emphasizing team scoring, as opposed to focusing on individual results.
In most cases, USCSA programs are not exclusive, meaning teams or clubs are open to anyone, regardless of their previous experience or exposure to the sport. All athletes are welcome to participate in races. In contrast, an NCAA program may have a limited competition team. However, this inclusivity does not indicate that the programs are not competitive or that they would not serve a high-level junior skier.
“The flexibility of a USCSA team is incredible because you can have people that have never skied before to people that are – there are USCSA racers that have been Junior National Champions,” said Christi Boggs, Vice-President of Nordic Skiing at USCSA and nordic coach at the University of Wyoming (UWYO). “There are some really high-level racers, but it also allows for someone who just loves to do it to keep doing it or someone that wants to try it can try it.”
A graduate of UWYO herself and a faculty member in the School of Culture, Gender, and Social Justice, Boggs has been overseeing the school’s club program for the last 22 years. During her own time as a student and athlete at UWYO, the nordic ski program was a Division I NCAA program and Boggs became a four-time All American, later pursuing biathlon and winning the Rocky Mountain Cup and North American Cup twice each. But like several other programs, the UWYO lacked the funding to support the program. It was cut in 1993.
While top junior skiers typically do head to NCAA programs, Holly Brooks and Clare Egan, both USCSA alumn, show that the programs can still be stepping stones to elite competition.
In reflecting on her decision not to ski for an NCAA team, Egan described her high school self as “not a real serious athlete”, though she did win the Maine State Championships in 2006 and competed in Junior Nationals in both 2006 and 2007. She explained that she did not do any formal summer training in those days, and out of the three sports she participated and had talent in – she also ran cross country in the fall and track in the spring – none held priority for her. Though she did want to continue in athletics, she was very academically motivated and aspired to study abroad and to continue to play music during her college career as well. To Egan, the idea of being limited as a Division I athlete was off-putting.
“When I applied to college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” Egan recalled. “I got offered a Division I running scholarship, I got into Middlebury where I would have been focusing on skiing, and UNH, I was offered a scholarship that would have been a combination of running and skiing. But in the end, I decided that I didn’t want to be a full-time athlete at that point, which is what my impression of Division I was.”
Egan ultimately chose Wellesley College, located 30-minutes west of Boston, MA.
“I ended up picking Wellesley, among other things, because it gave me the opportunity to continue participating and competing in all the sports that I did without having it be Division I,” she explained.
At the time, Wellesley did not offer cross country skiing, but the campus is located within five miles of the Weston Ski Track, so she knew that she could continue to ski. She would also be able to participate in New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) races. Egan also joined the varsity cross country and track teams.
“I guess right away my fall at Wellesley, I decided that I did want to do skiing and that I wanted to get involved in some way,” she said. “So I started a club through the student activities and got involved in USCSA.”
By joining the USCSA, which she referred to as a “hidden gem”, Egan was able to race a full season in the Northeast, participating in USCSA and NENSA races as well as Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) carnivals. As was her hope, she studied abroad her junior year in Italy and Switzerland, where she skied regularly and raced in the Engadin Ski Marathon. In her senior year, Egan qualified individually for and competed at NCAA’s in addition to the USCSA national championships. As she had one remaining year of NCAA eligibility, her path then led her to the ski team at the University of New Hampshire and eventually to the Craftsbury Green Racing Project Team and now the US Biathlon Team.
While this trajectory is non-traditional for an Olympic athlete, it demonstrates that an athlete can be successful through a number of different pathways, some more direct than others. Egan attributes some of her longevity in the sport as her career has developed to being in a low-pressure and relatively unstructured environment for so long.
“I can say that I’m not burnt out,” said Egan. “I think a lot of other people who are my age, they stopped a long time ago and maybe part of that is because they competed so intensely for so long already by the time they were 22. Whereas, I did not start doing year-round training until I was 23.”
Egan could not state outright that had she skied four years in an NCAA program she would have fast tracked her career. But the flexibility that USCSA allowed her was a good fit for her and kept her involved with the sport through her collegiate career while focusing on academics.
“I do think that being able to stay involved with skiing in a way that worked with the rest of my life allowed me to – I was able to get involved with it again later because I stayed in touch with it,” she concluded.
Two-time Olympian Holly Brooks, who attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, attributes more of her success in ski racing to her USCSA experience.
“My time at Whitman played a really important role in my ski career,” wrote Brooks in an email. “Coming out of Seattle I had never been on a bigger team before, and rarely had coaches other than my dad. I actually choose Whitman because it had a ski team and was on the west coast. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to go to any of the larger, more competitive NCAA programs. Once at Whitman, I had awesome teammates and coaching and my love for skiing grew and grew.
“USCSA didn’t really have a ‘regular season’ but Nationals seemed like a big deal and it was enough to motivate us to train hard every day,” she continued. “I have no doubt in my mind that had this opportunity not been available my time and interests would have turned to something else. In essence, USCSA skiing at Whitman served as an important placeholder for skiing in my life. It was the link between being a solo skier in Seattle, to getting me to Alaska, where I truly developed as an athlete.”
In late May, the Aspen Institute held a forum titled the Future of the U.S. Olympic Movement: Reimagining Goals Beyond Medals. The forum touched on a range of topics including SafeSport, athlete mental health, and more holistic youth sports and development programs. A theme in the development conversation was creating opportunity from a grassroots level, that if an athlete wanted to continue in the sport and compete, they should be able to. The USCSA aligns with this grassroots approach in fostering development as its inclusivity promotes the retention of athletes in cross country skiing during a time frame that many stop participating as well as introducing newcomers to the sport.
“I do think that USCSA plays a really important role, that I wish more people knew about, as a way to keep people involved in the sport through that 18 – 22 time period,” expressed Egan. “You don’t just have to quit after high school if you’re not going to be a Division I athlete. That’s so ridiculous. Skiing, for some reason, is one of the few sports that we look at that way.”
This viewpoint was expanded upon by Jim Allott who recently retired from his role as head coach at Clarkson University in northeastern New York after 19 years. In seven of those years, either the Clarkson men or women were the top nordic team at the USCSA national championships. Both teams won in 2012.
“When you consider how many colleges are not NCAA or skiers for lots of different reasons don’t have the ability to make an NCAA team, you’re turning away hundreds of potential nordic athletes,” said Allott “If you think about what we see here in Potsdam where our regional is 10 to 12 teams, and then you look at our NCAA cohort with EISA, and they have a similar number of teams. So just in that one quick snapshot, you can see that we’ve doubled the number of nordic teams.”
Allott also echoed Egan’s words about athlete “burn out”, adding that the dynamic and culture of USCSA programs allows skiers to grow both their ability and love for the sport. Allott described the USCSA experience as “both positive and fulfilling.”
“It instills the passion that they will want to pursue it when they leave college, and that’s rare in a lot of college athletic sport situations. Many athletes are just done, they’re either just cooked and fried, or they really don’t continue in their sport.”
During his tenure, Allott has seen many of his athletes continue to pursue cross country skiing after college, whether their involvement is recreational, in leadership roles within USCSA, or as a coach of a youth program. He described USCSA alumni as being “like the growth of a tree”, where each forms a branch to create a nationwide community connected by a common passion.
“I take a fair amount of pride in how many of my athletes move on and get involved in the sport of nordic skiing,” said Allott. “That ranges anywhere from a Bill Koch level to high school coaching. The last 15 years, our USCSA regional coordinators have all been Clarkson nordic alumni.”
Boggs seconded Allott’s sentiment about the prevalence of her former athletes in coaching and other areas of sport. She attributes this connection to the sport to the positive culture cultivated within the USCSA opportunity.
“All of that builds opportunity and pathways for athletes to become really important to the sport overall,” said Boggs emphatically. “I think that’s huge.”
She continued that the nature of students attending USCSA member schools has the power to position them in roles where they can create a large impact on the overall American nordic ski community.
“A lot of USCSA teams – they’re military academies and Ivy League [schools]. These are people that are really going places and getting graduate degrees and can really make a difference going forward. I think that is super important for building the sport.”
Both coaches emphasized the impact of USCSA beyond the development of the skier to the transference of the life skills cultivated through the experience, which includes benefits such as better sleep, self-reliance, positive self-image, teamwork, and time-management. They expressed that these traits help alumni obtain and succeed in post-collegiate careers and to lead healthy and active lifestyles.
After taking the role of Cross Country Sport Development Manager last fall, Bryan Fish described a system of three metrics to track the success of US development: growth in the number of skiers, retention of those skiers, and lastly, improvement in performance. By promoting inclusivity and creating opportunity, USCSA supports this system, assisting in the development of a healthy and thriving American cross country ski community.
“If we don’t maintain and fight for diverse options for people to keep skiing I think our sport is doomed,” wrote Brooks on USCSA’s role in the growth of the sport in the US. “The beauty of cross country skiing is that it can be a lifelong sport. But… we need to make sure that opportunities exist for people to stay engaged. We need enthusiasts, we need fans, we need coaches, groomers, ski parents, officials, donors, etc. The health of our ski community depends on having options. Unfortunately, the official ski program at Whitman folded years ago. I am thankful that the opportunity existed during my time there.”
Boggs reaffirmed this message, furthering the grassroots model of supporting the development of cross country skiing in the US.
“Our support base, the next generation of skiers and the support base for the skiers we have, don’t come from the elite athletes,” expressed Boggs. “It comes from all the people watching the races, the parents taking their kids to races, people that are just passionate and excited. That’s who is donating the money, and spending the time volunteering to coach, and driving kids to races. Those are all the people that get really excited. And I think USCSA is uniquely positioned for that.”
To wrap up her beliefs about the role of USCSA in the success of American nordic sports, Egan offered a concluding message to support high school skiers amidst the “college conflict”.
“If you’re thinking about being an athlete and you don’t necessarily want or don’t qualify to be on one of those Division I teams, you don’t have to give up skiing at all,” concluded Egan. “Someone might not be ready to do Division I in high school or they might not be interested, but there are plenty of athletes who have the passion and ability to stay involved and we shouldn’t exclude those people.”
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646