Here are links to earlier installments in this five-part series. The first two parts (part one; part two) spoke to the perspectives of high level wax technicians and industry representatives, while part three focused on the Wisconsin Nordic Ski League. To read the beginning of this article on the wax protocols of Western clubs, part four, click here.
Leveling the Playing Field
In regard to the question of whether the policy widens the gap in equity because of equipment differences, coaches expressed that the opposite has been observed.
“It probably has a little bit to do with what level we’re talking about,” said Teague. “But certainly, club or high school wise, I’ve only seen it take down one of the barriers of entry to our sport, and decrease costs for both programs and individuals.”
Speaking on behalf of RMN, Teague added that this removal of barriers has opened up opportunities for smaller clubs, and the support expressed among coaches speaks for itself.
“My opinion is – of everybody that’s gone to [a wax protocol], no one has said: ‘That’s a mistake. We’re gonna go back,’” said Teague. “Yes, there is some advantage that can be gained for an athlete or a program that has the capacity to go and invest in a quiver of skis to try and overcome the playing field, but more often than not, what we’re seeing is that small programs, or athletes without a program at all, [such as one of my former skiers who lived on Colorado’s Grand Mesa in the Southwest corner of the state], all of a sudden can be competitive.”
This phenomenon could be attributed to the aforementioned power previously held by larger clubs; when glide testing is no longer a priority, perhaps smaller clubs can finally find a seat at the table.
“We have 14 clubs in the division,” Kapala said of Intermountain. “Last year, 13 of them placed a kid on the Junior National team. Prior to that, we were running more like seven or eight [clubs]. So what was going on was Sun Valley, Bozeman, Jackson, and to some extent Park City – the bigger clubs – were rolling in, and to put it bluntly, we were steamrolling the small programs. It wasn’t a fair fight. And fortunately, the larger clubs in our division say, ‘Clearly, that’s not good for skiing.'”
Kapala spoke specifically of an athlete who hailed from Whitefish, MT, which is “way at the far flung edges of the realm. They’ve gotta drive forever to get to races.”
This athlete raced for the Glacier Nordic Club under the guidance of head coach Jennie Bender, who he described as “a huge asset and we’re so fortunate to have her come to our division.” Clarifying that Bender is as skilled and capable as any other coach on a wax bench, he acknowledged that she was largely on her own at races with roughly 12 kids. This ratio is not equivalent to the SVSEF team which might have 35 kids with five to seven coaches at a JNQ.
“It’s just not a fair fight.”
Despite less support on the waxing front, the athlete grew into the season and was regularly finishing between fourth and sixth at JNQs, which earned her a spot on the IMD team at Junior Nationals.
“So what happens is: we go to JNs, we leverage all of the Intermountain resources on behalf of her and the other kids and what does she do? She’s on the podium. And so our policy afforded her the opportunity to at least be in the conversation to make sure she assuredly got through… she was good enough in that setting of fair and equitable ski service, that – what else was going on? She believed. ‘Oh wow. I’m actually not that far away.’”
Once this seed was planted, the athlete thrived. In Kapala’s mind, it’s an intangible, but nonetheless vital, component of the development process for that age group.
“None of this stuff happens in a vacuum, and athlete development is this really, really – I don’t want to say funky – but really nuanced process… This girl has gone from we didn’t even know who she was, to one of the best U16 girls in the country. And I contend that our wax policy, while it wasn’t more important than Jennie’s great coaching, certainly didn’t hurt. She was on a level playing field as level as we can make it in those formative JNQs where she started believing [in herself]. And that’s the whole game.”
Teague also acknowledged the apples-to-oranges capacity of programs, relating it to his experience with the Australian national team, whom he coached and supported through two World Championships surrounding the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. While Australia now typically partners with the U.S. team on the World Cup for waxing, the capacity of this small program pales in comparison to a robust and well-funded nation like Norway, which has been supported by technician Knut Nystad who was quoted in the first two parts of this series. While Teague emphasized his respect for Nystad’s expertise both as a coach and tech, he felt the understanding club level coaches have of the specific challenges of their leagues might offer a different lens with which to consider these issues.
“Knut was my coach [when I was racing collegiately at Denver University], and worked on the Norwegian wax team when I was coaching in Australia. What they were able to do and the testing they were able to do, versus what I could do with Australia – it’s not even comparable. And sometimes we could be competitive with them, but often, they were able to test significantly more. Now, would a waxing protocol make it fair in that situation? Absolutely not. Because they could have every different grind, and a grinder going, and along the continuum.
“But at the high school level, an AVSC can send four coaches over early to test [glide] wax and at least apply wax on site, rather than make a guess. Whereas [a small program like the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (for whom the author is a former head coach)], or even Battle Mountain where there’s two coaches and 70 or 80 kids, there’s no way they could do that.”
An Arms Race for Skis and Grinds
But what about the arms race for equipment that was cited as a concern in the first two installments of this series? Have these policies induced higher demand to increase the size of an athlete’s fleet of skis? Across the board, the coaches with whom this topic was discussed expressed that this was not a trend that they had observed in the years that a policy has been enforced.
“There are probably exceptions, just like every rule,” said Teague. “But we really aren’t seeing people going out and investing in 30 pairs of skis. We’re still seeing athletes start off with a pair of skate and a pair of classic, and slowly expand upon that fleet.”
Leonard explained that PNSA coaches are not seeing an increase in ski purchasing either, nor does the level of competition at divisional events necessarily warrant that level of specificity in an athletes ski fleet.
“The field density is such at our [JNQs] that the wax is not the deciding factor so much,” Leonard explained regarding clubs in the Pacific Northwest. “And having multiple pairs of skis – most of the kids, I’d say, have one pair of race skate and one pair of race classic and some of the higher-end kids who have been at it a little longer or are a little more involved or or whatever – have a little more means – maybe have a couple pairs of skis that they’re deciding between. But you know, they’re growing kids too, and skis are expensive, so a lot of times it’s sort of like, it’s one pair that fits and one pair that’s a little bit softer from when they were a little smaller a year or two ago. So it’s not such a huge factor.”
Shift in Focus Toward Structure and Ski Selection
While programs aren’t seeing athletes rapidly investing in equipment, coaches did observe a shift in focus toward the application and testing of structure on race day.
“My test fleet, instead of testing glide and structure, is now focused pretty much just on structure at, say, an RMN [race weekend],” Teague explained. “When I show up at Senior Nationals, then I’ve got to be able to test glide and structure and everything else as it unfolds.
“So structure has become more and more important. That probably, again, depends a little bit on the level. If we’re talking about high school kids, there are high school kids that ski club and ski high school, who have the ability to get their skis ground every year and have the ability to have skis that are for specific conditions. But for the most part, we’re talking about kids that own one pair of skate skis, or even don’t own a pair of skate skis and rent or borrow them from the program. And they’re getting whatever [base] is on those and then we’re adjusting the structure by hand structures a little bit to try and improve them.”
Reception of Wax Protocol Among Teams
As far as how these policies might evolve with time, coaches expressed that the specific brand being used would always be open for discussion, provided that equivalent availability could be guaranteed and cost per gram remained comparable. With the increase in liquid waxes, which might offer versatility on race day without the encumberment of the full glide waxing setup, there may be an evolution that includes more liquid wax options as well.
For the time being, coaches expressed that the addition of these protocols has been net-positive, with no member clubs looking to steer the trajectory back toward open waxing.
“We’re at least two years through this experiment of running this policy,” said Kapala for IMD. “And I am 100% certain, because I’ve asked… we have 14 clubs that are saying, ‘No way are we going back.’ There is uniform agreement and acceptance of the policy.”
In Leonard’s concluding statements, he acknowledged the inherent equipment-based inequity in the sport, while also offering ways to problem solve, and confirming that PNSA has also been well-served by the protocol.
“You might get beaten at some point by someone who has better skis than you or something like that,” he said. “And when that becomes a factor, you figure out a way to make it work. With the advent of zeros, for instance, suddenly those became a ski that was like – in those conditions, man, you needed to have that. When I was in Alaska, teams were starting to procure fleets of zeros that they could hand out to their kids and maybe rotate through a few kids on a given race day. [Now,] if we have a race coming up that we know is potentially a zero day, we’re working through our community [in the Methow Valley] to grab some zeros for our kids so hopefully, they have a decent option there.
“So there are ways to make those things happen and work, and hopefully still remain competitive in the sport. There are a lot of trade-offs with all of it, but people are feeling like, for our division right now, it has been a good decision to go this direction.”
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