An outcome first broached as a possibility this spring became an all-too-concrete reality Thursday afternoon, when plummeting oil prices and a yawning state budget deficit led to the announcement that University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen was targeting nordic skiing for elimination, at both the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), in a waiver request submitted to the NCAA. On Friday, the ski community and affected skiers continued to react.
Financial background, or, how did we get here?
As FasterSkier previously reported, the State of Alaska is dependent upon funds from a single source, oil revenue, to an extent unparalleled in any other state. Falling oil prices over the last two years have led to widespread budget deficits, layoffs and reductions of both state and private-sector employees (particularly in the oil and gas industry), and political recriminations over the failure to pass a balanced budget.
When FasterSkier first reported on this story in May 2016, the price of oil was approximately $48 a barrel. At the close of trading on Thursday, oil was at $49.89 a barrel. At these prices, the State of Alaska faces a revenue shortfall equal to approximately two-thirds of its budget. Oil has not been over $100 a barrel in over two years.
Alaska residents have not paid a state income tax since 1980. Although some communities have instituted local sales taxes, there is no statewide sales tax.
Brian Gregg, currently one half of Team Gregg, came to UAA to ski in 2005. He later became a three-time SuperTour distance champion and a 2014 Olympian. When he was first asked, in May, if he would like to answer some questions about what UAA skiing had meant to him, Gregg promptly responded with a 600-word email titled, “UAA Ski Team, a vital part in my pathway to the Olympics.”
Gregg took some time out from preparing for this winter’s first on-snow time trial at Frozen Thunder in Canmore, Alberta, to share some updated thoughts earlier on Friday. Gregg wrote to FasterSkier, “This is very disappointing news to me personally and to the entire skiing community. NCAA Skiing is a major asset in the development of cross-country skiers for our country. The future for skiing as an NCAA sport does not look good. I have seen the programs cut at Western State, University of Nevada Reno, Whitman College, Saint John’s University, College of St. Benedict, Gustavus Adolphus, [Macalaster], and now UAA and possibly UAF. The question now is who is next?”
Gregg continued, with an eye to the future, “I also start to think about whether or not NCAA has a rule on the number of member school which must have programs in order for there to be an NCAA Championship. Currently the Central Division has only 5 Men’s programs and 6 women’s programs, several which don’t even have a Coach who is paid full time. I encourage everyone to be preemptive in showing the incredible value of our existing skiing programs to the administration, student body and community.”
Sadie Bjornsen currently skis for Alaska Pacific University (APU) and is a member of the U.S. Ski Team (USST). But in 2009, she was a freshman for the UAA Seawolves and finished in the top five in five out of eight races and placed third overall in the classic race at NCAA Skiing Championships.
“My year as a Seawolf was one of the most important ‘steps’ of my life,” Bjornsen wrote to FasterSkier on Friday. “I would have never been drawn to AK fresh out of high school, and discovered this incredible state. I see skiing as a big family with many functioning parts. By eliminating one integral part of the ski community, we are cutting off a strong piece of the family!”
Even though Bjornsen moved down the street to APU after one year, she is quick to underscore the important role of the NCAA-affiliated UAA program for American cross-country skiing.
“I have always considered Alaska to be the best training for a cross country skier in the US,” Bjornsen wrote. “We have the perfect environment for training, including early snow in the fall, and late snow in the spring. I now race professionally, and am a student at Alaska Pacific University while racing World Cup. I see APU as providing the very best opportunity in the world for myself, but, I know this level is not designed for everyone. It is important to have options, and varied levels so that skiers can choose where they want to go, and have a path to where they are looking to reach. I would never give back that year of racing NCAA at UAA, a year that taught me so many lessons! It saddens me to know that won’t be available for everyone anymore!”
Joey Caterinichio is a local. She attended West Anchorage High School, where in the 1980s she raced on the same ski team as future four-time Olympian Nina Kemppel and current U.S. Ski Team head coach Chris Grover. (Caterinichio herself would later travel to Sochi as nordic program manager for the USST.)
After graduating from West High, Caterinichio originally pursued college skiing at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. But after two years away, the lure of home brought her back to Anchorage, where she skied another two years for UAA.
Caterinichio, now 46, still lives in Anchorage, where she runs a medical supply company and, with her husband, raises three children. She also runs local community ski training group Alaska Nordic Racing. Caterinichio has attended 20 Junior Nationals.
Caterinichio took to Facebook soon after the news hit Thursday afternoon. (Caterinichio gave FasterSkier permission to share her thoughts.) Posting a historic photo, showing her skiing in a suit she had designed herself, she wrote, “This is me featured on the cover of the Seawolves magazine representing skiing in 92-93. This same picture was featured in the Great Alaska Shootout booklets [a basketball tournament] which loses tons of money every year, yet we are not cutting basketball. The money UAA is saving by cutting these programs is pennies compared to the good they do for the community and the positive role models that move up here or stay here for college because of the sport. These same folks stay and give back to Alaska.”
Reflecting on her personal history, Caterinichio continued, “Not only did I return from St. Lawrence to ski my last 2 years for UAA, I graduated with 2 degrees in science and I taught in the UAA Biology Department. With roots in this community, I stayed in Alaska. I own my own business, Employ others and In addition I have contributed thousands of hours to the sport of cross country skiing at the local level, national level and international level. There are others who chose this same path and who contribute hugely to this community. It’s not just about the sport. It’s about recruiting high quality community members to Alaska who stay and give back. Chasing these types of folks out of our state, cutting these sports in a time where the community is dying for positivity and crime is at its all time high! It’s time to think beyond the dollar. My give back alone for 25 years is an example of what could be lost. And on top of it this is ALASKA! We are a winter sport community. Come on UAA. As an alumni think global, think community!”
In a follow-up phone conversation, Caterinichio noted, “I’m not going to stop with Facebook now … It’s time to move quickly – I don’t know if anything’s fixable right now, but it’s time to try.”
Caterinichio clarified that while her goal was “to save skiing, of course,” she was also aiming “not to disrespect any of the other sports” at UAA. “I believe that all sports are important … and produce highly functional individuals for our community,” Caterinichio said.
Other skiers react
Holly Brooks is a two-time Olympian, recently retired from racing with the USST and APU. Brooks long ago put down roots in Anchorage, buying a house and recently opening a counseling, consulting and coaching practice.
Brooks gave FasterSkier permission to share what she had posted on her personal Facebook page after hearing the news: “It seems a bit ironic that while … our presence (as a country) and success internationally is growing, options in the US for skiers to support and chase their dreams are shrinking. While the NCAA doesn’t represent everyone’s path it’s an undeniable and important part of the ski community at large. The loss [of] NCAA skiing in Alaska is a huge hit to the greater nordic ski family nationwide.”
Brooks explained that she was hoping to channel her emotions over this recent news into something more positive: “Am I frustrated? Absolutely? Am I mad? You’d better believe it…. But I’ve decided that the best thing to do today is to channel my anger into something positive and that is to pitch in and support developing US skiers via the ‘Drive for 25.’ The National Nordic Foundation (NNF) … is an organization whose sole purpose is to help fund developing skiers. When I was invited to extend my stay on the World Cup to the tune of $140/day (for many months) the NNF pitched in to help. The Drive for 25 is the main fundraiser for NNF and the idea is ‘what if every ski fan in the United States donated $25 dollars – or more?’ By participating, D25 donors show that skiing matters and they are part of Team USA!”
As of earlier this week, 62 donations for NNF’s Drive for 25 program had come from Alaska, trailing only Minnesota (69) and Utah (64).
Kikkan Randall is a four-time Olympian, and a current member of APU and the USST. She did not ski for UAA, but as a lifelong Anchorage resident and prominent supporter of skiing and youth athletics, she feels strongly about the role of local college skiing in supporting the community.
“I just think we’re going to miss out on some really big contributions to the community, our ski teams are all out there working with kids and helping to take care of trails,” Randall told a local television station. “I think the community is really going to take a hit.”
How final is this?
The finality of this decision arguably remained an open question as the dust settled on Thursday and Friday. Despite a statement in the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN), repeated in FasterSkier, that skiing at both UAA and UAF had been “targeted for elimination in a waiver request submitted to the NCAA,” there was hope in Fairbanks that the waiver request would not be approved, and so skiing would be saved at least at UAF.
As UAF head nordic coach Nick Crawford wrote to FasterSkier late Thursday, “For UAF specifically, I don’t think skiing will be cut as I don’t think the NCAA will grant the waiver to the ‘10 sport minimum requirement.’ One of the NCAA’s core values is to provide sporting opportunities from athletes of many different sports and the 10 sport rule is in effect to protect small sports like skiing. It’s a slippery slope to allow Alaska to cut ‘less well known’ sports like skiing and indoor track to continue to fund their more popular sports, If the NCAA grants this waiver, it sets a precedent to eliminate non-revenue generating sports across the country with fewer and fewer sports offerings and that is not a direction I think the NCAA wants to go in.”
The 10-sport rule is contained in section 20.10.3(a)-(b) of the NCAA Division II Bylaws, which provides that “A member of Division II shall sponsor in Division II a minimum of” either five sports for each of men and women, or four sports for men and six for women.
Crawford told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Thursday, “I guess I’d say I’m confident that we’ll be here still. It seems like the 10-sport minimum is designed so that small sports like ours aren’t overridden by larger sports.”
Current UAF skier Conner Truskowski expressed similar sentiments to his coach on Facebook, writing, “To clarify, as a student athlete at UAF, skiing has not yet been cut! The universities are submitting waiver to the NCAA to allow for an exception to the 10 sport rule. While things do look very dark for UAA skiing, the waiver will most likely not pass as the NCAA doesn’t really allow exceptions to the rules. Even if the waivers do pass, these programs won’t be cut until next year.”
Truskowski continued, “This is a very dark time for collegiate skiing here in Alaska, but not all hope is lost. We are doing everything we can as athletes to fight for our program, and we can use all the help from the nationwide, and worldwide community we can get. Please help us all support Alaska skiing. Make it know[n] to the NCAA that there is strong opposition to this waiver, it will help us out immensely.”
Three-hundred miles to the south, UAA officials seemed to express a greater sense of finality. As UAA Athletic Director Keith Hackett wrote in an official statement, “at the conclusion of the 2016-17 academic year, UAA Seawolf Athletics will be discontinuing our sponsorship of Men’s and Women’s Skiing and Men’s/Women’s Indoor Track and Field.”
Hackett continued, “Should the NCAA Waiver request not be approved, we will take time to carefully consider which program would be reinstated.”
This presumably means only one program would be reinstated, as opposed to multiple programs. This is because the NCAA waiver would take UAA from 13 teams down to nine. If the waiver were denied, UAA would need to field only the minimum of 10 teams to comply with section 20.10.3(a)-(b) of the NCAA Division II bylaws.
Next steps and opportunities for advocacy
As the ADN reported, “If the NCAA grants a waiver to the university, the Board of Regents would still have to approve the elimination of sports teams. If a decision by the NCAA is made in time, the regents will take up the issue at their next board meeting on Nov. 10-11 in Fairbanks.”
The ADN continued, “No public comment will be allowed during that meeting. Instead, public testimony must be made by telephone on Monday from 4-6 p.m. The number to call is 1-866-726-0757.”
Toby Schwoerer, a five-time All-American in skiing at UAA (plus a sixth time in cross-country running), wrote to FasterSkier that he “would like to see some coordinated effort to write emails to the 11 Board members” of the Board of Regents, linking to contact information for the individual members of the Board.
The budget figures involved
As Crawford, UAF’s head coach, wrote, “One consideration is that skiing is not one of the most expensive collegiate sports in our state. If the state truly wants to save money through sport reductions they would choose to eliminate one of the more expensive sports.”
Crawford’s math seems to be correct. The data suggest that hockey is by far the single most expensive sport, and that skiing is somewhere in the lower middle in terms of overall team cost.
The ADN, citing figures from UAA, has broken down the UAA sports teams’ total budget of $4.33 million for the 2017 fiscal year that began on July 1, 2016.
Over 31 percent of that $4.33 million total, or $1.35 million, goes to one team, the men’s hockey team. (UAA has only a men’s hockey program.)
The hockey team has had one winning season since 1993/1994.
From 1985 through 2016, UAA skiing finished in the top 10 at NCAA Championships 31 times in 32 years.
The next most costly programs are men’s and women’s basketball, at approximately $450,000 each. Both programs have enjoyed ample success; the women’s team reached the Division II national championship game in April 2016, losing to national champion Lubbock Christian.
Men’s and women’s skiing are in the middle of the pack financially, at a cost of $280,000 for each of the men’s and women’s teams, or $560,000 total. The ski program costs somewhat less at UAF, $400,000 total, because UAF has only a nordic team and not an alpine team as well, and so has fewer athletes.
The UAA athletics program as a whole finished eighth overall, out of approximately 300 teams with D-II athletics programs nationwide, in the 2015/2016 Directors’ Cup, a season-long competition across all Division II sports programs that awards points for a school’s performance in up to 14 sports. It was the highest overall finish in UAA history. Over one-tenth of the Seawolves’ points for their Directors’ Cup ranking, 63 out of 570.5, came from skiing.
“We have developed an elite Division II program here,” Hackett told the ADN on Thursday. “This inhibits us in so many ways now. You reduce our teams and our budget, and it really impacts our ability to compete at the national level.”
History repeats itself?
Several of the major figures involved unfortunately have relevant experience in this vein.
Hackett most recently held a comparable position at the University of Nevada, Reno. The Nevada ski team was defunded and discontinued under his tenure. The assistant nordic coach until shortly before the program was cut was UAA’s current head nordic coach Andrew Kastning.
Kastning and his now wife, Calisa (Schouweiler) Kastning, moved to Whitman College, where Calisa was hired to coach the men’s and women’s nordic teams at the start of the 2007/2008 season. Fewer than two years later, the Whitman ski program was cut.
Kastning previously told a local radio program that they had thought they would be safe moving to a ski program in Alaska.
Recapping a lifespan
Skiing began at UAA in 1977, near the end of the pipeline boom, and one year following the establishment of the Alaska Permanent Fund. The population of Anchorage would grow from 48,000 to 174,000 during the 1970s, reflecting the pipeline boom. The original 15 kilometers of trails at local ski area Kincaid Park had been laid out a few years earlier. The Italian skier Giorgio Di Centa, who won two gold medals at the 2006 Olympics, was 5 years old.
If, as appears likely, NCAA-affiliated skiing at UAA comes to an end following the 2016/2017 season, it will be an even 40 years old. It will have survived the first great Alaskan oil recession, of the mid-1980s, but not the second. The Alaska Permanent Fund will have become a political football.
During the lifespan of UAA skiing, Kincaid hosted at least seven U.S. National Championships, five National Masters Championships, one Masters World Cup, and one World Cup weekend. (The World Cup was in March 1983. Gunde Svan won; Americans Tim Caldwell and Bill Koch placed second and third.) The 15 k of trails at Kincaid increased three- to four-fold, depending upon what you measure. Di Centa competed in his first FIS race in 1992, and his most recent, though probably not his last, in March 2016. The population of Anchorage is now approximately 300,000.
UAA nordic skiers recorded six individual NCAA championships (plus another three for alpine skiers) in the program’s first 39 years. The program as a whole (both nordic and alpine combined) had, through last season, a highest finish at NCAA Championships of fourth, in 2009. From 1985 through 2016, UAA finished in the top ten at NCAA Championships 31 times in 32 years.
Notable skiers who recorded All-American performances at UAA include, in chronological order, Dan Fleener, Urban Enkvist, Erik Flora, Frode Lillefjell, Lars Flora, Toby Schwoerer, Eric Strabel, Mandy Kaempf, Nicole DeYong, Brian Gregg, Andy Liebner, Sadie Bjornsen, Lex Treinen, and Erik Bjornsen. Gregg and both Bjornsen siblings would later ski on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team.
* This article has been edited to reflect the fact that Andrew Kastning was the assistant head coach at the University of Nevada, Reno, when the ski program was cut, not the head coach.