In my recent post I strongly advocated for college skiing. I am no expert in the nordic world, although I have huge respect for the nordic athletes. Therefore, I will focus this discussion on college ski racing.
I will never forget one of my first exposures to college racing. I was the start referee at the Vail spring series. It was anything but a spring day, blowing cold, just plain nasty. I looked over and here was DU, CU, UU and UNM athletes, all huddled together with their arms around each other trying to stay warm. Then one at a time they raced. Each cheered loudly for the racer irrespective of the team they were on. I thought to myself, “wow, what did I just see.” Go to a college race-the women slip for the guys, carry coats and visa versa. Team, team, team. Then region, region, region. Then NCAA, NCAA, NCAA. These men and women love each other.
Fast forward many years to this years NCAA National Championships. As the Championships ended tears were flowing down my face. I realized, as my son’s last year of eligibility came to an end, that the amazing relationships I have enjoyed with so many college athletes, and their families, and especially their coaches, would at a minimum be less front and center in our life. Indeed, I will forever treasure these relationships. As I have said many times, college ski racing is the pinnacle in the intrinsic joy of ski racing. It is an experience every ski racer should experience.
There is the misconception that there is little opportunity for Americans in College ski racing. This is simply not true. There are two leagues, NCAA and USCSA. There are hundreds of spots for Americans. It is tough to make a D1 team. It is even tougher to earn a scholarship. This is the reality in all sports. It is estimated that 2% of high school athletes compete in D1 across all sports.
It is true non-Americans often are a high percentage of the top of the pyramid, think all-American status at NCAA Championships. There are some idiosyncrasies in ski racing that are worthwhile understanding. First is that skiing and hockey are sports that are deferred from the normal NCAA eligibility requirements. Normally, for most sports, the eligibility clock starts one year after graduation. In skiing it starts at 21 years old. Big difference. We would be well advised to be careful what we wish for. The foreign NCAA athletes provide much of the penalty for grass roots ski racing in the US. If we eliminate the foreign athletes from the point opportunities, we would have lots of opportunities for US athletes-to score 30 points. Is that what we wish for? No, the reality is we need to do a better job at developing US athletes who can score in the 20’s as teens, at least. We shouldn’t coddle US athletes. If NCAA racing is to be a pipeline to World Cup success, it needs to be robust.
That being said, often our best US athletes are chasing the USST and foregoing NCAA. Look at the birth years 1998, 1997, 1996, men and women. These are all college age athletes. At least half of of the top US ranked athletes are not enrolled in college. My son raced for DU, the NCAA National Champions. Four of five of the men were Americans, just fast ones. Fundamentally, we need to do a better job of developing our younger ski racers so that they are internationally competitive, younger. Dumbing down the system making it easier for less qualified US racers to make NCAA teams is not the answer.
If we can agree, for a moment, that NCAA racing is a viable developmental pipeline, then I suggest the question is, how could it be better? There are significant limitations in the current structure of NCAA skiing. Lets discuss the major ones.
Rule limitations: there are limits on coaches contact with athletes. What is appropriate for football and basketball isn’t necessarily the same for skiing. The current rules limit the “meets”,’ or for us races, for ski racing. Essentially this results in coaches being unable to attend all NCAA, NorAm and important FIS races with their athletes. This results in teams sending their athletes to races without coaches. This has all kinds of safety ramifications. Rule change needed. There are limitations to missing school for training. This disadvantages semester schools. Taking a break from school, while keeping up with course work, is fundamental to a developing ski racer. Limitation in staffing. Current NCAA rules limit coaching to two, men and women. No tech’s allowed. So much for small coach to athlete ratio. Off season coaching by NCAA is strictly prohibited.
There are solutions. USST can sponsor off season camps where NCAA coaches are allowed to attend, under The auspices of the USST. I strongly believe the USST can and should provide prep period training for a fairly broad group of NCAA racers. This would be a good use of USST resources. Essentially we should say to all of the college age athletes, “which college do you want to go to. There is no other path.” We can always make an exception for a athlete that is scoring WC points as a junior.
I believe college ski racing is critical for our national team development. There are not enough funds for USST to do it on its own. Yes, there are changes in rules for college skiing to meet its potential. Hopefully this will occur in the near future.