Gold Medal Pathway: A call for a National Discussion in Canada about NCAA and University Ski Racing

It’s an impressive record.

This past winter, Canadian alpine ski racers made history: becoming the first NCAA alpine ski racers to win a World Championship medal (silver in the Nations Team Event) while registered full-time at school. This was the icing on the cake for an impressive showing by Canadian athletes:  gold and other podiums in the NCAA Finals, the second best represented nation at those Finals (10 athletes), wins and multiple podiums on the Nor-Am Tour, top 30 results in World Cup and World Championship GS and Slalom – and Canadian NCAA alumnus also made their presence known.

It’s a new trend: a growing number of Canadians who still believe in the dream and are choosing a new pathway to ski racing excellence.

NCAA ski racing has been around for many years and Canadians have been prominent contributors to the success of the Carnivals (east) and Invitationals (west). But few have chosen to blend academia with high performance – to aim for the World Cup.

In the 1970’s, the Irwin brothers (Mike & Bill) moved from the Alberta Ski Team to Montana State and then up to the Canadian World Cup squad with respectable results (I would define a 15th in Crans-Montana as pretty damn good). Patrick Biggs transitioned from the Canadian Development Team to Dartmouth College followed by a return to the Canadian World Cup squad in 2005 and a memorable 10th place in his first World Cup slalom (Chamonix!) follow by multiple World Cup top 30’s.

Four years ago, Trevor Philp took a revolutionary step, choosing the University of Denver over a full-time focus on the Canadian Development Team. One year later, Philp was All-American and also a fully qualified member of the Canadian World Cup squad. Since, he has combined the rigor of pursuing a university degree with a modified program within the Canadian Alpine Ski Team. His success has opened the door to what could be possible.

But the NCAA pathway is still ‘ad hoc’ for most Canadians, with tremendous gaps imposed by NCAA regulations of coach contact, time on snow, access to the best skis and service – which make the choice only for the most determined athlete.

The USSA opened a debate this past winter to reach out to the NCAA coaching community, to examine if NCAA racing was a viable part of the athlete pathway, and if so, how to blend it into US Ski Team development strategies. A fulsome, sometimes testy, but constructive dialogue simmered behind the racing scene throughout the winter. The outcome, announced this spring by USSA CEO Tiger Shaw, is the National University Team, a two-year pilot project to targeted to fill the identified gaps for the 6 named athletes, managed by Peter Lang (formerly of Team America) who will also attend NCAA races both east and west to work closely with the NCAA coaches.

In a sport where the average age keeps rising, every effort needs to be undertaken to retain athletes. To be patient. To give them time to mature physically and emotionally, to gain the critical experience necessary to leap the hurdle into the World Cup. It is also time for Canadian sport to recognize that high performance programs must consider the development of the whole athlete: move beyond a single-minded obsession with podiums, to embrace that there is both social responsibility and also great opportunity to combine education with sport.

It is time to start a national dialogue – to open the doors to Canadian ski racing policy and programming – to include parents, athletes and sport leaders who have experience with NCAA, all who can help frame the discussion.

To be clear, this can be one part of the “Canadian Gold Medal Pathway”. The traditional progression from ski club to Provincial Ski Team to the National Development Group will always be the solid core of our athlete pathway. But with retention of athletes now becoming critical in their junior years and beyond – we need to examine every strategy available.

Fortunately, there has been an enlightened core of coaches working with many Provincial Ski Teams across Canada who see the benefit of supporting NCAA athletes from their region. They include them in off-snow training and on-snow camps to help fill the training gap, while in return gain pace, maturity and leadership to guide younger athletes. Several PSO’s have had such programs in place for many years.

But we, as a ski nation, have no policy. We have no strategy. We have no goals. Our system lacks understanding of what the gaps are and how to effectively bridge them. We’re just “winging it” …. just imagine the potential if we marshaled the talent that is captured within the NCAA crowd!

Next year will see at least a dozen or more Canadians move into NCAA racing. A very healthy chunk of our best ski racers are housed in the NCAA system and providing the backbone to Canadian ski racing through their presence on the Nor-Am Tour.

The US Ski Team took the time to listen to their community, observe shifts in age of success on the World Cup, consider retention strategies to keep athletes racing – and is giving it a “college try”.

Can Canada afford not to listen? Our neighbors did. We don’t have the luxury of an endless well of talent. We have precious few talented athletes with the raw potential to aim for international podiums. So we should be fighting hard to keep every one! We should be finding ways to be patient to allow our athletes to mature well past the junior ranks to determine if they truly have this potential.

Let’s get a National debate going. Let’s show faith in our athletes – and in their talent. Our sport system may be pleasantly surprised how much support and new resources might emerge with an open, inclusive and respectful dialogue.

Discussion Points:

  • How a National Team/Provincial Team can support NCAA athletes with dryland and summer on-snow programs
  • Access to elite ski equipment
  • Myth busting: contrary to what some believe, there are no ski techs on NCAA …
  • Focus on quality to develop the bridge between NCAA, Nor-Am and on to World Cup
  • How do we get key North American races on great competition slopes?

About Ken Read

Tough, Informed, engaged. Athlete centred, committed to good governance.
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7 Responses to Gold Medal Pathway: A call for a National Discussion in Canada about NCAA and University Ski Racing

  1. neshperformancesystems says:

    Reblogged this on Nesh Performance Systems.

  2. Andrew Lambert says:

    Absolutely agree. We have a responsibility to help our high performing athletes pursue post-secondary education. Many athletes in the current performance pathway either never get a degree or find themselves in school for the first time in their 30s. We can do better than this.

  3. Tom Steinke says:

    I would love to be part of this critical dialogue as the parent of an NCAA racer. Looking at the top 10 Canadian male skiers born 1990 or younger in each discipline, it really becomes clear how many of our strong young skiers are currently in the NCAA system. Giving these skiers access to quality equipment and training through CAST would be invaluable for keeping their development momentum going. The provincial teams and national development team have already invested heavily in these athletes, and it would be a win-win-win situation for CAST, NCAA, and the athletes if systems were in place to allow for their continued development, potentially back into CAST, as mature, educated young adults.

    • Ken Read says:

      Hi Tom: It looks like we’ll need to keep up the pressure – despite encouraging the start of a dialogue while with ACA leadership at teh FIS Meetings this past week, all I received was nods. I certainly won’t back off.

      • Tom Steinke says:

        Reading your latest blog, it is interesting to observe all the NCAA and ex-National team athletes cobbling together their own dryland and on-snow training this last month. My son Chris and Will St Germain, both current NCAA athletes and past National Development Team athletes, hooked up with other NCAA athletes and the Quebec Team to train at Les Deux Alpes. While there, they connected with Robby Kelley and other teams. Thank God for the provincial teams continuing the support of their former athletes. I am not sure if there isn’t a path that doesn’t rely on ACA? I look at Robby Kelley declining the U.S. National Team and continuing with his Redneck program. The gaps are access to summer training, equipment, and support at NorAms and Nationals. Erik is fortunate you have connections to Fischer and the Croatian Team through the Kostelic family. Could a small group of Canadian NCAA athletes be cobbled together in the future that might capitalize on these, and perhaps other connections? Coordinating efforts and pooling resources might be a small first step?

      • Ken Read says:

        Hi Tom: this is exactly what we should be doing – given the resources each individual athlete is spending, if a coordinated approach which brought together those who still want a higher level of training, we could provide a better (and more complete) program for all. Let’s get the ball rolling for 2016-17.

  4. I agree whole heartedly, and I think we need to look even younger and make sure the balance is there to accommodate both ski racing and academics right from the U14 and U16 levels. With two U16 and U12 athletes in our family, the number one reason they may stop after U16 is because our experience is it is really hard to blend the two. When the child’s focus needs to move to getting good grades in 11 and 12 to get into your university program of choice, as a parent it makes us think that unless the child is showing extraordinary talent already, and his goal is the world cup, its unfortunately time to move on from ski racing the way it currently looks. We also could find a way to keep it more fun and less competitive longer – I think the pressure at such a young age drives kids out too soon.

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