Inside the skiing pipeline: How we won all that gold (and how we can do it again)

Part I: A look at the health of the US Ski Team’s developmental pipeline

First named to the U.S. Ski Team as a 16-year-old, Cindy Nelson was one of the best international racers ever for the U.S. She won a bronze medal in downhill for the United States at the 12th Winter Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria in 1976.
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    On March 4, 1982 in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire — exactly four decades before it failed to medal at the Beijing Olympics — the U.S. women’s Alpine ski team clinched the 1982 Nation’s Cup, a title calculated by adding every point in a season for all racers from a given nation.

    It was the first — and remains the only time — the United States has claimed the title.

    “We were loaded. The U.S. team was so deep,” said John McMurtry, the coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine team from 1976-1984, in an interview with the Vail Daily’s Randy Wyrick in 2014.

    Cindy Nelson remembers the star-studded lineup on both the women’s and men’s Alpine teams.

    “Anyone could win on any given day,” she recalled of the tightly-knit group. She remembered how the Mahre twins, Steve and Phil, could “finish each other’s sentences.”

    “(Tamara McKinney) was super strong, (Christin Cooper) was super strong, I was super strong. We had a lot of skiers that were good,” she said. “I didn’t want any of them to beat me, but yet, you give the course report back up if you were the first one down the mountain so that your teammates knew if something was different than how it looked in inspection. Somehow, we all became great teammates for each other and I think that was the difference.”

    At the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, McMurtry’s team won more Alpine medals than any other country. In the giant slalom, Debbie Armstrong won gold, Christin Cooper won silver, and Tamara McKinney (the first American woman to win the overall World Cup title and World Cup slalom title) placed fourth in a telling display of dominance. The year McKinney won the overall, Nelson was second. The Vail resident was no. 1 before tearing her ACL in Val d’Isere, France.

    Inside the skiing pipeline: A Vail Daily series

    Part I: How we won all that gold (and how we can do it again)

    Part II: Is the rising cost of skiing only an American problem?

    Part III: Collegiate athletics’ place in the pipeline

    Part IV: What happened?

    Part V: The Leever Study

    Part VI: The importance of Idraet

    Part VII: U.S. cross-country skiing’s trail to gold

    Part VIII: An American answer

    “We have been there — the number one team in the world,” McMurtry flatly stated in a recent phone call.

    “Difficult to do in today’s world, but it was difficult then, too,” added Nelson.

    ‘There’s got to be radical change’

    While no one has carte blanche in speaking to the wider scope of the U.S. Ski Team’s historical performance, some are certainly more qualified than others. If there are people capable of providing an educated insight, McMurtry is one of them.

    “I think I’ve got a background,” he humbly stated.

    In collecting thoughts from a myriad of voices, including several current and former U.S. Olympic athletes and coaches and one prominent Norwegian, a theme emerged in analyzing the overall structure and direction of U.S. Ski and Snowboard.

    Examining the national governing body’s development pipeline health — the key cog in the wheel of elusive consistent international success — reveals an ugly illness infecting all of American youth sports: an increased professionalization and subsequent crippling cost of participation. Coupled with a lack of meaningful access and pedagogically appropriate steps in the development ladder, the participation pool for all winter sports has shrunk.

    U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame member John McMurtry coached the women’s Alpine team to its only Nation’s Cup title in 1982. He resided over U.S. Skiing’s most successful era, guiding the team to the most Alpine medals at the 1984 Olympics and designing a development program that produced the successes of Picabo Street, Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller and Ted Ligety.
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    While the different disciplines underneath U.S. Ski and Snowboard have unique narratives in regard to this discussion, some elements appear collective in nature.

    Where the U.S. has established global dominance — basketball, football and track and field — it harmonizes youth, interscholastic and collegiate systems with national teams, consistently churning out elite professionals as the cream rises to the top of a wide base.

    Conversely, the nature of skiing — one bound to a relationship with mechanical forces like friction and gravity (where increasing grind and ski selection options and expensive wax plant the seeds of cost-inherent advantages), and dependent upon early skill acquisition through structured on-snow practice, expensive clubs and travel-laden competitive schedules — attracts a minority willing and able to engage in the financial arms race required for surviving and thriving in the current pathway.

    Perhaps most importantly, in its stubborn search for the next superstar, some sense the nation has lost perspective on what ought to be its most fundamental sporting value: providing young people an opportunity to compete at something they love, learning life lessons along the way. Proponents arguing for such a holistic philosophy note its mutual inclusivity with world domination, citing the statistic that 93% of youth in Norway, traditionally a world winter sports power, participate in a sport.

    “And they’re not there to win gold medals. They’re there because of the health values that sports give children as they’re developing as people,” argued McMurtry. “Our focus has been wrong. We’ve been from the grassroots club level trying to identify who’s going to be the next Mikaela Shiffrin. And that’s not the point of sports.”

    The tenor of current and former national team athletes’ and coaches’ voices seems to suggest that a uniquely American approach — one which considers the the United States’ geographic, cultural, and socio-economic variables, factors essentially non-existent in homogeneous, ski-rich nations like Austria, Switzerland or Norway — is paramount. Creative solutions which drive down cost, provide attractive access to the sport and appropriate support throughout are needed to strengthen the pipeline. Utilizing the American blend of clubs and schools, NCAA teams and regional development squads, are key to widening the base, ensuring proper retention and development of talent, and reviving a culture of competitiveness.

    “We were there, and we can do it again, but there’s got to be radical change,” McMurtry said.

    Sport for all

    In a call back to their plundering of the 2018 Olympics, three “architects of Norway’s sport system” shared key ideas for nationwide sport development in a February 2022 Aspen Institute article titled, “How Norway won all that gold (again),” a reference to the record 16 gold medals won by the nation’s Beijing Games athletes. As Aspen Institute editor Tom Farrey notes, “The performance burnished Norway’s reputation as having the best sport system in the world.”

    “Children’s Rights in Sports” headlines the seven pillars to the country’s approach.

    “Participation in sporting activities for children up to 12 years of age follows the Children’s Rights in Sports statement, which underscores the intrinsic value of playing sports and encourages experiences and skills that in turn provide the basis for a lifelong enjoyment of sports,” write the authors.

    “The system as a whole is not just an elite sports system, but the whole cultural milieu is what produces Norway’s excellence at the international level,” said Jim Galanes, a four-time U.S. Olympic cross-country skier and Summit County resident.

    A well-traveled World Cup veteran and former director of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic program, Galanes is well aware of the weight a nation’s sporting heritage can play in this discussion. His larger concern, however, is over perceived differences between the United States Olympic and Paralympic committees and Olympiatoppen — the organization responsible for training Norwegian elite sport — in regards to prioritizing access and enjoyment for all. He points to how Norway focuses on sport’s intrinsic value over simply winning.

    “In Norway, it appears sport serves a greater purpose than elite success, World Cup wins, or Olympic medals,” Galanes said.

    The Olympiatoppen endurance department’s mission statement refers to a “holistic performance development,” centered around four values: joy through mastery, community through development together, health through a holistic life and honesty through viewable attitudes.

    For McMurtry, this is the crux of the conversation.

    “It’s not just skiing, it’s youth sports in general,” he said. “I would say it’s a crisis and it basically comes down to cost. It has to be accessible for all and we’ve built these barriers now — not just in skiing — that are just absolutely horrendous.”

    “The Norwegian model is a much more intelligent model in that rather than paying all the money, it’s just opportunity,” said Vail’s Mike Brown, who was a top-level Alpine junior racer before his 10-year U.S. Ski Team career. Brown competed in the super-G on home snow at the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships and was eventually inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 2014.

    Mike Brown was inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 2014 after enjoying a 10-year career on the U.S. Ski Team. His parents started the Buddy Werner Ski League at Beaver Creek and were instrumental in the founding of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail.
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    A 2015 document titled “Joy of Sport for All” lays out Norway’s “cradle-to-grave” approach, which offers access to sport for all who want it.

    “At the core of all activities for this age group are our values, the rights of children in sport, the provisions on children’s sports and child safeguarding in sports,” the document states.

    McMurty believes the present American generation has lost sight of sports’ holistic, transcendent value.

    “I’ve been in local club programs where you’re signing your kids up and already at 10, they’re identifying kids and ‘you’re going to be in this group because we think you’ve got something special,'” he described. “They put them in this little special group — we’re going to send you to New Zealand, season’s going to cost you 100 grand. Well, we didn’t do that back when we built a team that was No. 1 in the world.”

    State of Play: Children’s sports participation in America

    The 2021 Aspen Institute’s State of Play give an inside look at participation data in youth sports in America.

    Below are some key findings:

    76.1% of children ages 6-12 reported playing a team or individual sport in 2020, up from 72.9% in 2012. 37.8% reported playing a team sport on a regular basis, down from 41.4% in 2012.

    73.4% of children ages 13-17 played a team or individual sport in 2020, up from 69.1% just one year ago.

    The percentage of kids ages 6-12 who engaged in no sport activity during the year fell from 16.9% in 2019 to 13.7% in 2020.

    Hockey was the most expensive sport among 21 sports evaluated ($2,583 per child per year). Skiing/snowboarding was second ($2,249). Sports families spent an annual average of $693 per child, per sport.

    Only 12% of parents spent no money for their children to play their sport.

    Travel is the costliest feature in youth sports.

    The average child today spends less than three years playing a sport, quitting by age 11 (this data was most recently available in the 2019 Project Play survey)

    40% of parents with children in organized sports say their child plays year-round.

    Free play, which has been demonstrated to produce higher levels of physical activity than organized sports, is declining. “According to a household survey of 22 counties in those regions, fewer than one in five youth play football near their home (Aspen Institute/Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation survey, 2017). It’s one in 10 for basketball and less than one in 20 for baseball and soccer,” reads the report.

    In May, Houston adopted the Children’s Bill of Rights in Sports, an initiative developed by Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program. It has been adopted by over 130 organizations and includes eight rights for children: the right to play sports, safe and healthy environments, qualified program leaders, developmentally appropriate play, share in planning and delivery of activities, equal opportunity for growth, to be treated with dignity, and enjoyment.

    According to Galanes, the U.S. national governing bodies tend to attempt to identify talent too early, resulting in what he calls a “money for medals” approach.

    “They pick their anticipated top performers at a relatively young age and they put all their bets on those few athletes for the entirety of their careers.”

    Nowhere was this more obvious than Beijing 2022 — hold that thought for part four of this series.

    “Nobody has ever been able to identify a champion at 10. Not only that, that’s not the purpose of sport,” McMurtry argued.

    “Building a sport system for the sole purpose of developing World Champions unnecessarily over-professionalizes the athlete experience for most participants,” stated Aldo Radamus, a former ski racer and former executive of Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. Radamus said there is an “unnecessary arms race” occurring at the youth level, driven by the inherent nature of skiing and parents financially equipped to exploit it.

    “There’s no question — the sport is inherently expensive,” he said.

    Born in Argentina to Estonian parents, Aldo Radamus was a professional ski racer before becoming a coach in 1979. He went on to coach at Ski Club Vail in the early ’80s, where he met his wife Sara, before moving on to the Steamboat Spring Winter Sports Club, and then the U.S. Ski Team.
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    While kids lining up for a 100-meter dash all step onto the same track, in ski racing, fleet size, grind selection, and expensive fluorinated waxes (not to mention the expertise and tools required to make sense of the equipment triumvirate) are often deciding factors in outcome, particularly in cross-country skiing. Time on snow and expert private coaching at a young age also attract families wanting to jumpstart what is perhaps a more critical head start: skill acquisition. When parents — convinced their children have Olympic medals in their future — are willing to fork over whatever cost is required to give their kids the best chance to succeed, it raises the cost for everyone else, too.

    To be fair, in his 2016 study on European Alpine development, Dan Leever interviewed prominent coaches and thought-leaders in the sport. One “longtime European coach familiar with the U.S. system” stated “Behind every great racer is a parent that is a little crazy.”

    As part of a four-part series in Ski Racing Media on development, Radamus wrote than an accelerated professionalization in youth sports, “clearly evident in ski racing,” has contributed to declining participation because “expectations have been raised for participants to commit the time and resources required to pursue the sport at an elite level.”

    “Our top clubs and academies tend to try to provide the same level of programming and support as the national team. Many of these services are non-critical for a developing athlete to fulfill his or her potential,” Radamus said.

    Aldo’s 24-year-old son, River, is a member of the U.S. Ski Team who races on the World Cup circuit and finished just off the podium in fourth in giant slalom at last winter’s Beijing Olympics.

    Conversing with fellow SSCV alumna Jimmy Krupka on the In Arc City podcast last month, River Radamus outlined the nature of skiing and the financial affluent crowd — willing to pay for better equipment, better coaching, and more expensive training camps — it attracts.

    “I’ve seen programs like that (SSCV), the cost continues to rise year after year after year into this era where it’s unrecognizable to what I felt like I saw as a kid. There’s a lot of reasons for that,” River Radamus said. “Things like that have value, absolutely, but you see in Europe that you don’t need those things as a youth to succeed. But what that does, it slowly raised the price. It becomes an arms race.”

    “The fact that some want and can pay for these services doesn’t mean they should be provided as a core part of the program, raising fees for all participants,” said Aldo Radamus.

    McMurtry recalled a time where one parent paid to have Golden Peak at Vail reserved for a private session for their children and Mikaela Shiffrin. Another time, a parent paid the national team to bring their kid to a training camp in New Zealand.

    “Can you imagine a parent paying the Denver Broncos so their son could go to training camp?” he joked. “That kind of thing discourages kids and families who think they can’t compete with that. But that’s what’s happened with this sport. It’s like many things in this country — it’s money, money, money-driven.”

    While Aldo Radamus knows its impossible to legislate against parents hiring private coaches, purchasing equipment or paying for camps, he does believe “there can be sensible legislation outlining the structure of the pipeline so that guardrails are being provided to help families and athletes and their coaches essentially make the right decisions about how that athlete and when that athlete is ready to advance to another level and needs an additional opportunity.”

    Aldo Radamus outlined several suggestions in the second part of his series, including a shift towards localizing competitions, limiting excessive prep period and competition period travel and grouping athletes intentionally.

    “Racing in competitions with similarly skilled athletes promotes both enjoyment and development. Being an outlier off the back or off the front can both be detrimental.”

    His son, River, expounded on the latter point with Krupka, where he mentioned a difference in how races are set up in Europe compared to the U.S.

    “Races in Europe are usually much cheaper than FIS race entries in the U.S. So, the motivation for the race host is hosting a race for the right athletes. It’s not a profit-driven gambit,” he said. “The reason they host the race is for athlete development. Making sure they have opportunities for their athletes to score but also for them to grow and learn. In the U.S., the races are hosted to fund the programs that are hosting them.”

    Thus, he argues, American race directors are motivated to fill all of their slots, no matter the ability range of the competitors.

    “Whereas if you sit on the side of a race in Europe, if there’s a skier that clearly shouldn’t be there, the people are on the side of the hill like ‘uggh what’s he doing here,’ because it’s not the appropriate race for him,” River Radamus said to Krupka. “It’s not the appropriate place for them to develop.”

    The result, according to the 2022 Olympian, are “more skill-based races.”

    “Everybody whose in a race feels like, ‘OK, I’m here to push, I’ve got a chance to win or move up,’ whereas in the U.S. there’s a lot of races that kids go to because their parents think that they should for reaching a certain benchmark or their program is taking all the athletes, too, so I should tag along as well,” he told Krupka. “And kids go to out-of-region races that they don’t necessarily need to go to, pay tons of money, enter this race, and just get absolutely smoked. And then, you’re at the bottom like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.'”

    It is one explanation, perhaps, of the sport’s disturbing burnout trend.

    “Increases in female participation have been offset by a shrinking male population and modestly growing participation at the U14-and-younger age groups is offset by alarming attrition among U16-and-older ages,” wrote Aldo Radamus in part one of his series.

    Like Galanes, McMurty, and the leaders of Olympiatoppen, Aldo Radamus has championed participation as the cornerstone to national success. He wrote in Ski Racing Media, “In the interest of creating healthy sport, we have to have an exciting, accessible and inherently rewarding activity and a system to develop the most talented and committed to be the best in the world.”

    “Historically, the U.S. team has done a poor job handling the development of young athletes moving up to the U.S. team,” added John Dowling, SSCV’s mogul director, who has supplied Team USA with the lion’s share of its mogul team members over the last decade and change.

    One of Dowling’s athletes, 2018 Olympian Tess Johnson, has said that in talking to friends in Alpine circles, she noticed a key difference while reflecting on their younger years.

    “On a powder day or any given day, they were always training, always on Golden Peak,” she said.

    “Like it was just so much training and so monotonous, especially at that age. They would rarely go freeskiing and we would go freeskiing twice a week,” she said, noting it as one reason she’s never felt burnout “on-snow.” “We’re 12 years old. I always loved and appreciated that Dowling and (Riley) Campbell made a point of making us go and freeski and ski the whole mountain and ski a few laps through the park.”

    “We have a penchant in this county in many sports to try and identify talent at 14-16 years of age — too early — and I believe the track record of athletes getting washed out of the sport at these ages is pretty bad,” Galanes summarized.

    River Radamus said that in Europe, “There’s more engaged athletes, athletes that last,” compared to the U.S.

    John Dowling was the 2018 U.S. Ski and Snowboard moguls coach of the year after providing four of the country’s eight mogul athletes for the Pyeongchang Olympics. He is the mogul program director at SSCV.
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    “The pipeline narrows, but athletes last into FIS longer in Europe than they do in the U.S. because there’s always something to push for, there’s something to reach for and you’re engaged and you’re having fun and you’re competing against people that you feel like, ‘I put in a little extra work, I can beat this guy.’ And in the U.S., I feel like that drops off much quicker,” he told Krupka.

    The Aspen Institute’s “architects” seem to address this component in the Norwegian system’s second pillar, writing, “To be the best in the world, you must train the best in the world. At the same time, the training philosophy in Norwegian sports involves taking responsibility for both the social, mental and physical development into being a top athlete. It’s about developing people!”

    Judy Rabinowitz, one of the early members of the U.S. women’s cross-country team and a 1984 Olympian who now lives in Leadville, wrote to the Vail Daily in regards to the Aspen Institute’s article on the Norwegian model.

    “I was also impressed by what the article described as a mission to develop athletes who are multidimensional (and joyful) citizens equipped with skills beyond sport, and by the prestige attached to coaching as evidenced by the fact that most Norwegian coaches come from “academia” and are versed in pedagogy,” she stated.

    To understand why America has lagged in creating synergy between science and sporting bodies and cultivating a competent coaching culture, a trip back to college might be necessary — stay tuned for Part III: Collegiate athletics’ place in the pipeline.

    But first — is the cost issue really something unique to the United States?

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