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World Cup Athletes Chat On What’s Right with College Racing

Jonathan Nordbotten: Part Patriot, Part Catamount, All Viking

 

Over the past few weeks I had the privilege of talking to some of the smartest cookies on the World Cup—college racers who managed to find World Cup success by continuing their development through the collegiate racing system. All of the racers below raced on the US collegiate tour and then joined or rejoined their national teams on the World Cup.

While there is much debate and frustration about the high proportion of non-US skiers in the collegiate ranks (from 2000-2016, American participation in NCAA Championship Alpine Skiing was down 41%, while foreign participation was up 200%) the talent and energy of foreign skiers has greatly enriched the domestic ecosystem. The successes of collegiate racers not only prove that NorAm and NCAA racing is robust enough to prepare skiers for World Cup competition, but also offer guideposts and a road map for how to make it work. From balancing the demands of concurrent academic and athletic pursuits, to negotiating with their national federations, to arranging sufficient off-season training, to transitioning from the NCAA to the World Cup, the experiences of these athletes offer insight on how to make the most of collegiate ski racing, a precious and uniquely American resource. We would be wise to take notes!

The following athletes generously contributed to this piece:

  • David Chodounsky USA; Dartmouth 2008, Double major in Engineering and Geology; 2014 Olympian, 4 Worlds 2011-2017.
  • Jonathan Nordotten NOR; UVM 2014, Community Entrepreneurship; 2015, 2017 Worlds
  • Uros Pavlovcic SLO; Sierra Nevada College 1999, Environmental Science and Ecology; 2001 Worlds, 2002 Olympian; current FIS coach at Buck Hill and founder of UP Ski Racing.
  • Trevor Philp CAN; DU 2015, Finance; 2014 Olympian, 3 Worlds 2013-2017, Silver medal 2015 Worlds Team Event
  • Erik Read CAN; DU 2018, Business; 2015,2017 World Champs, Silver medal 2015 Worlds Team Event
  • Kristina Riis-Johannessen NOR; UVM 2015, Finance and Marketing; 2017 Worlds, Overall Europa Cup winner 2016/17

Also weighing in:

  • Urban Planinsek SLO; Sierra Nevada College 1994, Business Administration. Planinsek raced on the USCSA circuit for Sierra Nevada College. He has coached the Canadian, Slovenian and Russian national teams and coached at every Olympics and Worlds since 2001. He is currently Alpine Director of the Russian National Ski Federation.

Here’s what they have to say about:

Ten Ways College Skiing Builds Great Ski Racers

THE POWER OF TEAM: “There was a great team atmosphere. For me that was very important,” says Uros Pavlovcic. The Slovenian came to Sierra Nevada College after being demoted to the Slovenian B-2 team, which he describes as, “A nice way of saying goodbye.” At SNC he found a coach who boosted his confidence and a supportive group of teammates who trained hard because they wanted to, not because they had to. “I sometimes joke it was ‘four years of vacation’ because it was so much fun.” The spring Pavlovcic graduated the head Slovenian coach looked at his world rankings and invited him back. He agreed to give it a try, and raced his way to the World Champs, the Olympics and a World Cup podium.

Dartmouth teammates riding high in 2007.

Every athlete interviewed echoes the positive impact of feeling part of a supportive team, sometimes for the first time. That includes cheering for each other, carrying each other’s jackets, and also being able to keep individual performances from defining the entire experience. Being part of a bigger effort than your own improves both the bad days and the good days. “My most important lesson was how much you can support each other and build each other up,” says Kristina Riis-Johannessen, who now feels that same sense of togetherness on the Norwegian World Cup team. She and Team Norway’s Kristine Haugen (DU, 2015) are redefining their country’s perception towards women collegiate racers, and showing how mature athletes can benefit and balance a national team.

SCARCITY VALUE: A major challenge of collegiate racing—not enough off-season training to keep developing and stay competitive— can be turned in to an advantage. Because NCAA rules limit the amount of off-season training you can do with your team, athletes need to actively seek their own ways to supplement their training early season and off-season. In his freshman year at DU (the only year in college he was not a member of the Canadian Alpine Team), Trevor Philp, who had been used to the structure of the Canadian Prospect Team (similar to the US D Team) found himself borrowing teammates cars to get to Loveland in October and hook up with other teams that would let him train. “I had no one. The biggest thing I learned that year was how much desire and incentive it took to get the training I needed,” says Philp.As an athlete it was good to find that passion you need to have if you want to succeed.” Riis-Johannessen had a similar revelation when she came to UVM, after a few years of bouncing on and off the Norwegian junior team. “I had lost some of the joy and the spark,” she recalls. That fall, however, not being able to ski from August to Thanksgiving made her appreciate skiing more. She and her teammates carpooled to Killington for early snow, and learned how to race early NorAms with minimal training. “It’s stressful but you figure it out your own way,” says Riis-Johannessen, who, two years after graduation and heading into an Olympic year still gets excited to get on snow.

Riis-Johannessen, on top of the world and psyched.

MATURITY: The value of four college years spent building strength, size, endurance, technical and tactical skills cannot be overstated. “It’s hard to break in when average age of the first seed for men is 28-30,” says Urban Planinsek. “Unless you are a special case, you have no chance at age 21. Why not go to school?” he says. The emotional and social maturity that happen in college are similarly precious. During college Pavlovcic spent much of his summer coaching camps at Mt Hood. “Through the process of coaching I matured a lot as an athlete,” he explains. When he returned to his national team he not only understood himself better, but also had the assertiveness to articulate and advocate for his training and equipment needs. Later, on the Slovenian team, Planinsek became Pavlovcic’s coach, and remembers learning from him. “He was much more mature than everyone else and he got that at SNC,” says Planinsek. Managing athletic and academic schedules, forging relationships with professors and finding supplemental training are absolutely necessary for success in college racing. Even for the NCAA Finals, professors are encouraged but not required to accommodate absences. “You have to take control of your own program and seek your own development,” explains Jonathan Nordbotten, who added obligations to his national team to the mix. “It took a lot of tough choices.”

A FOUR YEAR HORIZON: For the many athletes who came to college racing after batting around on their national junior teams, the four year horizon guaranteed by college racing provided valuable security. “When you are on the national team it is year to year,” explains Nordbotten. “In college you can start as a not very developed 18,19 or 20 year old and develop as an athlete and a person. That’s what makes it a good opportunity.” David Chodounsky concurs on the benefits of job security, though he was not on the US Ski Team radar before entering Dartmouth. “For me it was all upside going to college. I may not have gotten here otherwise and I definitely would not have had the fun.” He didn’t experience qualification uncertainty until after graduation in 2008, when he bounced on and off the team, always chasing criteria. It was not until the fall of 2010, when he scored two early season results guaranteeing him a spot for that season and the next one, that he gained the breathing room and time he needed. “That’s when I got more confidence.”

David Chodounsky ripping in Bormio. (photo by Marco Trovati-Pentaphoto, courtesy of Nordica)

POSITIVE TRAINING ENVIRONMENT: The close proximity to training and racing venues at eastern schools, the length of the skiable season at western schools and the level of peer competition within all of the teams can make training in college extremely productive. “From January through the season you ski and train a lot without a lot of travel,” says Nordbotten of his time at UVM, where the mid season schedule featured four good days of training, two days of racing and one day off. Such consistency, amidst the grind of the competition season, is a luxury. Western schools spend more days traveling to competitions, but on the flip side they have the clear advantage of proximity to early and late season snow. For Erik Read, a full time DU student and full time member of Canada’s World Cup team, that plays well into his preparation. “By the first World Cup we’ve been on snow over a month, and are ahead of other teams,” he explains. High level peers can turn college teams into their own development engine. When Chodounsky was accepted at Dartmouth he was barely recruitment material. “The team was stacked,” he recalls. Even after a PG year, Chodounsky was not at their level. “Skiing with those guys picked up my pace, and it all started to click.” He qualified for the first carnival and ended up winning the NCAA SL as a freshman.

Planinsek in Sochi with an international coaching tribe. Nations represented, left to right: SWE, RUS, NOR, USA, FRA, CAN

COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION: Successful college and national team coaches play a critical and often unseen role, fostering the health and integrity of their teams, without diminishing the goals of the individual. Relinquishing control of a top athlete is a test of faith. “If I had to miss early races for World Cups that was ok as long as I was ready to help at NCAAs,” explains Nordbotten, who actively advocated on both sides of the pond for his earned World Cup opportunities. National federations that work with athletes through college need to take a unique approach with them. When Philp left the Canadian team for DU he made sure his Canadian team coach knew he was still interested in ski racing.I did not expect any cooperation, but he let me join them at NorAms when I was on my own,” recalls Philp. Later that year, the same coach invited Philp to his first World Cup. By the end of the year Philp had outpaced his national team peers and was invited to join the Canadian World Cup Team. Both Nordbotten and Philp moderated the negotiations and conversations necessary to compete for their colleges and their countries all four years.

TECHNICAL MASTERY: There is no crying in baseball and there is no speed skiing in college. While that can seem like a disadvantage to speed skiers, you rarely hear anyone argue that four years skiing tech will hurt an athlete’s speed skiing long term. More people point to the DH stars who were successful tech skiers as juniors. Last season, in her second year back on the national team, and her first back from injury, slalom ace Riis-Johannessen didn’t expect to venture beyond tech events. “I hadn’t skied speed in five years, and wasn’t expecting to race it.” She started 58th (last) in a Europa Cup DH in Davos, won the race and went on to win the Overall Europa Cup title. “Maybe last year I was just ready and maybe I was not before,” she reasons.

MADE IN THE USA: Conventional ski racing wisdom doggedly advocates the Europa Cup Battle Plan, whereby the only route to World Cup worthiness is through the (literal) trenches of the Europa Cup. The NorAm/NCAA circuit—with better venues, better hill prep, more familiar sets and lightly-stacked fields—offers a civilized path around it. While all agree you need to taste the grit in the gladiator-like competition of the Europa Cup, they also point to the circuit’s often spirit-crushing futility. Planinsek says it best: “Too many years on the Europa Cup and you are stuck there for life. It’s like WW1 fighting your way out.” It is especially difficult to dabble on the Europa Cup, where top 30 starts are based on Europa Cup standings. “You can start further back in a Europa Cup than in a World Cup,” says Philp, adding that, “NorAms on home soil are more friendly.” Nordbotten, who had 40 plus frustrating starts on the Europa Cup before starting college, won the NorAm SL title—and a World Cup start— his freshman year. The next year he scored points in his second ever World Cup. “All I thought was ‘it’s not that hard! I just have to ski normal,’” remembers Nordbotten. “If you come in with good self esteem then it’s easy. If you start way back you get crushed.” Pavlovcic, Read and Chodounsky concur with the strike while you’re hot, direct to World Cup strategy. If you are having success at NorAms, and your confidence is high, it’s better to take a shot at the World Cup than to grind it out on the Europa Cup.

Riis-Johannessen proudly displays her diploma and supreme stress reliever.

PERSPECTIVE AND PEACE OF MIND: Managing academics and athletics requires efficient use of time and prioritization. There are benefits to having the broader perspective that comes with switching back and forth between intensive academics and athletics. “They complement each other,” says Read. “I always skied well in December after grinding out the last few weeks at school.” Having something else to focus on takes the pressure off both pursuits, and having a college degree in your pocket may be the best mental edge of all. “So many athletes close to retirement don’t know what they’re going to do,” says Read. “They’ve spent lots of time not engaging their brain like you do in school. I don’t think that’s healthy.” Chodounsky concurs: “Having a degree is a huge load off your shoulders. There is a big question mark about what to do after skiing. Without a college degree that question mark is even bigger.” Riis Johannessen agrees: “I don’t have the stress of what am I going to do. I could get a decent job right now,” she says.

MENTORS THAT MATTER: When 17-year-old Trevor Philp foreran the 2010 Vancouver Olympics he remembers seeing Leif Haugen, who was racing for Norway while a student at DU. “I thought that was the coolest thing.” Since Philp followed Haugen’s example, several Canadians—men and women—have successfully navigated both worlds. “Trevor was an inspiration,” says Read, who is a year older than Philp and from the same club. “He proved to the national team that this was possible, so I had their support to start DU.” Following Haugen from Norway were athletes like Espen Lysdahl, Nordbotton, Riis-Johannessen and Leif’s own sister Kristine. Chodounsky was inspired by Paul McDonald, Jimmy Cochran, Roger Brown, Evan Weiss, Patrick Biggs and others near him who forged dual national team/college paths. Has Chodounsky’s success had an effect in this country? “I hope so!” he says. “When kids ask me about college I absolutely tell them going to college is not a bad thing. You can develop, and when you graduate you are stronger and more mature mentally. Look at every other sport. You go to college and then transition to the pros.”

Chodounsky, paving the way and living the dream. (photo/Marco Tacca/Pentaphoto) Photo courtesy of Nordica

FINALLY, A BIT OF ADVICE

As for when to start college, Philp and Nordbotten are big proponents of diving right in as soon as possible. Nordbotten, who started school at 21 wishes he’d gone at 19. “I like the idea of going earlier,” Philp concurs. “Those are the big development years. If you can spend them growing as a person and an athlete and can do NorAms and NCAA it is ideal.” Read, a 4.0 business finance student is more circumspect, and realistic about the enormity of balancing full time college and elite athletics. His father, Downhill racing legend Ken Read, chipped away at college throughout his career, and Read Jr did the same thing at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University before attending DU full time. “It totally depends on the person,” says Read. “College is a great avenue but it is not for everyone. If it is a priority you can go that route. We’ve proven it’s viable.”

 

 

 

13 Comments

  1. Pat McCloskey Aug 23, 2017 at 08:51

    An excellent read Edie. Well researched and interesting to me. I learned something reading this post. Obviously you have experience here too so it was interesting from your perspective as well as the athletes that you highlighted. Bravo.

    Reply

  2. Edie Aug 23, 2017 at 10:00

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting Pat! I did race USCSA and it was a total blast. Honestly, I did not even think of it until reading your comment, but my points and participation even post “career” (such as anything is in your twenties) probably helped the ski racing ecosystem. Win win!

    Reply

  3. Kirk Benson Aug 24, 2017 at 09:50

    Great article Edie, I think as you said the maturity and responsibility gained are important. Also the emphasis placed on finishing to score team points, maybe they should return to the 3 racers out of 4 yo score .

    Reply

    • Edie Aug 26, 2017 at 10:48

      Thanks for reading Kirk! It is remarkable how much the team experience impacts these skiers in a positive way. They all talk about it being a huge factor. It makes it more fun and builds consistency and for some is a real revelation in how much a team can help each other reach a higher level as a group and as individuals.

      Reply

  4. Sal Monforte Aug 24, 2017 at 10:49

    Another great article Edie, this following your Univesity team article really hits the spot about skiers going to college then continuing on the World Cup. Adding the USCSA to the mix is also a great way to continue to ski race your way through college. My younger son Nico has done this at UNR, coming back from a bad leg injury at JR Wolds SX in 2014, he had a long recovery and started college. He sat out his first season and helped run the team, fundraising and trying to build back the team to help get the school to bring back an NCAA program. The last two seasons he’s back racing, he made it back to JR Worlds SX in 2016, and last spring at USCSA Nationals,1st in SX and amazingly 4th in GS behind SNC and Rocky MT. College skiers, all low FIS point tech racers from NZ and Europe. These college options are good for sking as we have talked about the last few years when I see you at Squaw. Nico is now in his senior year in Mechanical Engineering and has committed to a Graduate year for a Masters degree in business all while continuing to train and race, These options are out there to pursue and as we all know ski racer’s GPA’s rank among the top in college sports if not the top. Keep the faith more kids will choose college racing and we can build a great farm network for the future.

    Reply

    • Edie Aug 26, 2017 at 10:50

      Thanks Sal! I am so glad to hear of Nico’s continued success. That’s really fantastic for him and inspirational to others.I love that during his injury he worked for the team. What a great thing for both him and the team. Best of luck to him and I hope to see you this winter!

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  5. Paul Puckett Aug 24, 2017 at 10:54

    College is becoming the only option for most young skiers who cannot afford to pay to be on the US Ski Team. It’s a shame that the U.S. Team is unable to provide financial support to developing athletes.

    Reply

    • Edie Aug 26, 2017 at 10:54

      It’s for sure an evolving model Paul…nothing like the fully funded old days! College is a great way to get it done. I hope we can make that college path ever more viable and accepted, and also find other ways to make ski racing affordable to more kids for a longer time in their development. Thanks for reading!

      Reply

  6. Heather Noble Aug 31, 2017 at 13:34

    I’m not sure who this blog is aimed at. Seventeen year old North American hotshots? Then why even discuss the trenches of the Europa Cup as a means for qualifying for World Cup – you have your own Continental Cup right here at home that grants World Cup starts to the two top ranked racers in each event and the overall. Young Euro hotshots with good English? Hey Edie why are you turning Euros onto the advantages of American college racing – there seem to be way more than enough of them snarfing up college ski racing scholarships as it is! Parents of youngsters who scratch their heads and wonder how good Johnny or Janie really could be in a few years and what long-term goals might be realistic? For those folks, I would apply a label to this blog like they used to put on car commercials while the luxury sedan raced across the salt flats or arced up a scenic mountain road: “Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.” Yes, when considering a junior ski racer the great mystery is: how far can he or she go, and just what is he or she getting out of this? You are mulling the prospects of your kid, and think she can follow in the tracks of Kristina Riis-Johanssen? Kristina came to the US with Europa Cup points under her belt and less than 20 FIS points in both GS and slalom. You know how many North American junior ladies (aside from those already on the rosters of their national teams) have less than 20 points in both SL and GS? Exactly one. Or maybe you are imagining your son is going to do what Jonathan Nordbotten did? At his first university race, Jonathan won in GS and placed second in slalom, a couple of weeks after he finished first and second in a couple of NorAm slaloms. Is your son ready to do that? Okay, I’ll grant you that Dave Chodounsky looked like a pretty normal American junior when he started at Dartmouth (judging by what I can glean from the FIS website about his points and results) and quickly gained maturity and experience in college racing. But that was almost 15 years ago! One example in 15 years does not establish a well trodden path. My point is that the Euros interviewed for this blog came into North American university racing with technical ability the likes of which we seldom see here. They didn’t have to work on fundamental skill development – they already had some pretty amazing technical skills. At this point, I am going to narrow my focus. I am not going to address Mr. or Ms. Average FIS Racer (or their parents) – you will have a great time racing in college at whatever level you can do it, and it will enrich your college experience, hopefully without dragging down your grades. No, I am just talking to those few who have a choice between going on the US Ski Team or going to college. One of the problems with University racing is that pesky NCAA rules – which were drafted for football and basketball – limit the amount of time you can practice with your team and your team coaches. On a college team you simply cannot spend as much preseason time on snow as US Ski Team members – or even members of some top ski academies or clubs – do. And yes, you can go coach at some camps at Mt. Hood in the summer to add miles and time on snow, but you better not get paid or you might ruin your “amateur” status for NCAA racing! (I am not completely sure about this – you can check with your friendly local NCAA compliance officer.) Another challenge of college ski racing is, well, that you are in college, with all the juggling and corner-cutting that trying to do both racing and school entails. Isn’t it a total pain in the ass trying to get schoolwork done while racing during high school? Go on your national team and really commit yourself to ski racing. Because you need to give your full commitment to improving your skiing – you ain’t Mikaela Shiffrin (and, as you may have noticed, even she works fulltime at being Mikaela Shiffrin). (Plus you need to realize, if you happen to be female and American, that in order to make the US Team after graduation at the ripe old age of 21 or 22, you will need to be scoring World Cup points, which is hard to do in college – but don’t get me started on USST selection criteria.) And yes, it’s expensive, so you will have to come up with creative fundraising approaches, which will be a maturing process in itself, learning to sell your own brand, learning how to find and talk to potential donors and sponsors. If you don’t want to lose touch with academics and don’t want to end your skiing career with no college experience under your belt, then go to school during the spring quarter at a college on a quarter calendar. There are quite an array of such schools, ranging from Stanford, Dartmouth and Northwestern at the elite end to a slew of west coast state schools, including University of Washington, University of Oregon and a number of University of California campuses. This is what Laurenne Ross, Breezy Johnson, Sam Morse, Nina O’Brien, and Tricia Mangan are doing – and could be a few other USST folks, maybe I’ve missed some. And sooner or later you’ll get hurt and maybe can slip in a few extra quarters. Meanwhile, you are on the twelve year plan towards a college degree. And you are racing full tilt boogie. Oh in case you’re wondering who I am to offer these opinions? I’m Breezy Johnson’s mom.

    Reply

    • Edie Aug 31, 2017 at 15:30

      Thanks for reading Heather, and for sharing your thoughts. I am sorry if this upset you, as it seems to have. Full time college is a path, and one that is becoming increasingly viable for those who can utilize it. In my mind, more pathways are better. This was not any judgement of people who have not, for whatever reason, taken that path. I was simply curious about how those who have been able to make it work–and so far they are mostly Norwegians and Canadians–have done so. I think the athletes interviewed offer some valuable insights, and that every athlete will have a unique circumstance. There is no one size fits all approach and we can learn from them all. Fitting in quarters as you can is great too. That’s what I did, and it made a huge difference to be halfway through college when I retired. It’s all good. Again, I am sorry this upset and/or offended you. I’m not “turning Euros on to the advantages of college racing.” I’m trying to turn Americans on to how, if we embrace it, it can work for us.

      Reply

      • Heather Noble Sep 3, 2017 at 20:46

        Edie — no no it didn’t upset me. I guess I get a bit bothered by folks who pretend that going to college is an option for young American women with World Cup ambitions, because under current US Ski Team selection criteria, it really isn’t — women skiing college are simply not skiing at the level that the US Team expects by the time they graduate. On the ladies side, the expectations escalate too fast for anyone to race full-time in college, even for a year or two, and then make it back onto the U.S. Team — under the team selection criteria basically the ladies have to be about two years ahead of where they expect the men to be, in terms of when they have to hit certain World Ranking levels, when a racer can qualify for the team by winning a NorAm title, when a racer has to have WCSL ranking (based on World Cup points), and so on. And in college, you simply can’t hit those marks. Yes, college is a wonderful culmination for a racing career for many racers, both USCSA and NCAA. But for American ladies, it is not a route to the World Cup. Maybe someone will prove me wrong, but i haven’t seen it lately. I’m rooting for Foreste Peterson, who after graduating from Dartmouth is training with the USST Europa Cup group.

        Reply

        • Edie Sep 4, 2017 at 19:33

          You are certainly right Heather, that the current system makes it darned near impossible for women to qualify for the USST amidst or after full time college. Just because that’s the way it is, doesn’t mean it’s right. Specifically for tech skiers, the current development system is not delivering. It’s also costing these girls/ women lots of money and precious years of eligibility. If they can be getting an education, lowering their world ranking and maturing physically and emotionally in a true team environment it suddenly gets a lot more appealing to make the commitment to the sport. No, it hasn’t happened yet, but I hope and believe it will soon.

          Reply

          • Heather Noble Sep 5, 2017 at 11:27

            Good luck with affecting the team selection criteria. Over the last five years that I have been paying close attention, the criteria have gotten tougher to meet, not more open to alternate paths, and on the ladies side there has seldom been much exercise of “coaches discretion” to accept or keep racers on the team (though Breezy was the beneficiary of coaches discretion one year, when she was killing it in speed but didn’t meet their tech criteria). I can remember one team member who was cut because her world ranking was 41st, rather than 40th! The suspicion arises that the team doesn’t really want to be in the development business. They just want superstars like Mikaela Shiffrin — who are all that major sponsors care about — to fall in their laps, with little or no expenditure on their part. But if they sit around waiting for someone else to create Mikaela Shiffrins, they won’t have a team. I’m amazed that they have as many ladies meet their D Team/C Team/B Team criteria as they do. Their racers are doing very well at the NorAm level. But as those ladies get a year or two older, is the team going to be patient about them scoring World Cup points?

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