What if US Skiing gave women the college try?
The Dartmouth Carnival is around the corner, and it marks the heart of the carnival season. It’s always an inspiration to see such a high-level ski competition up close. It wasn’t long ago that guys like David Chodounsky, Jonathan Nordbotton and Robby Kelley—all of whom will be racing in the upcoming World Championships in St Moritz—were dicing turns at the Dartmouth Skiway vying for their respective team wins. Watching top level skiing in your own backyard is cool for adults, but motivational and even revelatory for junior racers. For kids, seeing that level of competition up close, and knowing that some of those same athletes will go on to the world stage, makes the sport and the pursuit of its highest level seem that much more attainable.
Men coming up through the carnival circuit and moving on to the World Cup is becoming the new normal. At the 2015 World Championships, six male athletes were NCAA title winners and another seven were current collegiate athletes. In St. Moritz, the NCAA will again be well represented in the men’s technical events, this time with legitimate medal contenders. That has an effect on the boys watching a college carnival. It reminds them of how much runway it takes to develop as a ski racer, and shows them exactly where they could access that runway.
It makes me ask the question: What if? What if American girls watching college carnivals had the same sense of possibility that the boys did? I was able to watch many of the top women collegiate skiers at the Nor Am races at Burke in January, and have since been following them on Livetiming. They were and are impressive. At a recent FIS race, I stood on the hill with a high school coach and watched the women’s competition. Very few—if any—of the top college women were there. Quite a few of the men had come to race that day, the day after their latest carnival, to help generate lower penalties, whether to help the younger racers or to help themselves. Whatever the motivation, they boosted the level of the competition. Their performances also helped remind the junior and senior high school boys that the end of high school isn’t necessarily a hard stop to a ski racing career.
The high school coach mused that many of the girls he sees on the high school circuit could compete at the level we were watching in the women’s race, if they raced FIS. “But why don’t they?” he wondered aloud. It made me wonder too, about the extent of the effects of ignoring female college skiers. Would more girls consider the incremental commitment of racing FIS in high school if they could envision developing their skiing after high school? Would more top college women, in turn, race in local FIS races as their schedule allowed, if they saw it as a way to create advancement opportunities for themselves or upcoming skiers? If high school girls and college women saw a viable path, however narrow and steep, to the highest level of the sport through college, would they stay fully engaged in the game longer?
Previously, when I have asked these questions, the answer defaulted to a chicken and egg scenario. The level of competition in women’s collegiate skiing wasn’t high enough for an athlete to continue developing, so it wasn’t attracting the very skiers who might raise the level. The highest level female athletes who did go to college, soon sensed the lack of opportunity and lost their fire. Now, however, the power has shifted. Women’s NCAA skiing, as it has been on the men’s circuit, is its own ecosystem of continuous improvement. The competition is not as deep as it is on the men’s side, but it is plenty high.
Canada and Norway sure must think so. Canada’s Laurence St.-Germain (age 22), and Norway’s Kristina Riis-Johannessen (age 25) —both of whom flashed past carnival-watching kids as UVM skiers— are now representing their respective countries at the World Championships in St Moritz. Paula Moltzan, age 22, and Foreste Peterson, age 23, both full-time students on the carnival circuit, are America’s fifth and sixth ranked women in GS respectively, off points they earned this year. We are in crisis with our US technical team, as individuals struggle mightily and largely independently to advance in the jetwash of one superstar. Meanwhile college racing—fueled by the positive power of team—is having its moment.
What if we seized it?
What if college women were recognized by US Skiing as valuable works in progress?
What if there was a way for collegiate women to earn a chance to qualify for big events like World Cups, World Championships and Olympics so we could fill all empty slots with athletes who are performing well right when they are performing well?
What if girls and young women could look forward to continuing to develop their skiing skills through college, without the pressure of needing to express their full potential by age 17?
What if collegiate racing was encouraged to all women ski racers who are not yet at a World Class level, but who have the desire and talent to pursue it?
What if every dime spent by college teams to further develop ski racers—both men and women—was maximized by actively and deliberately embracing those athletes as part of the national development process?
What if we used our collegiate system the way Canada and Norway are using it?
I don’t know the answers, but perhaps we can find some of them by asking the question: What if?