It's the Athletes, Stupid

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Every four years the Winter Olympics roll around, and the normally disinterested public tunes in for a progress report on the state of ski racing in this country. And nearly every time, their question is the same: "What's wrong with the U.S. Ski Team?" More often than not, team management offers the same excuse: "We're a young and inexperienced team in a rebuilding phase."

And yet, despite the team's desperate need for experience and new talent, the U.S. Ski Team continues to discourage its athletes by turning away seasoned vets and denying younger skiers the breathing room they need to mature. Case in point: The new regime, led by CEO Bill Marolt, doesn't necessarily plan on bringing a full team to the Nagano Olympics. Only athletes who meet committee-set criteria (one top 5, two top 10s or three top 18s in World Cup competition) will make the trip to Japan. The rest, though they have dedicated their lives to preparing for world-class competition and are the best in the nation, will watch the Olympics on TV-if they can stand to watch at all.

According to this criteria, if the Olympics had taken place last year, four U.S. athletes would have qualified, leaving 18 available spots empty. The rationale behind this is that tougher performance criteria will mean more medals. To support his philosophy Marolt cites the team's Olympic success in 1984, when the U.S. had strict qualification criteria, brought a small team and still won five medals. Got news for you guys upstairs-your standards had nothing to do with their medals. That was a group of exceptionally talented, headstrong and confident individuals who focused on performance, not standards. Likewise in 1988, when the U.S. brought a full Olympic team to Calgary and won no medals, it was the athletes, not the lax criteria, who failed. And they failed, in large part because the team lacked experience and depth-lingering effects of the 1984 policy. Early season injuries took out some of the top skiers, and there were few experienced skiers to replace them since many athletes who could have been confident, seasoned Olympic veterans in Calgary had quit in disgust after being denied Olympic berths in Sarajevo.

True, Marolt, who was program director in the glory days of 1984, brings much-needed leadership back to the team after an era of CEO musical chairs. He presides over a tough-talking agenda, of which the Olympic criteria is the most conspicuous. Athletes are to increase physical strength by 20 percent; private coaches-even for non-funded athletes-are not allowed; older athletes, fully qualified for the team, have been eliminated to make room for younger athletes, and one missed camp is grounds for immediate dismissal. All this is intended to fulfill the oft-chanted Ski Team dream to "win at every level." But success depends on more than a philosophy. Simply "raising the bar" (the slogan of the year), though it may attract sponsorship dollars by showing that the team means business, does nothing to encourage new athletes, or keep the experienced ones around. Ski racing offers little financial reward, scholarship opportunities or recognition in this country, so the athletes who have the talent and desire to pursue it seriously need all the encouragement they can get. Instead the message they get from the top is this: "You may be the best we've got, but you're not good enough."

Ski racing is an individual sport. Ski teams, from the local to the national team level, exist to facilitate training opportunities. But the strength of any ski team lies in the strength of the individuals who comprise it. Some need kicks to get going, some need understanding to relax, and some need time to mature. The USST's biggest superstars-the Mahre brothers, Bill Johnson, Tamara McKinney, Picabo Street, Tommy Moe-were (and are) also its most independent. They succeeded by following their own rules and schedules.

Despite that history, and the national team's well-known reputation fopoor athlete management, the USST insists that success depends on its own brand of development. They identify and lay claim to athletes when they are young (in their midteens, before they are emotionally or physically mature enough for the intense competition and travel a national team requires) and teach them to rely on the team to make all their training and competition decisions. Once on the team, the best ones get thrown into the World Cup, ostensibly for experience. But when they fail at that level-and most do at first-there is no way back. That's why the best home programs try to protect their athletes from the Ski Team as long as possible. They know that the USST idea of development is unidirectional-one bad year and you're out, to make room on the food chain. At the end of the cycle, the U.S. is left with the "young and inexperienced team" we keep hearing about.

The excuse, ultimately, is that there is no talent in the U.S. because ski racing is only popular in the Alps. There is plenty of talent in the U.S., but unfortunately most of it is in the form of shrapnel-athletes chewed up and spit out by the team because they didn't perform on somebody else's schedule. Some of them leave athletics altogether, while many find success in other ski leagues (collegiate, pro, TV tour events) or other sports where there is greater freedom to develop and succeed at their own pace.

But no matter how accomplished these athletes become, the only way to compete in the Olympics is to play by the U.S Ski Team rules. This year, for the first time, there are official Olympic trials (Project Gold, Dec. 31-Jan. 3 in Lake Placid, N.Y.), which create the illusion that anyone has a shot at the Olympic team. Nice in theory, but in reality the Ski Team has protected itself from from any surprise showdowns. Technical events-slalom and GS-are far easier to train for and replicate in the states. Yet the "qualifiers" (two athletes per gender are the most that can qualify from here) are only for downhill and superG, events that are nearly impossible to train for without national team support. And the races are invitation-only, so serious threats need not apply. Athletes who have thrived while training away from the team can be shut out, while those who sacrificed their independence to follow team rules, may be told on the eve of the Olympics that, though there is space for them to compete, they still can't go because the team is ashamed of them. The end result? More of this country's greatest skiers are on the sidelines, and fewer are on the field.

European ski racers go through some of the same fluctuations as they develop, but they have the opportunity to work their way back onto the team by competing in the minor leagues on the Europa Cup Circuit. Consequently, the World Cup's first seed is littered with Europeans who were once kicked off their national teams for lagging performance. They weren't funded during their time off, but neither were they eliminated from contention for their national team. They reclaimed their spots simply by working hard and skiing fast. Such comebacks do happen in the States, but because the Ski Team ignores collegiate-level racers and discourages independent training efforts in every way, they are rare.

Years ago, when a U.S. Ski Team trustee and board member asked me who was hot for the upcoming year, I mentioned Picabo's name. She had been very impressive in training and in early season races. "Yeah, but she's had her chance," he replied, knowing that Picabo had been on and off the team for various reasons. "What about the younger ones?" Later that year, Picabo nabbed a World Championships silver medal. She was 21 years old.

That trustee's attitude is indicative of the expectations that pervade the U.S. Ski Team, and impatience is probably the biggest weakness of the organization. There's so much pressure to perform by 22 (or younger for women) that beyond that age, the athletes know they're on waivers. In an ideal situation, younger athletes push the older ones to move up or move on. But until that happens, forcing the process artificially only leads to unrealistic goals and unnecessary pressure on athletes who are just approaching their primes.

Instead of empty promises to "win at every level," how about winning at any level and working from there. Beef up the top by finding and retaining experienced coaches who believe in long-term programs-not slogans-and support the top athletes with consistency and confidence. Then, the enthusiasm generated by the top athletes' success might be enough to keep young aspiring ski racers flowing into the feeder programs. Money raised for development should go toward helping local programs and academies do what they already do best-accommodate the ebbs and flows that are a natural component of an athlete's development. If the national team can't be all things at all levels, then at least the top level should be something worth achieving, and everyone, regardless of age or team status, should be encouraged to shoot for it.

If the USST truly wants to improve its chances and its image, it should put athletes into races when they're ready, and once every four years, during the only time when the country even cares about ski racing, fill the Olympic quota with the best they've got. In the meantime, let all the athletes focus year-round on performance, not team policies.

The 1988 Calgary Olympics are always referred to as a disaster for the U.S. Ski Team. Indeed, in terms of medals, they were. But in the absence of heavy hitters, the U.S. filled the Olympic quota with the racers who were the best on the team at the time, even if they hadn't had spectacular results that season, or ever. And athletes like Diann Roffe, Hilary Lindh and Tommy Moe took their "failure" experience from '88 straight to the podium in 1992 and 1994.

Edith Thys competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics as a member of the U.S SKi team. Her ninth-place finish in superG in Calgary may only be remembered as "the best the U.S. could muster," but it was also the best experience of her life. To see previous Racer eX columns, visit www.skimag.com, or write her at ethys@skimag.com.s. In an ideal situation, younger athletes push the older ones to move up or move on. But until that happens, forcing the process artificially only leads to unrealistic goals and unnecessary pressure on athletes who are just approaching their primes.

Instead of empty promises to "win at every level," how about winning at any level and working from there. Beef up the top by finding and retaining experienced coaches who believe in long-term programs-not slogans-and support the top athletes with consistency and confidence. Then, the enthusiasm generated by the top athletes' success might be enough to keep young aspiring ski racers flowing into the feeder programs. Money raised for development should go toward helping local programs and academies do what they already do best-accommodate the ebbs and flows that are a natural component of an athlete's development. If the national team can't be all things at all levels, then at least the top level should be something worth achieving, and everyone, regardless of age or team status, should be encouraged to shoot for it.

If the USST truly wants to improve its chances and its image, it should put athletes into races when they're ready, and once every four years, during the only time when the country even cares about ski racing, fill the Olympic quota with the best they've got. In the meantime, let all the athletes focus year-round on performance, not team policies.

The 1988 Calgary Olympics are always referred to as a disaster for the U.S. Ski Team. Indeed, in terms of medals, they were. But in the absence of heavy hitters, the U.S. filled the Olympic quota with the racers who were the best on the team at the time, even if they hadn't had spectacular results that season, or ever. And athletes like Diann Roffe, Hilary Lindh and Tommy Moe took their "failure" experience from '88 straight to the podium in 1992 and 1994.

Edith Thys competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics as a member of the U.S SKi team. Her ninth-place finish in superG in Calgary may only be remembered as "the best the U.S. could muster," but it was also the best experience of her life. To see previous Racer eX columns, visit www.skimag.com, or write her at ethys@skimag.com.