Saturday, June 13, 2009

A small ski rant

There's been a lot of jibber jabber recently about how much US skiing is sucking and various ideas about why. Not much about how to fix it, but to their credit the USST is trying to come up with a "pipeline" for junior skiers to follow and they've made some changes. NENSA is following suit, trying to stay in line with the USST, which makes sense, from some points of view, but seems exceedingly biased towards juniors, from other (my?) points of view. Because NENSA is not a governing body of a team that has to compete and hold its own internationally, it is the governing body of a region of skiers, and should be supportive of all its skiers.

Plenty has been written about how we need to bring in more skiers, particularly juniors, how our juniors need to train more, how we need access to free/cheaper equipment, how we need to keep our juniors training well in college or delaying college if they're talented, yadda yadda yadda. Something that hasn't been brought up is senior skiing. Seniors and masters don't count for as much in the USST's eyes, since masters are far less likely to represent the US internationally (although there are definite exceptions), and to the USST, if a senior skier hasn't been in their sights since they were a J2, obviously that skier isn't going to amount to anything. Once you hit 25 you better be winning medals or you're gone. Oh, that Valaas girl, yeah she did alright, got a silver medal at U23 world champs, no big deal, but she didn't medal on the world cup, and geez, shes 25, so we better let her go. Make room for some more 19 year olds. They're the ones with a future. Man I wish I'd seen the USST heads squirm when they had no choice but to add Sarah Konrad to the Olympic Squad since she's wicked fast... and old.

Its no secret that I'm not olympic material. I picked the wrong parents (but only in terms of mitochondrial density. They're pretty good for everything else). No matter how much I train, there is no spot for me at that level. This doesn't bother me too much, since I tend to enjoy what I'm doing for "training". The thing is, there are a lot of other skiers out there, who were skiing with me as a junior or in college, who aren't skiing now. There are plenty of reasons that they don't ski anymore, I mean, 25 is the point where life, job, relationships, marriages, kids (god forbid), living in cities, it all catches up with you, theres no time to train 600 hours a year for a sport you have to drive three hours each way to compete in, just to get your butt kicked by someone who doesn't work and is "living the dream".

What happened to that middle tier of skiers? Where have they all gone, and more importantly, how can we get them back or keep them in it? Most post-collegiate skiers know what it takes to be successful in skiing, and know that they no longer have the time (or inclination) to do it. I bet thats why you see an increase in numbers in cycling around the senior level - you can race bikes as a weekend warrior and there will always be someone slower than you, but that won't cut it in skiing when you only have the pros to race against. There is no cat 5 in skiing, and if there were, there would be no seniors in cat 5. For whatever reason, its a given that if you are going to be a senior skier in the US, you will live the life of a pauper, "chasing the dream" sleeping on couches, eating ramen, and playing video games in your downtime. This leaves you where when you turn 40? Oh, right, totally inexperienced in the so-called real world with no savings to speak of and nothing to show except a lot of frequent flier miles and some overuse injuries. So basically, if you're between the age of 23 and 30, you have three choices: 1. join a pro team. 2. Try to ski without said pro team and suck. 3. quit skiing.

It would be great if there were some support for senior skiers. Just because we have "real" jobs doesn't mean we have a lot of money, and the way this sport is going, that is a definite necessity. NENSA claims they're trying to do something, so they set up the Craftsbury Green Team. Great, another pro team that requires giving up your job, your life, your location, in order to chase a dream in a region where there is no dream to chase. This isn't what I'm talking about when I ask for senior skier support. We need a support system for people not on pro teams. Why does cycling do so well with numbers in the senior age class? Population centers (and snow) aside, one nice change is prize money - every Joe Shmoe putting on a race pays out top three, at least in the upper cats. Does skiing do this? No, where would we get the prize money from? NENSA charges 1.75 times as much as a bike race charges for entry fees. Where does it all go? I mean, I can see added expenses for using the ski area and grooming. I know NENSA is a non profit and always looking for money, but seriously, skiing is not cheap, and incentive to win back an entry fee would get more people coming.

More support for seniors? Well, maybe just not cutting them out. In the past, NENSA has let seniors come to the REG camps because they qualified. Now, because they're trying to stay in line with the USST, the seniors are cut out. Because god forbid that a senior skier would want to improve also. We weren't picked up by the so-called scouting programs as J2s, therefore we don't count, we'll never amount to anything. In the past, NENSA has allowed a "NENSA quota" to participate in the October USST camp at Lake Placid. No longer, now its just for NENSA juniors. Come on, guys, we haven't given up on life yet. Just because you are at a certain level doesn't mean you don't want to improve. But apparently, according to NENSA and the USST, once you hit a certain age you don't really care if you improve or not. You're too old, death and master skiing is right around the corner. There are no opportunities anymore.

I know NENSA is working hard to promote senior skiing. And all I have to add is bitching, nothing supportive or helpful. But I think its stupid that you lose so many skiers after they leave college. At least Boston has Weston - there is a race series thats growing, and not cutting out seniors. How do you get that crowd to come do real races?


Colin R said...

You've got some good points here.

I think 90% of the senior exodus is due to people needing to get jobs, and jobs mainly existing outside the snow belt. Plus it's such a step down from a college ski team to being team-less in a city, without a coach or established collegiate race scene to give you direction... you won't be as fast and you won't like it as much. So most people just quit.

IMO if you're going to grow the senior ski scene, it's going to happen in Burlington VT, Portland, ME, and Concord NH -- the 3 biggest cities with reasonable access to decent snow and racing. You and I might be dumb enough to drive 3+ hours every weekend, but most people won't, and you'll never change that.

It's a tough problem.

But yeah, what's up with the high entry fees and no prize money? Real races should give real prizes. Craftsbury marathon, I'm looking at you...

Anonymous said...

Aside from the fact that biking and skiing are both endurance sports they really cant be compared. Biking has such a huge base to support it...every kid learns to ride a bike, the race scene builds from there. Skiing does not have a base, at all. This country will never develop that kind of base for skiing, it just isn't going to happen. We have to accept that and build with what we do have, a small group of very motivated highly involved people.

The USST has big issues. It has turned into a private little club that no outsiders may enter. They have handpicked the athletes they wanted, and now they have closed off the pipeline to eliminate any threats to their little club...J2's are not competitors to a 25 year old USST team member, so they are safe enough to allow into the pipleline and be supported.

The one huge question which I have never heard a good answer for is this...Why does the US not have an Olympic Trials for xc skiing??? How is it that the USST can basically chose who goes and who doesn't go to the Olympics...the point system is skewed and it allows the USST to justify their own choices...If Michael Phelps has to qualify for the Olympics, then so should Chris Cook and Torin Koos!!!

The problems will never end and never be solved, but I think its about time something was done about the USST...they are only interested in supporting and protecting their select athletes....that is no way to promote the sport and keep senior skiers involved.

Jess said...

I've won more money this summer (and it's not even summer yet) by running than for all my years of skiing. And yeah, let me tell you how painful it was to suffer the whole Craftsbury Marathon and only win a piece of pottery...

I guess yeah you do have to be a certain amount of crazy to continue on skiing as a senior (or a lot of crazy in my case if you're willing to travel 7+ hours to every race). I basically have no life if I want to train even close to 600 hours. It's not that accessible after college, I can understand that. But we do need a certain amount of inclusion from our region. Good for NENSA with the Green Team, and yay for the race day waxing help. Maybe if there were more of us seniors sticking around they'd help even more. But maybe this is one of those catch 22 things.

Hill Junkie said...

You're too old, death and master skiing is right around the corner.

The way you put things makes this master skier think master skiing is worse than death:)

While I have won my fair share of cash racing masters in the cycling world, I can honestly say that cash payout is not a factor in which races I do or in racing at all. It's all about the thrill of competition.

Masters bike racing is well organized in New England with many masters teams. A bunch of guys that were elites in thier youth still compete at highly proficient levels. I did not compete in cycling or skiing in my youth. Skiing is quite new for me actually. We do see new faces popping into the masters cycling scene regularly. Cycling is so accessible and climate independent. We've had some tough ski winters the last several years (except for last year). How do you keep year-round ski athletes motivated if your reward is a brown winter? As a multi-athlete, a bad cycling day in the winter usually means spectacular ski day for me.

Anonymous said...

Why is it the USST's responsibility to develop seniors who are not competing internationally? The US national teams for other sports (alpine skiing, cycling, track and field, etc.) are not charged with developing mid-level athletes. You are focusing your anger at the USST when you should really be thinking about the USSA. USA Cycling, USATF - those governing bodies do much to support their respective sports while at the same time maintaining very competitive teams at world championships. It's not Vordie, Whitcomb, or Casey's responsibility to help regionally competitive senior athletes along at REG camps. If you want to get pissed at anyone, get pissed at Bill Marolt or Luke Bodensteiner - those are two dudes who should be doing more to help skiing as a community in the US.

Additionally, the sport you referred to, cycling, is one in which the US is competitive on an international scale. Sure there may not be entire teams of American riders, but Americans are household names who win races on the sport's highest stage with enough frequency that it is not deemed "remarkable" or "fantastic" every time it happens. This is not true in skiing. Once it is true, maybe the USST can back off and give other people a chance. Until Newell and Liz and Bird are tearing up the WC and it's no longer surprising or amazing, we've got to focus on international success and let the "has-beens" fend for themselves (not that all seniors are "has-beens," but that's how the USST sees us).

Alex said...

I probably shouldn't have pulled cycling into this discussion, it just happens to be another sport that I do. I don't race for cash, if I did I wouldn't be skiing and I'd still be sucking on a bike. Its just nice to know that there is the option to finish "in the money".

Anon 1 - there is criteria for choosing the olympic team. I don't know what it is, but I do know that every olympic year, the skiers on the bubble feel shafted. I don't know that USST athletes automatically qualify for the olympics, although correct me if I'm wrong.

Anon 2 - my anger is definitely not directed at the USST, but at NENSA, since I believe its the responsiblity of the regional programs to develop athletes. The USST does seem biased against seniors, which to me seems stupid, but I can see where they are coming from, to some extent.

NENSA, though, is responsible for all of its skiers. It is not the responsibility of the USST to develop mid-level skiers, but the REG camps were as much put on by NENSA as by the USST. At least that is how I look at it, and I'm probably wrong in that regard. I feel that if a person can qualify (among everyone, not just in your age class), let the person go to the camp, regardless of age. The USST might only care about juniors, but NENSA should take responsibility for everyone.

There is just too much age segregation. Why can't we all just race each other? I understand wanting masters categories, but do we really need separate camps for every age class?

Anonymous said...

Here's a take:

Skiing is so small as it is. NENSA, USST, USSA, any other group you want to mention is interconnected, you can't focus anger or blame on just one, with such a small close-knit sport they all share responsibility.

In regards to senior order to develop and promote the sport of skiing and increase its popularity senior skiers need to be supported and encouraged to continue skiing and racing competively. However, if you are a senior skier, say 25 years old, and have not achieved top level success or are not showing skyrocketing improvement and potential: you aren't going anywhere. There is exceptions to every rule, and its not impossible for a senior skier to go from nobody to somebody, but the odds are against it.

It would be a waste of time to sink money and support into senior skiers who have very little chance of getting to the top level...this is why the concentration is on younger skiers.

But as I mentioned create support for the skiing and increase the numbers seniors do need to be supported. Somehow a compromise needs to be found to develop top juniors yet still support seniors to keep them interested.

Dave Kvam said...

Hey Alex...I love your rant and I totally agree. I believe I share every feeling you have. It is nice to see someone take my own frustrations and write them so eloquently. I have always been curious as too why many of the existing camps which ALREADY TAKE PLACE are not open to Open/Masters skiers willing to pay and participate. So many that you see are advertised exclusively for J2-OJ skiers. WTF? Why not increase your planned enrollment for a few more hammerhead seniors who want to go?

Alex said...

Dave, I can see why they wouldn't want to open the camps to anyone willing to pay - there is limited space at the camps, because of vehicle restrictions and coaching restrictions. Ever coach a group of 15 when you're expecting 4? The other reason to have separate camps would be to have people of similar abilities together - it is a lot easier on the coaches if everyone is at the same level, whatever level that might be, than if there is a big spread.

That said, I'd love to see more camps or more capacity at existing camps, especially for seniors and masters. Particularly with the masters crowd, I'm sure NENSA (or whoever is running the camp) could squeeze out a lot of much-needed money, since that crowd is more than willing to pay for coaching/technique, recognizing its value. Look at the prices for internet cycling coaching!

If you get a master or senior hooked, his kids will start as juniors/BKLers. If you spite too many masters/seniors, they'll put their kids into other sports. But thats a different issue =)

Dave Kvam said...

Certainly I see your point, especially about maintaining consistent ability levels...I guess my feeling is this, NENSA is missing a moneymaker....Like you say...people are willing to pay for coasching. I would pay to go to ski camps with world class coaching which NENSA can clearly provide and some of that fee I am sure goes to the club. Also, NENSA makes a big effort to fundraise near the end of the ski season and I would be much more willing to (assuming I had much disposable income) give a little to NENSA if I felt I might get something from them in return. That seems like a win for everyone. I think it would also be good for Juniors to ski with older skiers for a few reasons..a) there are some pretty good seniors, they have some experience with competition and training that can be shared, it also lets some of those pretty-fast but maybe not crazy-fast juniors know that there might just be life in skiing after they graduate high school. I would help fill the gap between juniors and "masters-who-are-getting-back-into-it".