During the 2006 Olympics the United States Ski Team brass made an announcement of tremendous importance to American cross country ski racing. The officials announced that the budget for the cross country program would increase by approximately 50% going into the post-Olympic season. More importantly, the budget increase would be directed toward increasing the size of the coaching staff and the comprehensiveness of the program so that a full-time, full-scale Continental Cup program could be supported for the next several years. If things go well, there could be more increases in the future.
Head Coach Pete Vandenberg says, "Reinstating this program was one of the first things I wanted to do [when I became Head Coach]." This may be the single most important step made by the USST in support of the cross country program in the past 20 or more years. Why is that, you might ask? Hereís more from Vordenberg: "Itís a monstrous step up from the SuperTour to the World Cup and a very big fall back down to the SuperTour." In other words, a big step was missing from the "ladder" to the top.
Nearly every major ski nation, in every discipline of the sport about which they are serious, organizes and supports not only a World Cup group, but a "B" level group of developing skiers who compete at the level just below the World Cup. In FIS-speak this is the Continental Cup level. In practical terms, for the cross country discipline, this is the European Continental Cup, or Europa Cup (Alpen Cup for us old-timers).
The Europa Cup is a mini-World Cup, with races in all of the European nations that host World Cup events: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, etc. It is in this somewhat more forgiving crucible that World Cup skiers are forged from promising junior and U23 skiers. Look at the top of the Europa Cup results lists from the past five to 10 years and you will see many names that have graduated into todayís top World Cup skiers. The Europa Cup isnít the World Cup, but itís not a place for lightweights, either.
If you want to be a successful World Cup skier, you need to be able to thrive competitively with lots of travel, in an environment where you live, eat, sleep and train on the road, in a foreign nation with a foreign language and foreign menus. The World Cup is harsh place to learn how to do this.
To take skiers directly from the relatively sheltered atmosphere of U.S. skiing (be it collegiate, junior, U.S. Nationals, or the Continental Cup/SuperTour) and throw them into the deep water of the World Cup circuit is a recipe for a sometimes disastrous failure. In many cases, either the skiers focus on the competition (for which they are likely not prepared) and fail to thrive in the other aspects of their ski life, or they spend all their energy focusing on the details surrounding competition and do well there, but then bomb out in the races.
Skiers, like most endurance athletes, develop over a period of years. At each step, it is important that the competitive challenge the skier faces be appropriate to the capacities of the skier. The Europa Cup is "Triple A" system to the World Cupís "Major Leagues."
The Europa Cup circuit offers a critical intermediate step in the development process. At this level, the competition is strong, but not so strong as to preclude some degree of success for skiers who have excelled at the highest domestic levels in the U.S. American skiers who have sufficient training and a solid racing background can move from the U.S. to the Europa Cup and can realistically think about producing results toward the top of the result list, or at least on the first page.
These same skiers, if thrown straight into World Cup competition, would be relegated to the very bottom of the results. By competing successfully in the Europa Cup, these skiers can prepare mentally to excel while "on the road" in Europe. When they have established a strong track record of success at the Europa Cup level, they can be moved up to the World Cup. With experience living the life of an international skier, and a little international success in their resumes, they will have a mindset that dramatically improves their likelihood of successfully coping with, and competing in the World Cup environment.
This structure has been recommended before (on many occasions), and tried before (with various degrees of funding), but never, in my recollection, with this level of support. If the USST can maintain this level of funding, and even increase the funding substantially to more fully support the program, the chances of steady improvement of U.S. results, and consistently better U.S. results in the future, is increased.
USST Cross Country Program Director Luke Bodensteiner terms the budget increase and program growth "Super important." This is a reigniting of a development program that was put in place following the 1998 Olympic Games. The USSTís results at the 1998 Games were not good. At the same time, there had been some very good results by some American juniors and young seniors.
Following the Nagano Games, the USST operated both World Cup and Continental Cup programs. However, because of budget constraints, it was impossible to fully staff the cross country program and operate both programs at anywhere near a fully funded level. Bodensteiner says, "We gutted the World Cup program to start supporting our developing skiers." This was a step in the right direction, but, as Bodensteinerís comment indicates, there was insufficient funding to take care of both priorities.
Then-USST Coach Miles Minson oversaw a National Development program during the 98/99 season that was integrated with regional programs, while the World Cup group operated on a bare-bones basis. The following season a residential program, focused on developing skiers was established in Park City. The program was offered to eight skiers, but only Andrew Johnson participated. That season the skiers took a single Continental Cup trip to Europe. Over the next couple of years the program gradually grew, culminating in some outstanding performances at the 2002 Olympic Games by skiers who had been in the program. These skiers were still young, and bigger things were expected at the 2006 Games.
Based upon encouraging Olympic results in 2002, the decision was made to spend more money on the World Cup group (and less on development) leading to the 2006 Torino Games. This paid off with some great results at the 2003 World Championships, but that success was not repeated in 2004 or 2005. The cross country program had been forced to place all their chips on one square. Now theyíve been given more chips; with luck, such decisions will no longer be necessary.
So what happens now that the budget can accommodate a more complete program? First comes an increase in staffing. The USST cross country coaching staff now numbers five: Pete Vordenberg (Head Coach, World Cup group leader), Chris Grover (World Cup/Sprint Coach), Justin Wadsworth (World Cup/Distance Coach), Matt Whitcomb (Continental Cup coach) and Pat Casey (Continental Cup coach). This staff will have technical support from four seasonal, but full-time wax technicians (three for the World Cup, one for the Continental Cup). This is the biggest USST coaching staff in at least 20 years. Thatís a good thing.
A bigger coaching staff means reduced travel, workload and energy drain on each of the coaches. This will mean that the athletes on the team get higher quality coaching and support. With any luck, it will also mean that the coaches will not wear out in a hurry, and will stick around longer, keeping their institutional knowledge and experience in the mix, so that U.S. skiers can profit from it for several years into the future.
Additionally, Vordenberg cites a bigger commitment of staff support from the USST in the areas of sport science and strength training. This is a first.
With the staffing and funding in place, the key now is execution of a good plan. Part of this is making sure that the coaching staff successfully matches the skiers with the correct level of challenge in training and competition.
Vordenberg cites Torin Koosí results last winter (2005-2006) as an example: he won a Europa Cup sprint; in a World Cup race he had the number 2 qualifying time and made the "B" final. These results came after a few years without a significant blip in his results, which could have resulted in his dismissal from another program. According to Vordenberg, patience is key, as is the continuity of the program the staff and all means of support.
A key element in the programís success will be the coaching staffís ability to determine when to support a skier who is on the right track but has suffered a setback, and when to cut loose an athlete who has been given plenty of opportunities to succeed, but has proven unable to perform at the necessary level. Thatís never an easy task, and never one where coaches can be 100% on the money. But those decisions are necessary if a program is to move forward.
The road from here will undoubtedly have its ups and downsósports is not linear. However, if the support is consistent for a couple of Olympic cycles, the chances of improved performances by U.S. skiers increase dramatically. Time will tell.
John Estle has coached all levels and all ages of skiers from youth through the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team. He is the author of many articles about all aspects of the sport of cross country ski racing. He competed at the national level in the 1970s and early 80s, is a nationally and internationally certified Technical Delegate and has served as chief of competition for a World Cup race and two Junior Olympics. He resides in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he operates his own consulting and business services firm, SportAlaska.