I'm tempted to echo Gandhi, who when asked, "What do you think of Western civilization?" replied, "I think it would be a very good idea."
So much might have been—and I believe, so much still could be.
American skiers have shown that we have what it takes; to doubt that we have the "horses," as John Caldwell used to put it, is absurd. But it is a sad fact that while a Bill Koch or a Josh Thompson showed that Americans can break into the highest levels in international sport, as a program, a culture, we have failed to do so. We need to have a long hard think, and lots of open discussion if we are ever to manage consistently to perform well. Changing our "culture" is the only way we are ever going to have a ski culture, and not simply the rare breakthrough.
Domestic skiing has never really confronted the "American Experience." We are too big, and too independent-minded a nation to flourish under a centralized system. We are not Soviets or East Germans who did what they were told to do, or were dropped. Americans, especially the kind attracted to individual sports such as cross country skiing, aren't built that way—you cannot remove athletes from their home environments and their support systems—families, friends, husbands and wives, girl- and boyfriends—and expect them to flourish as well-rounded human beings.
The great skiers all have one thing in common: they are complete, well-rounded, grounded human beings. They have to be in that state of mind to gain the perspective and the strength needed to excel in something as demanding and long-term as cross country skiing. Al Merrill used to say that it takes six years to make a skier. This cannot be done if the athlete does not have support systems. To nurture skiing therefore, we need to nurture our skiing culture where it counts: at home.
We also need a national consensus on long-term training, and here again, we need to change the culture at home. A good deal of what goes on in high school sports is counter productive to developing top athletes: multiple seasons of competition, emphasis on non-endurance building sports, no consistent method for athletic development, de-emphasis of developmental skills and participatory sports—all these play a part. (For an informative and deeply researched discussion of this, please see the first two chapters of Richard Taylor's book, No Pain, No Gain.
To create a culture that nurtures skiing, we need thoroughly educated coaches and we need them at the grass roots level. This is not say that we do not have some great coaches. We do—and we have an enviable supply of enthusiastic coaches and supporters. In fact, one of the things we have that the more structured European system often quashes, is the ability for an inspired—and inspiring—non-professional to bring insights and enthusiasm into the sport. We must never lose this resource.
But we do not have a large body of thoroughly-educated coaches who understand the physiology of long-term training, how to prepare athletes for the stresses and sacrifices of long-term commitment or can address the subtleties of refining already good technique—and who know how to present all this in a healthy and productive perspective to parents and schools.
We have colleges and universities that teach some of the necessary knowledge, but in contrast to Europe, only one, to my knowledge, where one can major in ski coaching. We need to insist that coaches receive such training, perhaps by demanding certification of all our coaches, probably also by providing some of the education at a substantive, demanding and exhaustive level, perhaps as a function of the national organization. Eventually, funding and support might be withheld from programs with unqualified coaches.
A wider culture of mutual nourishing would help as well. In Scandinavia not only is certification demanded of coaches, but national organizations foster research and exchange of ideas. At an annual gathering in Sweden, various coaches report on research projects carried out by their different programs in the last year. Creative thinking and cooperation are thus encouraged, and a good deal of knowledge shared.
An equally important corollary to this is that we need to create a system that will encourage good people to make professional, long-term commitments to coaching. This means good pay and long-term commitment from the employer—professional job security and continuity.
We lack this continuity. As long as I was involved at the international level, the Italian biathlon team had one coach, Ulbaldo Prucker. Åke Jönsson was active in both Sweden and Norway for over a decade—and in Canada, Dave Wood was identified as early as 1993 as a candidate for Head Coach in 1998, and the Association "assisted Dave in gaining the experience and skills to take on this role in a very successful way." There is enormous strength in this sort of long-term commitment and continuity.
The great skiers all have one thing in common: they are complete, well-rounded, grounded human beings. They have to be in that state of mind to gain the perspective and the strength needed to excel in something as demanding and long-term as cross country skiing... To nurture skiing therefore, we need to nurture our skiing culture where it counts: at home.
There is still another kind of continuity. At the World Championships in Falun, Sweden, in 1993, much was made of past winners, who were interviewed—and if they were Swedish or Norwegian, utilized by their respective teams. In the U.S., we tend to discard and ignore our past coaches and more successful athletes, yet these people are a rich source of experience and support. Part of the problem is that in the United States, there is virtually no way to make a profession of skiing or coaching, so a point comes where supporting the family is more important than keeping going. Perhaps we need to discuss a way to make it possible to invest a life in skiing.
Is it moral to bring kids into a sport, and encourage them to devote years of their lives to skiing, when we have proven over and over that success is virtually guaranteed to be limited? Is it moral to encourage mediocrity? Of course this is a wonderful sport—but young people come into it with dreams of Olympic glory. Should we forget that, and simply encourage skiing as a healthy participatory sport? Or should we do some real thinking? Would we send our children to a school with a track record of not getting its students into college?
If we are to succeed as a nation and as a program, we need to debate, and think, and negotiate our way towards a complete culture of skiing. It's time to commit and to be clear about goals and priorities. This magazine believes in American athletes. We need to create a culture to nurture them.
Nat Brown is a three-time Olympic waxer, and has coached at seven World Championships and seven Junior World Championships. He was the first American to take over ski service for a foreign country (Slovenia). He is the author of The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (The Mountaineers Book – now in a Russian edition). His "other" loves are classical music, good books and his ranch in British Columbia.