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U.S. Development: Part Two

In the December issue of Cross Country Skier, this column began a “big picture” view at the many positive things that are happening in U.S. youth and junior cross country skiing competitive development, while also pointing out some of the challenges facing the youth and junior scene.

This issue’s column continues the theme, moving up from the high school ages into what is now being increasingly known as the “U23” (under 23) young adult demographic.

Benefits and conflicts for junior clubs

Although around for several decades, cross county skiing junior club programs have really hit the big time in the past 10-15 years, with coast-to-coast proliferation and amazing growth in almost every possible way.

Several junior clubs are Nordic co-disciplines within alpine/snowboarding educational foundations, while others are stand-alone entities. While many clubs are small-time non-profits heavily dependent on volunteers, some of the most powerful clubs have full-time staffs and annual budgets exceeding some national World Cup teams. In a few cases (mostly in the east) one can find club ski programs combined with an academic boarding school. Overall, funding for the vast majority of these junior clubs is divided between athlete fees and public donations/fundraisers.

The upside of the typical junior racing club, in terms of athlete development, is significant. The most obvious benefit is the quality and breath of coaching that pre-teens and teens can receive. Typically coaches are paid a real working wage — some full-time, year round — a big reason for relatively consistent coaching staffs. This compares with the often frequent turnover with high school programs where coaches are lucky to get a little stipend for three or four months’ work. Because some club staff positions can be pretty decent jobs, the experience and qualifications of coaches is often significantly higher than typical school programs. The scope of the coach-athlete relationship is also increased to include much more of the year than is possible with school programs.

Another major benefit of club programs is that schedules (both practices and competitions) are written with an eye towards what is best for skiing rather than what fits into a school calendar. As we will see, this can create friction points — but it is an undeniable benefit in terms of athlete development. With the bigger clubs, infrastructure is also enhanced including handy things such as vans, facilities, trails, training equipment and gym access.

The potential downsides to junior club programs are far more inconsistent than the benefits.

In some communities, clubs and school programs are utterly symbiotic. Where the school program ends, the club program picks up. Teens get to enjoy the social benefits of school teams, while simultaneously adding the clear athletic benefits of more sophisticated club programs. Unfortunately, in other situations there is a near-constant power struggle in the winter months between school teams and clubs. Program leaders, school leaders and parents literally determine the path — harmony or chaos — with kids left hanging in the balance.

No matter how mature the fundraising program, clubs can be hampered by financial realities. A winter-only program can run $1,000-$1,500 for coaching and transportation. A year-round program can easily double that amount. Adding race/trail fees, snow and dryland equipment, year-round camps and long-distance travel can put the total for a high-end cross country skiing junior around $10,000-15,000 per year. That cost isn’t going down, either.

Most of the bigger club programs offer scholarships that help reduce some of the financial load. But anecdotal reports from parents and community members nationwide paint a clear picture: cost blocks many lower and low- to middle-income families from being active in junior clubs. This economic divide has been a well-known fact in competitive alpine skiing for decades, but cross country ski competition has typically been able to cast a much wider net. That may now be changing — at least at the highest levels of junior development.

The fundraising side of club programs also presents a mixed bag. Clubs can be a positive way to channel local energy and funding to benefit junior skiing, which most cross country skiers would universally see as a good thing. But powerful junior clubs can also sometimes siphon off local energy and funding away from school teams, trail funding and other worthwhile Nordic programs and projects.

It can be argued that, in the coming decade, the most common organizational priority with junior development will be controlling costs and maintaining community cooperation so this balancing act doesn’t spin out of control. Just who is writing a training plan for a given talented junior seems much less likely to create long-term fissures in ski communities than forcing tough choices on how best to divide local funds dedicated towards our sport. Competitive cross country skiing is far too small and vulnerable (given future challenges) to last long if we fail to constantly work together in positive ways.

Figuring out the next step

One step beyond the high school years is where things really get interesting for cross country development in the U.S.

Over the years I’ve written several articles for various publications pointing out the staggering attrition rate we see in the oldest junior ranks. A guesstimate is that we are seeing up to 95-98 percent of graduating high school seniors drop out of the competitive cross country ski world the spring after their final high school ski race. Assuming I’m right, that is a brutal blow to the sport not only in terms of developing elite athletes, but also in terms of just maintaining a strong base of young adult energy at the recreational and citizen racing levels as well.

For those that do survive the jump out of high school, college skiing has been — and remains — the overwhelming dominant force in keeping competitive flames alive for skiers in the 18-23 age range. But college skiing is not a universal force in the snow regions the way junior programs tend to be. In a good year, there may be as few as 400-450 college racers at U.S. colleges, spread across an entire continent. And this total is divided between varsity NCAA skiing and club-based USCSA (formerly NCSA) programs with a staggering diversity in funding, coaching and snow access.

I’ve described in past writing how many collegiate cross country ski club programs have been lost over the past 20 years. The U.S. may now have just half the number of collegiate skiers today compared to the late ‘80s. That massive loss flies in the face of what is probably a doubling of junior skier numbers over the same period. I’ve said many times how big a loss that has been for the overall health of cross country skiing, not only at the competitive level, but in literally all areas — recreation, industry, media, general public support, you name it.

Losing so many skiers out of high school, combined with collegiate energy being spread so thin (as well as few other viable alternatives in the 18-23 age range), is arguably the single biggest man-made block to not only improving U.S. elite competitive standards in future years, but keeping our overall sport fresh and healthy.

Is there any good news here? Yes there is.

For starters, the U.S. Ski Team has again put a healthy amount of weight on development of late and there are a dozen or so promising skiers that are being supported in some way by the national program. Where talented skiers can combine USST support with college or club support, the net package is pretty darn good. In some cases, it is very competitive with European skiers in the same development stage.

Clubs (local or regional) are also taking a progressively important role in what happens with development of skiers in the critical 18-23 year range. Kikkan Randall’s historic World Cup victory this season was as much a product of the long years of club support from Anchorage’s Alaska Pacific University (APU) Nordic than the more recent efforts of the national program. With as many as a half-dozen non-collegiate U.S. elite clubs now focused on young adults, far more athletes can be kept “in the game,” even if they don’t fit traditional collegiate programs or, having recently graduated, need just a bit more time to really push the elite ceiling.

The bottom line that seems to be increasingly accepted around the elite cross country skiing community is that, although nearly everyone agrees that collegiate skiing is a wonderful thing, it is equally true that having more options during and after the college years is necessary for the U.S. to consistently produce internationally competitive athletes.

This is illustrated by the fact that three of the four U.S. Ski Team athletes that are skiing at a “top tier” World Cup level right now have taken a distinctly non-traditional approach to post-H.S. education. Yet it is also undeniable that those elite athletes were all pushed to the top by athletes that came from a variety of development backgrounds — U.S. Ski Team development, club development, NCAA colleges and USCSA colleges.

The best of all worlds, then, is to have as much strength and depth in all these areas as possible. Yet the big challenge for the future is the sustainability of these same vital “cross country finishing vehicles” in a very uncertain world.

Both the national program, as well as the various club programs, will be severely tested in coming years to sustain support levels. Costs will invariably increase in the face of climate worries, rising energy costs and general economic uncertainties. Given the sheer cost of travel alone, elite cross country skiing development is an enormously expensive proposition in the best of times. These costs are not likely to decrease. Stability in funding is one key, but so is innovative and daring choices in the elite community that will conserve costs while maximizing return.

Sustainability also hinges on improving the equation out of high school, while creating innovative new ways to integrate colleges into the competitive development mix. Again, Anchorage’s APU Nordic deserves credit for being a national leader in providing a hybrid college-elite development program. Although very difficult to create, hybrid programs like APU are unquestionably going to play a huge future role in keeping more talent in the sport after high school.

Traditional college teams are also likely to face interesting pressures in coming years. Snow worries and increasing travel costs could easily wear down enthusiasm within athletic departments for full throttle NCAA teams. We have so few that a few losses in the future could potentially escalate into a total collegiate meltdown. I don’t see changes coming quickly, but it is foolish to think that it could never happen (cross country ski alumni beware…and get your lobbying skills sharpened up!).

Regardless of how all these issues ultimately turn out, I’ll end as I started. There’s a lot more going on that is right than wrong in the world of youth, juniors and young adult skiing. We’ve got a whole lot of kids out skiing and a whole lot of caring people watching over them.

Maybe in the end that’s all that really matters anyways.