Ski Racing Realities in Today's NCAA

<p>How will Coach Hendrickson succeed against the Utah's and the Colorado's? A look at his 2003 Sierra Nevada College team should answer that.</p><p>His reputation as a winner has helped him develop a pipeline of contacts with ski coaches and program directors in the USA and around the world.</p><p>That team consisted of a member of the Austrian National Ski Team, the US Ski Team, the, Canadian Ski Team, the Czech National Ski Team, three members from the Norwegian National Ski Team...</p>

A large negative hovers over the United States Collegiate Ski Association. They offer few or no athletic scholarships. The NCAA schools do. Division I skiing programs provide for 6.3 scholarships for men, and 7 for women. Not all are full ride, like football and basketball, so called "head count" sports. Many are classified as "equivalency" sports, as is NCAA skiing. Put simply this means that coaches can "share" their allocation between a larger number of skiers. A coach can divide the scholarships between a larger number of students. That could mean fourteen partials instead of seven full rides. Of course, if you are good enough, a full-ride scholarship is always a possibility.

Kooskia, Idaho Native
Jill Mendenhall

A college ski racing recruiter must search for racers in many areas. Rarely does the talent come from high schools. The USSA and the US Ski Team discovered those kids long before they were seniors. To make recruiting more difficult, the NCAA and the US Ski Team have had a poor relationship since the 70's. For the most part, it is no better today. Most college athletes sharpen their skills in school. Professional sports, and a shot at the Olympics, come after they complete their college career. Not so in ski racing. In the beginning colleges provided the Olympic ski team with most of their members. Professional ski racing didn't exist. Every four years there was an Olympics. Skiing at that level was the pinnacle. Then the FIS World Ski Championships was created, an event held every four years between the Olympics.

A few years later the World Cup competitions came upon the racing scene. The World Cup changed everything, impacted the sport from top to bottom. Corporate sponsors created dozens of star filled glamorous events, with purse money running into the millions. Sponsors handed more money to the best skiers like candy to little kids. The Olympics were no longer the ultimate dream of young skiers and the pressure on the US Ski Team to win at an international level became a monster.

Ski racing became big business. College programs no longer meshed with their agenda. To meet the demands, now corporate, the United States Ski association (USSA), went looking for the best skiing talent in the country. The pressures the USSA put on young talent destroyed what was once a wonderful relationship.

The US Ski Team controls most of the top skiing athletes before they graduate from high school. Once identified, the best are openly pressured into development programs. The US Ski Team quietly points out that college now, means US Ski Team and World Cup and Olympic dreams never. Most of the kids who make the team either qualify while still enrolled in a ski academy, or they have deferred college to focus on ski racing. Not a healthy situation.

The blame is also almost equally on the shoulders of the NCAA. The US Ski Team competes almost year round. NCAA rules prevent a college athlete from even thinking about that. As in NCAA tennis, where an athlete may only play in 25 matches in a season, the NCAA skier can only compete in 16 competitions. Another bizarre NCAA quirk. College ski coaches can't work directly with their skiers before Nov. 1.

There is more. There are two National Ski Championships. The NCAA Championships, and the USSA National Ski Championships. The later is the elite event, and for the most part, is open only to skiers on the US Ski Team, or in a USSA development program. For years NCAA skiers were outcasts. NCAA skiing was the place where aspiring U.S. Ski Team athletes went to pasture…after their World Cup and Olympic dreams faded away.

The NCAA and USST haven't always been at odds. In the 1930s-1960s, college skiers were the national team. Dartmouth's Dick Durrance, a long time Sun Valley resident, led the 1936 Olympic men's ski team. Rick Chaffee, skiing for the University of Denver, was a two-time NCAA slalom and two-time national champion, and 1968 Olympian.

Maybe someday those days will return. For the present, it is the same. Most of the best athletes continue to pursue the dreams promoted by the US Ski Team. They chase the dream racing well into what should be their college years. Yes, a few make it. And thankfully many come to realize that college, and skiing for an education, just might be a better choice.

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Footnote:
The author competed in NCAA downhill, giant slalom, cross country, and ski jumping. His daughter made the US Ski Team, was ranked thirty-seventh in World Cup Slalom. Left the ski team to attend the University of Utah on a full skiing scholarship, reached All American status, and placed second in slalom at the World University Games in Sophia, Bulgaria. She graduated with honors and is now a practicing Physical Therapist.


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