As the Olympics wound down, I received an email containing an article about our failure in Olympic Alpine skiing.
The piece started, “The problem with U.S. Alpine Skiing at the Beijing Olympics isn’t that Mikaela Shiffrin didn’t win a medal. The problem is that she was the only U.S. skier expected to win one.”

Dave Irons, Ski Columnist

We did have one. Ryan Cochran-Siegle’s silver medal in Super G was all that kept our Alpine skiers from being shut out. And that was a surprise. Shiffrin was the only U.S. skier projected to win a medal, and why not? Afterall, she has dominated slalom skiing for the last two or three years on the World Cup.

For those not in the know, Cochran-Seigle is indeed a member of the Vermont Cochran clan that gave the U.S. Ski team a pair of skiers, Bob and Marilyn, in the ’60s and ’70s. Of course, they grew up skiing on the back yard hill maintained by their father.

Unfortunately, there is no backyard route to the U.S. Ski Team today and the cost is getting prohibitive. The article quoted Steve Porino, a former American racer now working for NBC as a commentator, as pointing out that only the children of wealthy parents can afford the route to the U.S. Ski Team.

A few years ago, we had multiple contenders for Alpine medals on the U.S. Ski Team. Think Lindsay Vonn, Bode Miller and Ted Ligety, all winners on the World Cup. Why in 2022 did we have just one favorite and one whose medal was considered an upset? Where is the depth displayed by the European teams and by U.S. teams of the past?

According to Porino, in a survey by U.S. Ski and Snowboarding, the total cost of producing a potential Olympic medalist can reach $500,000 from the time when the young skier begins racing until he or she makes the U.S. team. Porino was joined in the discussion by Andrew Weibrecht, an Olympic medal winner in 2010 and 2014 in Super G. Weibrecht grew up in Lake Placid, New York and had access to good local programs. Now it’s almost impossible to reach the U.S. team without going to one of the ski academies at a cost of $40-50,000 a year.

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Part of the problem is the points system. In order to achieve point totals that catch the eye of U.S. team coaches, young ski racers have to be able to race against top racers, and that means travel. Alpine skiing is not cheap. Growing up in the mountains in a ski town was always one route up the ladder.

The Mahres grew up in White Pass, Washington and coached each other. It has been remarked that the ski team simply arranged their travel, such was their talent. Tiger Shaw, current head of the U.S. Ski Team, grew up in Stowe, Vermont, son of a ski rep. Bode Miller spent his early years at Cannon before attending Carrabassett Valley Academy.

For most families, the cost of having a child in junior racing at the level needed to make the team is prohibitive. Between lift tickets, travel, fees and equipment, costs go well beyond the average family budget.

If the major obstacle is cost, what’s the solution? One region tried limiting young racers to a single pair of skis. That might help on the equipment side, but what of all the other expenses?

I know of one instance where a pair of young racers from the Oxford Hills area traveled to Vermont for a race at Smugglers’ Notch. Not being familiar with that part of Vermont, they drove up to Stowe, unaware that the road through the Notch is closed in winter. They learned that it was possible to get from the top of Stowe’s Spruce Peak, then they could cross over to the top of Smugglers’. But they had to buy a lift ticket to get to the top of Spruce Peak in addition to the one they would have to purchase at Smugglers’ to get to the race course.

It was a very expensive trip to a ski race. That’s an extreme example, but it does illustrate the costs that go into junior racing on a regular-enough basis to get a point total that would move up the ladder. Moving up the ladder is essential, as point standings determine start positions, so success is created by successfully racing against top fields. And traveling from Maine to Vermont to get into a point-worthy race is costly.

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For those families with the means, heading south for a summer race camp is an option. Of course, we’re talking way south like South America or even New Zealand. This certainly gives a young racer a leg up when he or she enters races back home at the beginning of our ski season.

Traveling for early-season races here in the U.S. is also important in the point chase. Porino had a term for this. He called it point doping. In other words, he’s saying kids with parents of wealth can afford to buy points simply by entering more races than their competition.

Porino and Weibrecht identified an obvious problem, but they didn’t give us a solution. Do we want the government to subsidize our national ski team, as is done in some countries? As it is now, young racers have to find a way to finance their training and competition. The ski industry makes a major contribution, allowing races to be run on their trails and supplying some equipment. But it’s tough, and we will never have the depth that we see on European ski teams unless we find an answer. High school skiing won’t be enough to make the team. That requires skiing against the best in their home region and it is costly.

Maybe the U.S. team can find the funds and a way to provide scholarships to the ski academies. I should point out that the academies are not simply jock schools. If you check the records, you will find that they exceed most high schools in college placement. Not only do their graduates get into the very best colleges, but they excel. No schools require the development of good study habits like these academies. Now the question is, how do we get more of our young ski racers into them?

See you on the slopes.

Dave Irons is a freelance writer and columnist who hails from Westbrook. He has been contributing to the Sun Journal for many years and is among the most respected ski writers in the Northeast. He also is a member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. Write to him at [email protected]


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