Ski Team Confidential: What’s it take for young athletes to compete on the slopes?

We’ve all seen those kids on the ski hill—fast, fearless. They whiz by, leaving you coated in snow dust, barely able to make out the racing association logo on the back of their ubiquitous team jackets. Who are these kids, slaloming around ski school snow snakes and dipping into trail-lining trees? More often than not, they are members of our five local ski teams: Mt. Spokane Ski Race Association (SSRA), 49 Degrees North Alpine Ski Team (FAST), Schweitzer Alpine Racing School (SARS), Independence Racing Team, and Lookout Pass Ski Team.

These aspiring Bode Millers and Picabo Streets usually can join a ski team by age five, if they already have had a season or two of experience on the snow. Though ski teams tend not to require specific skills tests, they generally will only accept kids who already know how to ski.

“Our business is not to take someone who’s never skied,” says Jimmy Holcomb, Head Coach and Program Director of FAST. “We don’t have any specific restrictions, but you need to be able to ski around the mountain before you can start to race.” Beyond that, he says, “all you really need is a helmet, ski equipment, and the desire to go fast.”

Shep Snow, Head Coach and Program Director of Independence Racing Team, adds, “the goal of our organization is to create kids who are passionate about skiing.”

The teams find there is not much need for active recruiting. Like the other teams, SSRA gains new members mostly by word of mouth, says Head Coach and Program Director, Chuck Holcomb, though they also do some minimal advertising at local schools. “Families that are happy about what ski racing has done for their kid and for their family will tell their friends,” he says. “They value the life skills that are kind of inherent in a demanding sport like ski racing.”

SARS Head Coach and Program Director, Roger Taggart, adds that kids tend to enter the program when they’re little and then stay in the program. “We have a group of girls that started with us when they were six, and now they’re sixteen, going 75 miles an hour on their feet.”

One local opportunity for kids to get a taste of the sport is the Home Town Race Series, hosted at Schweitzer Mountain by Shep Snow’s Independence Racing Team. For $38 anyone can come up and get four Friday nights of racing, with volunteer coaching from some of Schweitzer’s Masters class racers. The aspiring racers are divided into teams, and at the end of the series, prizes are awarded at an ice cream party, based on “Most Improved” as calculated with percentages in “an algorithm that sometimes takes a six-pack to get through,” says Shep. “Many of our new athletes come from that series.”

Since ski racing is a global sport, governed by the Federation International de Ski, or FIS, (and the United States Ski Association, or USSA, locally), our local teams tend to be structured in similar ways.

They all compete in the same four basic events, Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G, and Downhill, as defined by FIS and USSA. In our region the youth ski racing events are Slalom, GS and Super G—“you have to be older to do the fastest event in ski racing, the Downhill,” says Jimmy Holcomb of FAST. Once they get a taste for speed, though, it may be addictive—SSRA athletes Dillon Bauernfeind, age 15, and Makaela Kerl, age 14, say their favorite event is “speed—Downhill or Super G,” while Sierra Schrankel, 15, a third member of SSRA’s Junior team, prefers the old staple, Slalom.

SARS and 49 Degrees North also have freeride teams, which compete in Slopestyle, Big Air, Boarder-cross, Slalom, and GS for the snowboarders, and Slopestyle, Skier-cross and Big Air. Unfortunately, there aren’t any halfpipes in the Inland Northwest, so “the freeriders here have done the best in the slopestyle, but we try really hard to build solid four-event skiers,” coach Taggart says.

Our local ski teams accommodate racers five and up, and a few have robust programs for Juniors (aged 13-14) and FIS athletes—everyone aged 15+ competes together in the same events.

At Schweitzer, says Taggart, “The youngest kids are age five, going all the way up to Masters-level. Our oldest guy is about 75.” The athletes are then grouped by age. At SSRA, for example, the groups are: Introduction to Ski Racing Program (25 kids, mostly younger than 13), Youth Ski League Program (30 kids, younger than 13, racing at an intermediate to advanced level), the Junior Development Program (20 kids aged 13-14), and the Junior/FIS Program (about ten kids) for those who are 15 or older.

At age 13, racers transition from age-based competition to ability-based competition. “When you get to 13 or 14, you need to make a decision on what you’re going to do with your ski racing career,” Jimmy Holcomb says. “To be a junior is much more expensive—there’s more training, more conditioning and more commitment, so a lot of kids at that age are just interested in other things.”

The season runs from mid-December through March, and to get their athletes ready, most of the teams offer a considerable amount of off-season and pre-season training, but “the level of commitment and time varies wildly,” says Jimmy Holcomb of FAST. Younger and entry-level athletes usually ski one day each week with the team. As they advance, they typically add a second weekend day and eventually one or more nights of night skiing. “To be really competitive, the kids need to be practicing at least four days per week,” says SARS coach Taggart.

Prior to the season of racing, the teams do dry land training. Says Coach Jimmy Holcomb, “we get together for a couple hours on the weekend, we warm up, do some sprinting and strength conditioning, and then we play soccer for an hour or so for aerobic fitness.” Then, he says, “we usually start the season Dec. 1 or as soon as there’s enough snow to ski on.”

Some teams take off-season training to the next level with training camps. SSRA, for example, organizes both dry land training and travel to training camps in the fall. “We take as many kids as can afford the time and money,” says Coach Chuck Holcomb. “It’s certainly not something everyone can do, but it’s a great opportunity for those who can.” This year, the SSRA team had 26 athletes eligible to attend their training camp in Banff in November; 12 went on the trip.

For SARS, there’s an additional challenge to getting the team together for pre-season practices: “We’re geographically diverse,” coach Taggart says, including kids from as far away as Lewiston, so some of the athletes work out in localized groups with physical therapists, who might lead a workout incorporating plyometric exercises, elliptical machines, vibration plates, kettle balls and Swiss balls.

SARS makes the most of their time together on the mountain, though. The resort, like other mountains in the area, lets them on the slopes early in the morning before general opening for speed training—“we get on the lifts early and let the kids go super fast. We also run a speed camp at Mt. Hood in the summer,” says Taggart.

Their regular season practices, like most of the other teams, include such exercises as Super G training during speed time, drills with props or brushes, practice courses, and, of course, freeskiing. “It’s a big advantage for us here (at Schweitzer) that we have such challenging freeskiing. The kids who are good freeskiers tend to be good racers, which is not always true the other way around,” Taggart says.

Schweitzer also allows them to practice and race on different runs, but “of course, whatever run we have shut down is suddenly the public’s favorite run, and the resort takes a lot of flak for us.”

The SSRA athletes take advantage of the freeskiing, too—they love to ski Mt. Spokane’s new gladed runs on the backside of the mountain—when coach Holcomb lets them off the hook.

Once they’re ready, entry-level athletes may or may not race three to four days each season, and some will opt out of races if they don’t feel ready to compete. Most kids race about seven starts per year, though some of the FIS Juniors race as many as 35 days per year, and the coaches travel to as many more as the ability and ambition of their athletes drive them.

Taggart says his SARS team this year will race in British Columbia, as far south as Mammoth, and as far East as Aspen. If racers do well at events in the Western Region (CA, UT, CO, MT, ID, WA, OR, AK), they have the opportunity to ski at other events in more distant locations.

“We have a larger elite squad, and we have some kids who have some pretty lofty goals, so we’ll go outside the region to get them more starts and more points,” Taggart says.

The points are an integral part of the FIS system for gauging a skier’s ability. After a racer reaches the age of 12 years old, they begin to build a “point profile”: for each event you get a score, like a report card, and then race order in future races is determined by points. The top 15 athletes as determined by their points score get to race first (in random order), and then the rest of the athletes race the course in the order of their ability as determined by points. “It’s a pretty good indicator of the ability of the skier, especially by the age of 15 or 16,” Taggart says.

Scott Snow, a FIS Junior on Independence Racing Team, was the West Region’s Junior Olympic champion last year in GS, which qualified him to start this season in December at a national development program speed camp for the US Ski Team.

With all that practice and travel time, “our FIS juniors are going to miss some school—there’s no way around it,” Chuck Holcomb says. “It’s tough to be on the hill all day, come back to the hotel we’re staying at and still have to do homework,” he says. “It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of commitment, but we find that the athletes who are really achievers on the hill tend to be achievers off the hill as well.”

Our local racers have come up with a multitude of ways to pursue their educations while they race. Some attend more flexible private schools, and some participate in running start programs that allow them to take community college courses for high school credit during spring and fall quarter, but take winter quarter off to live on the mountain and ski.

SSRA’s Makaela Kerl is in a program called CORE at LC, which helps “kids who need a little boost,” she explains. Her teammate, Sierra Schrankel, says “I collect all my homework before I go on a trip, and do my best to stay on top of it, but it’s hard.”

Dillon Bauernfeind takes two classes online, and Scott Snow attends the Idaho Virtual Academy.

The athletes don’t miss out on mentors by spending less time in school; the teams race through the season with a significant support staff of assistant coaches and dedicated volunteers. Though most of the coaches do get paid, at least a nominal amount, very few can actually make a living at it. “You’re not doing it to make money, you’re doing it because you love it,” Jimmy Holcomb says.

Where does a team find good coaches? Most of the program directors listed the same three sources: some coaches are former parents who had kids who used to race; some are ex-racers who want to give back to the sport; and some come over from ski schools, so that, Holcomb says, instead of seeing a group of kids for a few weeks, you can be involved with their development for a few years on a much more intensive basis.

Independence Team Racing coach Shep Snow retired from an Army career to coach, “for any athlete who wants to—I coach seven days per week, and I love it because it keeps my brain from getting too rotten and my body from getting too flabby.”

And don’t forget the dedicated volunteer parents, whom the teams rely on to host events, not to mention catch rides up those treacherous mountain roads at six a.m. The day to day stuff doesn’t require much of the parents, except carrying practice gates up the hill on occasion, but there’s so much going on at races, including registration, timing, results, etc., that Chuck Holcomb of SSRA says, “it takes about 75 volunteers to put on a race,” and for the season-capping Buddy Warner this March they’ll need twice that.

Like other regional teams, SSRA hosts three to five races each year, and will host this year’s Buddy Warner Cup, which is held every third year by a resort in the Eastern Washington/North Idaho region of the Pacific NW Ski Association. They’ll also be hosting a Junior Olympic qualifier in January and the Emerald Empire Youth Ski League Championship, where they’ll be defending their team title against the FAST, SARS, Independence, Lookout and Bluewood teams for the third year.

This year, SSRA is asking families to do five days of volunteer work, though new families are only requested to do three, to ease them into the busy pace of running a ski program. “The parents are intricately involved, and if they weren’t, the program wouldn’t be as inclusive as it is as a result of their work running races and fundraising,” Holcomb says.

SARS will host the Western Region Junior Championships this year, a six day event in three disciplines (no Downhill), and the overall winners will advance to US Nationals, where they can compete with the 60-70 best competitors from all over the US. “If you do well there, you can be named to the US Ski Team and be exposed to sponsorship opportunities,” says Taggart.

The likelihood of making it to the US Ski Team, for any aspiring racer, is slight, but that never discouraged local champions like Will Brandenburg of SARS. Brandenburg worked his way up through the national development system, earning a #1 ranking this year in the world for his age. At a recent elite North America competition in Colorado he placed third and sixth, and Taggart says Brandenburg will be in the 2010 winter Olympics in Whistler.

It takes more than skill to make it in ski racing though—ski racing is a tough sport. “You spend all that time training and if you make one mistake in a run, you’re just done. It’s not like basketball where, if you miss a basket, you’ll probably get another chance to shoot,” Holcomb says.

While many would say that ski racing seems like an individual sport, SSRA’s Chuck Holcomb thinks of it another way. “The relationships developed between the athletes and with their coaches are really the glue that holds the program together—it’s a real source of motivation for them,” he says. “Some parents and coaches have their own way of doing things, so maybe that athlete will train outside of a team—I’ve seen that kind of thing in Colorado and back East, with mixed results. I think those kids who are on their own kind of suffer from missing out on those team bonds,” he says.

That said, though, SARS coach Roger Taggart adds that ski racing isn’t just a social club. “I think when kids have left the team, it’s because it’s not a social group. It’s just not the same as being on a basketball team or another school-based sport where your social network is much bigger,” Taggart says.

“Skiing is super competitive—there’s one kid that wins and that’s it, so it can be pretty brutal.” Soccer players win as a team or lose as a team, but in skiing it’s really just up to you, he adds. But, those kids that stick with it gain valuable skills. “You’re pushing yourself to succeed in varying conditions. The hill you race on even from one day to the next is different, and it’s different if you go first, fifth, or fiftieth, which forces kids to deal with the here and now,” Taggart says. Athletes also learn travel skills, time management, and budgeting, “so when they go to college, they have that experience already, and it might not be such a shock.”

“The best thing about ski racing is watching the kids grow emotionally and mentally, you know, it’s freezing out there and you’re standing at the top of the hill in your skin-tight speed suit, and the guy in front of you just crashed, and you’ve got to be able to race your race,” adds Shep Snow of Independence. “Even if they quit tomorrow, they’ll be better people for the experience.”

Snow’s team has the distinction of being essentially a free program, limited to athletes in the Sandpoint area who maybe wouldn’t be able to afford the sport otherwise. “I think it’s pretty impressive, that it’s free, the coaches don’t get paid, and we’re still able to produce athletes who can perform at the top levels of the sport,” Snow says.

Taggart agrees: “The opportunities we provide to these kids are equal or better than those provided by the academies [ski racing boarding schools],” he says. “I believe our coaches are as good as any other program, and the relationship we have with the resort allows our kids to be more rounded,” he says, citing the rigid schedules of those institutions.

“Our kids grow up in their own family situations, rather than a boarding school. What we have puts more responsibility on the kids and I think that’s a huge benefit for our kids,” Taggart says.

“I think what these kids do is amazing, and they don’t get the respect and attention that more mainstream sports do,” Taggart says.

Says SSRA racer Makaela Kerl, “I love everything about racing—the competition and the travel and the intensity of it all. I want to keep doing it forever.”


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