Let’s Talk SX with Coach Victoria Fenninger


DECEMBER 12, 2019 — This week AOA caught up with Ontario’s only female Ski Cross Head Coach, Victoria Fenninger. Victoria is a well-recognized face on the racing circuit and recently completed her Performance Level (PL) Training Coaching level. Here is her story and a glimpse into Ontario and Canada’s Ski Cross pathway.


Q: Before we talk about SX as a sport can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be the only female SX Head Coach in Ontario. 

This is my fifth season as Program Director and Head Coach for Fenninger Racing based out of Sir Sam’s Ski Area in Haliburton. We have a travelling ski cross team that ranges from U12 to FIS. Fenninger Racing supports athletes at local Ski Cross and Alpine races and select races on the FIS and NorAm circuit. We also run local training for athletes from U8 to Masters racers at both Sir Sam’s in Haliburton and midweek SL training at the Earl Bales Ski Centre in North York.

I started coaching at Sir Sam’s 20 years ago and was promoted to Head Coach for their in-house race programs for 4 years before starting Fenninger Racing. Skiing has always been at the centre of my family’s life. My parents met skiing at Mont-Sainte-Anne.

I have three sisters and we all started skiing at 2 years old. We are all racers, coaches and instructors, including our parents. Sir Sam’s has had a dedicated Snowboard Cross (SBX) track for over 20 years. We grew up racing Boardercross before Ski Cross (SX) was a sport. For years, I competed in Ontario Snowboard (formerly Association of Ontario Snowboarders) and Freestyle Ontario events. I won a few local SBX events and a Slopestyle event but chose not to travel the full circuit because I was already committed to coaching skiing most weekends. When SX became a sport, Sir Sam’s was one of the first Ontario resorts to host a yearly open SX race in conjunction with SBX races.

I still love racing and try to find races that fit around my coaching schedule. When possible, I head to Whistler for the Peak to Valley where I have a few top 10 finishes and a third-place team result. I have also won the Queen of the Hill at Sir Sam’s for eight seasons!

Q: It seems like it was a natural progression for you to start a SX program? 

Yes, I guess it was. Because of my history racing SBX and SX and my history as Head Coach of the in-house Alpine programs at Sir Sam’s, I was approached by a couple of families with racers that wanted to compete in SX events outside of our local races that needed a local AOA sanctioned club to do so. I talked to Sir Sam’s about the option but they did not have the resources to start a travelling team. They agreed that I was the right candidate to take on the role but suggested that I create a race club separate from their ski school.

Before I started Fenninger Racing, our racers from Sir Sam’s did well in local ski cross events. In 2012 we sent some local racers to train with Podium of Life at Mount Washington where they competed in their first out of province SX event and one of them placed 2nd in the U14 category.

The success of the Canadian Ski Cross team at the last few Olympic Games has inspired a new generation of athletes and opened another avenue to bring new participants to the sport of skiing. Athletes on the Canada Ski Cross Team have a strong GS race background and continue to develop their GS and SL skills alongside their SX training. For any athlete that is interested in racing ski cross, it’s important to highlight the importance of training other alpine disciplines, especially GS, in order to hone the skills required to ski a SX track adeptly.

 

Q: If you could have anything you’d like in this sport, what would it be?

Great question! Two things:

  • Grassroots programs with a unified pathway to support SX athletes across Canada. Western Canada already has a head start on this. Their Western SX series hosts events across Alberta and BC for U12, U14, U16 and Open categories. They also maximize course builds by coordinating FIS SX events at some of the same venues. Alberta has also integrated the Alberta Ski Cross Team members with their Alberta Ski Team allowing them to share resources between Alpine and SX. It helps that Canada Ski Cross and Alpine Canada are based out of Calgary. They are an amazing resource for all the local clubs.
  • Integration of SX events with Alpine events. I would love to see a SX and GS double event. Athletes could use the same pair of skis for both races – no need for multiple sets of equipment. It would also be great to see more creative GS training environments using SX and GS gates with varying turn shapes.

 

Q: What do you think about the state of ski cross in Ontario specifically?

It’s great to see Ontario offering FIS, NorAm and World Cup SX events in the past few seasons. It means that athletes in this region don’t have to travel to western Canada or the US in order to get FIS starts. This makes it much more cost-effective to work on building FIS SX points. I used my experience as an official at previous World Cup SX events to bring the first FIS SX event to Sir Sam’s back in 2017. It was the first year we had an Eastern FIS series in Ontario. Ontario Snowboard has also done a lot to help build ski cross in Ontario. By hosting combined SBX and SX events across Ontario for U12, U14, U16 and Open categories, it allows SX racers access to events that we would be unable to host without the funding, equipment and experience of the organizers and volunteers at Ontario Snowboard. We do seem to be hitting critical mass though as the SX participants are outnumbering SBX participants at some events. I expect sometime in the near future, as SX event turnout continues to grow, Alpine Ontario will have to work with Ontario Snowboard to begin organizing and hosting events separate from the Ontario Snowboard series, however, this would require a significant investment in equipment including a start gate that can be transported to different event locations.

It would be great to follow the Alberta Alpine model and build more provincial support from SOD and OST for ski cross racers moving from U16 to FIS.

Alberta has become a ski cross hub, and from a cost perspective, have enough athletes to make it viable for coaches to travel with the team to races on the FIS and NorAm circuit. It would be great to see more ski cross athletes able to represent their home province at the FIS and NorAm level. Compared to a couple of seasons ago, we have made a huge step in the right direction in terms of how many new coaches and officials are now trained for SX events. Now we just need to develop those coaches and officials and create opportunities for them to learn from those with more experience in SX events.

And in Canada?

There has been some amazing progress in Ontario over the last few years in the U10 – U12 age range of events but we are still behind compared to the western provinces for infrastructure for U16 and FIS level athletes. At spring training camps in Alberta, the track is built by Alpine Canada/Canada Ski Cross (CSX) for the CSX spring camp for the national team and the development team tryouts. Alberta Ski Cross and local clubs piggyback on the camp and have access to a well-built track and GS lane for usually about a week of training. Olympic, National and Development team athletes using the same training environment as U16 and FIS athletes is an amazing opportunity to grow the sport. The younger athletes get to see what top athletes in the world look like training on the same features they train on. It’s also great for the younger athletes to be able to see role models and what the next levels of skill look like compared to where they are in their skill development. It’s rare to see the integration of this many levels of athletes all in one training environment. It creates a tightly knit ski cross-community and helps reinforce the pathways to success and highlights each of the stepping stones. It’s also a great opportunity for the coaches of athletes at each of these levels to interact, share, and learn from each other.

 

Q: Words of advice for other ski clubs who might not yet have a Ski Cross program.

You don’t need a dedicated program or even a ski cross track to train for SX events. Smaller hills can be an ideal setting for SX training. Even if the athletes are not interested in competing in a SX event, the training will help them become a more versatile skier.

Here are some training ideas that could be implemented at any hill:

  • Set brushes on natural bumps, rollers and varied terrain (no need to build anything)
  • Free ski on ungroomed or uneven terrain
  • Get creative with GS sets, change up the turning radius throughout a course
  • Find a hill to set a fallaway (negative) turn in a GS course
  • Have athletes chase each other in a course
  • Find flat terrain and practice gliding, tucking, maintaining speed, drafting, and generating speed on small features or even grooming imperfections.

Q: What’s it like being a female ski coach in a very male-dominated industry?

I sometimes have to be blunt and direct than I like to be in order to be heard at coaches’ meetings. When people first meet me, because I have a slight build and look younger than I am, I am often discounted, and most people don’t realize that I’ve been actively coaching for 20 years. I find that once I get a chance to work closely with other coaches, they get a better sense of my experience and I have fewer issues. I don’t try to prove anything by talking about my experience. I find it much more effective to lead by example and be a great coach and foster a positive team culture. No one can argue with results and my team has had some amazing results.

 

Q: Words of advice for other women who coach.

Stand up for yourselves! If you have the experience and knowledge to contribute, make sure you do. We need female voices alongside other voices to grow the sport. Take advantage of any opportunity you have to learn and broaden your coaching experience. Work with as many experienced coaches as you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Continue to learn and be open to new ideas and opportunities. We need more females as role models in our sport. There are disproportionately more male coaches than female coaches, especially at higher levels. Having a competent female coach may be the difference for those looking to be athletes and also future coaches.

 

Q: What’s the hardest part of coaching?

Seeing an athlete move on; it’s bittersweet. I spend so much time really getting to know my athletes. I learn how to best motivate, encourage and impart information for each unique athlete. It’s a very personal relationship a coach builds with each individual athlete. I support all the athletes I used to coach and always wish them well in their future endeavors.

 

Q: What’s the easiest and most rewarding part of coaching?

Seeing current and former athletes finding success in both skiing and life. I love being able to watch an athlete improve and grow as an athlete and a person. It’s amazing to see an athlete honing a new skill, especially one that they initially struggled with but then begin to see the results of their hard work.

I also love to hear positive feedback from parents. I had some parents come to talk to me at the end of the season to thank me for the noticeable improvement in both their kids’ skiing skills. They also added that since they joined the race team, their confidence had noticeably improved along with their grades in school. To me, the best reward a coach can receive is to hear that they are positively contributing to their athlete’s lives. That’s what makes this all worthwhile.

AOA Q&A’s are completed by Communication Manager, Kristin Ellis.