USSA: Building a Better Development System

By Sean Higgins – Senior Editor, Ski Racing.com

It’s a question that has been a topic of debate for years at the dinner parties of ski racing parents, the boardrooms at the Center of Excellence in Park City, and the comments section of this very website: What can the U.S. do to become the best skiing nation in the world?

Short answer? There is no short answer.

Much has been said about the U.S. Ski Team’s “Best in the World” mantra in the years since its adoption, including some vocal criticism from those who perceive the saying as rather foolish considering that issues with athlete funding, the various geographical challenges of managing rising talent spread across such a vast country, and the dueling egos and ideologies of various athletes, clubs, teams, and officials seemingly persist year after year despite the efforts of those in management at U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

How can we build a better system that fosters growth at the junior and club levels all while supporting those in the elite ranks with dreams of World Cup and Olympic success? And just what does it mean to be “Best in the World?”

“That’s the key question, isn’t it?” says U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner. “I think there’s a growing recognition and willingness in the community that understands that if we are going to be as good as we really, truly can be in this nation and give our athletes the best opportunities and clearest pathway possible to reach the top of the podium, then it’s on all of our shoulders to answer that question together. It’s obviously tricky because there are a lot of players and a lot of people [who] are trying to accomplish a lot of different things with their resources.”

Bodensteiner and the rest of the staff at U.S. Ski & Snowboard have mulled over these question for years alongside the best minds at the club level. If there’s one thing that history has taught us, it’s that tackling the biggest problems in our sport is always easier said than done. It’s one thing to talk the talk, it’s another to walk the walk.

“There’s a recognition that our system as a whole hasn’t been optimized and hasn’t been providing the best environment for our best athletes,” admits Bodensteiner. “I think over the past two or three years there has been a real spirit of, ‘How do we pull together, and how do we each contribute our piece into a bigger environment that helps to create really great ski racers?’”

“I don’t think we’re ever satisfied,” adds Chip Knight, who has served as U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Alpine Development Director since 2015. “We’re actually currently going through a very comprehensive long-term planning process with an eye towards 2026 thinking about reallocating resources and really trying to invest in the next generation. ”

But that begs the question of just what those changes will be and what specifically we are doing to optimize our development system to foster success at the elite levels of the sport?

For starters, since the beginning of Knight’s tenure, there have been significant revisions to how the national team looks at a developing athlete when it comes to team selections and project invitations at the junior levels.

“Since I’ve come in, we’ve done the best we could to peel back from early selection and provide much more transparency and porosity in the opportunities for young athletes,” Knight says. “I believe we’ve created a much more open-faced system at the development level for athletes to come up and into. I think we’ve made good shifts in the last couple of years, but what we’re really looking at is whether those shifts are enough to be game changing going forward; meaning if the next Ted (Ligety) or Lindsey (Vonn) is in our midst, are we a system that facilitates that?”

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