Monday, April 30, 2012

Some Thoughts on Ski Racing and Ski Racing Academies

One of sports at which I excelled when I was younger was alpine ski racing. Between the ages of 7 and eleven I won a few races, racked up some hardware (they give medals for 1st-10th place in a lot of junior races which is probably excessive but still really awesome), and built confidence in my abilities. By the end of the 2001-2002 season, when I was thirteen, I wasn't a state champion but one time I won a race because the girl who did end up being the state champion disqualified when she went around the wrong side of the last gate so I convinced myself that I COULD have be a state champion and eventually a bonafide supahstahhhh.  This was a prophecy that never self-fulfilled but it would be several years before I would acknowledge the overwhelming evidence suggesting that alpine ski racing was not going to be one of the things that I was even close to being the best at. Unfortunately, by the time I realized this I was already well into my sophomore year at a ski racing academy. Fortunately, because the school was"elite" and contained only 100 students, it satisfied my need to be special and superior, if not within the school then at least compared to most other people on earth.  Furthermore, because our soccer team was tiny and I was a standout player, I had more than my fair share of  bolstering praise. I just want to be clear that I do appreciate my unique high school experience albeit for unintended reasons. I stayed all four years and I'm not convinced public school would have been any better but I figure the ski racing academy experience is one that not a whole lot of people have insight into and as far as I know it hasn't been written about too much. This might be because, from what I've heard, some ski racing academies don't really make you learn how to write. Not mine. Mine was academically solid, for the record. So without further hooplah, here is some uninvited criticism.

The thing about ski racing is that you need to have money to do it. It's not like baseball or basketball where you can learn to play in the streets or city funded rec leagues and have a Cinderella career. You need to have access to a decent ski hill and a race program and there's really no way around those startup costs even if you end up being a prodigy and someone funds the whole thing for you. I happened to grow up near a prominent east coast ski resort and the ski racing academy I would later attend happened to be a reasonable drive from my house. Equipment and fees for junior races are substantial, but they aren't unmanageable for a family with financial stability and generous grandparents. However, a large bulk of the people who get into the sport aren't necessarily locals and those fees aren't the only costs to factor into the sport. They are people from the city (or state less generously endowed, mountain-wise) who own weekend houses near the resort. Or they are locals, but they are rich locals who live in the more prime locations near the resort. The point is that overall, the sport has a very moneyed vibe and it is a relatively small community on the East Coast and within the US. Skiers are pretty hardcore athletes so individuals in the sport are driven and generally inoffensive but I always felt like I was having some strange recurring nightmare whenever I was getting ready in the lodge before a race. It's all the same people at most races and a lot of the people are kind of all the same person, statistically speaking. From Connecticut or the suburbs of Boston or NYC and hopefully bound for Middlebury or Dartmouth. Probably really into The Dave Matthews Band. I'm not saying I have a problem with people who are that person but it's a whole lot of one type of person to be spending a lot of time with if you aren't that person, you know?

There are scholarships and sponsorships and other means to ensure that the most talented people don't get excluded, but it isn't a very practical sport for those with "potential" unless that "potential" has a big old side serving of "unlimited funds".  There are off-season ski camps in Europe, South America, or wherever has snow. There is non-skiing training equipment and physical therapy for when you inevitably destroy your knees, ankles, shoulders and feet. All of this is "optional" as far as the higher-ups at ski academies are officially concerned, but ski coaches are a lot like Jewish grandmas, and guilt is one of their favorite motivational tools. For example, mountain biking is a great off season training activity and one coach in particular was really intent on having us all do it two or three times a week. Did I/Do I like mountain biking? No. It scares me shitless. Did I have enough money to buy a nice enough bike to make me feel any better about it? No, and more importantly I strongly felt that I should not be expected to go out a buy a mountain bike but I will gladly roller skate or run through courses or lift weights or any of the many other off season training options, thank you. But that wasn't really an acceptable response. Why don't I borrow someone elses bike with better shocks? Because I am not a good mountain biker and I'm pretty worried that I'll break it and not be able to afford to pay to have it fixed. Why not cut back on other things and save your money? You'll always be able to use a good mountain bike! No, I won't, because I hate it and I only do it when you force me to. Also, what money?

The issue of paying for training camps isn't any easier to navigate. These are usually 2 or 3 week commitments in places like Switzerland or Argentina and they happen in the summer and the fall. Nevermind the race trips that come later in the season. There are also trips to Colorado or Utah later in early winter. If you opt out of any of these trips your coaches, who tend to be stern and at least vaguely German looking, don't let you forget how much better you might be doing had you participated in whatever trip/s you missed. The school offers scholarships to cover some of the cost but but all scholarship money comes with work hours and if you're already a scholarship student then those hours quickly become overwhelming unless you have no other commitments and becoming a better skier is the only thing you care about. This is a really good system for people who know that they want to ski in college or try to get on the US ski team. It is also a decent system for people who live on campus and can pick up small jobs in the evening or on weekends. But again, for someone with "potential" who would also like to continue playing other sports or generally pursue other interests it is a system that leads to guilt, over-extension and ultimately, a lot of unfinished scholarship hours.

Did I mention that most race fees are upwards of $30? And that even a 50% sponsorship for equipment leaves you with about $1500 to cover? It's a tough game and there no payoff whatsoever unless you are literally one of the best in the country. Best case scenario you get on the US Ski team or get college paid for.  I guess it's the same for all sports but somehow ski racing seems a little off-kilter in terms of cost and gain for the bulk of people. I can only assume that the cost isn't an issue for a lot of people otherwise I can't imagine anyone would do it. Ski racing is miserable a lot of the time. It's cold and stressful and after a certain age you can pretty much stop expecting medals if you still haven't optimized all that "potential". And it's an individual sport that you do one person at a time so you can't even get the immediate gratification of seeing the defeat in someones eyes as you stop them in their tracks on their way your goal or breeze by them on your way to theirs. In skiing you take your turn, you get your time, and then you wait to see how well you end up doing and then  you do again later in the day and then hours later maybe you get to stand on a podium. I must have liked it all this while I was doing it but thinking about it now all I know is that I still like soccer and the idea of entering a ski race fills my soul with bile. Aaaand this blog is hashing up some negative energy so I'm gonna go ahead and stop right here.

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