The Potential of SSC Vail's Latest Move

Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Last week Ski and Snowboard Club Vail announced the initiation of a Skicross program, and the hiring of a head coach to focus specifically on the sport.  While other clubs have organized Skicross activity – primarily providing support for elite-level competitors, or exposing athletes in alpine programs to Skicross course features and fundamentals – Vail's new program is notable in that it will focus on two groups, U-16 and U-14 athletes.  And with the hiring of an experienced leader and coach in Erik Steinberg, Vail has signaled that they see a lot of potential in the sport.

Although the announcement last week was local in focus, the potential importance of a move like this - coming out of the USSA's Club of the year - shouldn't go unnoticed.

Almost undoubtedly, the addition of a Skicross team will grow participant numbers in SSCV.  While previously there was anticipation in some circles that Skicross would grow into another discipline of Alpine racing, Skicross has shown itself to be unique enough to be considered a sport of its own.  Vail's addition of a Skicross program will give young skiers more choice, and yet another unique avenue to enjoy competitive skiing.  This program may also enhance athlete retention, giving young alpine competitors another avenue of participation if they – for whatever reason – stop their participation in alpine racing.  Perhaps it's no coincidence that Vail's Skicross program targets athletes at roughly the same age as USSA and club athletes start their attrition from the sport.

Participant growth and retention are two things that everyone benefits from; the USSA, clubs, resorts and the industry.

Since the addition of Skicross to the Olympics in 2010, the typical avenue of entry into the sport has been for experienced and highly accomplished Alpine racers to try their hand, often entering directly into the World Cup or X Games level.  A tilt toward long-term athlete development specific to Skicross has the potential to change the athlete development pipeline for good - an evolution that the USSA has been hopeful to see ever since 2010, and which it has focused on fostering through development initiatives like Project Gold and the Hole Shot Tour.

A move like this in one of the USSA's major clubs may very well provide a catalyst; increased participation creating more demand for competitions and training courses.  Increased interest and access to competitions motivating more clubs to follow suit with Skicross programs of their own.  Coaches gaining valuable experience related to athlete development for Skicross at younger ages, and the terrain and type of training that drives performance in the sport.

 Might this development also prove beneficial for Alpine racing in the long-term?  Will we find that developing the skills necessary for performance in Skicross at a young age transfer to Alpine speed events as athletes develop in age?  Erik Steinberg seemed to indicate that he thinks it may in his comments surrounding the announcement of the program.

In 2010, the USSA's strategic plan led to the decision to move away from running traditional national team's across all of its dozen sports.  Guided by a comprehensive evaluation system, it decided that in a number of sports, highly accomplished athletes in those sports would be supported directly but outside of a traditional national team structure, oftentimes in collaboration with sport-specific support groups.  Skicross was one of those sports.  Time will tell whether SSCV's recent development will be substantial enough to significantly change the sport of Skicross, and of course this is only an early step in the growth of the sport at the club level – one that we hope other USSA clubs will consider replicating.  But it is potentially material enough to warrant consideration and examination within the USSA's strategic planning process.

-Luke Bodensteiner, EVP Athletics

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