Woeful. That sums up the early-season performances of the U.S. Alpine ski team in this Olympic year. America's best racers have not just been getting smoked by skiers from traditional powers like Austria in the World Cup, they're also being drubbed by skiers from countries that weren't even countries the last time U.S. Alpinists were a force—1984, when the Mahre twins, Phil and Steve, led U.S. racers to three golds and two silvers in Sarajevo.
Those days have gone the way of the rope tow. Slovenia, Luxembourg and New Zealand all have better chances to take home Alpine medals from Lillehammer than Uncle Sam's lead-footed snowplow brigade. Norway, which doesn't have a world-class ski area, has four skiers ranked ahead of the top U.S. man, Tommy Moe, who was 16th in the overall World Cup standings as of last Friday. The second-best U.S. man checked in at...scroll faster, please...51st.
Even the American women, traditionally a notch better than the guys, have only one bronze to show for 23 World Cup events—Heidi Voelker's in the giant slalom at Morzine, France. Julie Parisien, 22, who had two top-five finishes in the '92 Games in Albertville, has regressed badly this season, slipping to 58th overall, and can no longer be considered a serious threat to gain the podium. Only Moe and a miracle stand between this team and a repeat of the 1988 Games in Calgary, where the top U.S. skier finished ninth, just ahead of the lift operator.
The cold truth is that U.S. Alpine skiing—slalom, giant slalom, downhill, Super G and combined—has been lousy for the better part of a decade. Since 1984, U.S. men have won exactly one race on the World Cup circuit, AJ Kitt's downhill victory in Val d'Isere in 1992. The U.S. women have just three World Cup wins since 1987, all by Parisien. (Between 1968 and '74, the U.S. team averaged three World Cup wins per year.) This despite the fact that no country has better ski areas than the U.S., and no nation other than Japan has more skiers. We're not talking the Jamaican bobsled team here, folks. Some 10 million Americans go downhill skiing at least three times a year—which is three million more people than live in Austria. Why, then, do all seven million Austrians and half of the cows in Switzerland ski faster than the entire U.S. ski team?
February 7, 1994
Let us count the ways.
1. Howard Peterson. A fish rots from the head, as Norwegian fish merchants like to say, and Peterson has been head of U.S. Skiing since May 1988, when the U.S. Ski Association, the U.S. Ski Team, and the U.S. Ski Educational Foundation merged. Ever since, instability has reigned in Park City, Utah, on the slopes and in the administrative offices. The dizzying turnover of coaches, program directors and fundraisers during the Peterson regime has left morale at U.S. Skiing at an alltime low. "Working here, you learn to stay real close to the walls," a veteran office worker once said. "That way, Howard Peterson can't get behind you with his knife."
Ouch. As an example of the internal politics that are ruining U.S. Skiing, we present the case study of former Alpine director John McMurtry. "John McMurtry is flat-out the most successful American Alpine coach we've ever had, including Bob Beattie," says John Atkins, head conditioning coach and trainer of the team during the glory years of 1978 to '84 and now director of rehabilitation at the Caremark Sports Center in Vail. "When John was the head technical coach for the women [1980-84], he was personally responsible for 23 World Cup wins. That's just the women. John was the technical genius behind the best women's team we ever had."
The much respected McMurtry was recruited from the Stead-man Clinic, where he was a fitness consultant, to head U.S. Skiing's athlete development program in 1987 and, in 1988, after the team's miserable performance in Calgary, was named Alpine director (in effect, head coach). McMurtry was given a four-year contract and told by individuals on U.S. Skiing's board of directors to be patient and that no one expected an overnight cure.
Progress, in McMurtry's estimation, was being made. In 1989-90 the team scored 58% more World Cup points than it had the year before. But in September 1990 he met with Peterson and was told that one of the coaches working under McMurtry, Georg Capaul, had had a temper tantrum at a race in Las Lenas, Argentina, and offended some Argentine officials. McMurtry had already talked to Capaul about the incident, but according to McMurtry, Peterson insisted that he fire Capaul.
"Howard told me to take care of it before the next board meeting," McMurtry recalls. "He said, do it and do it now. He was my boss, so I did it."
Peterson denies this. "I did not instruct him to fire Georg, " Peterson says. "The decision to terminate him was John's, and I supported him in it. John had been under pressure from the board about the performance of the slalom and giant slalom teams, which were coached by Georg."
Ski team members, infuriated by the unceremonious axing, initiated a letter-writing campaign to U.S. Skiing's board of directors. The board took Capaul's side, and Peterson, who says he had come to feel that he hadn't gotten the whole story from his Alpine director, did not stand behind McMurtry. At the board's direction Capaul was rehired and McMurtry was canned with a year and a half on his contract. Peterson, with zero Alpine coaching experience, took over McMurtry's post as Alpine program director.
"I don't have a coaching or an elite athlete background," admits Peterson, who has been with U.S. Skiing since 1978, when he came on as director of program development. "What I brought to this job was a track record in financial management and as an international lobbyist."
Peterson, to be sure, deserves high marks for putting U.S. Skiing on firm financial footing. But he has provided no leadership in the more difficult task of putting together a winning organization. Dennis Agee, who succeeded Peterson as Alpine program director in 1991, resigned in frustration after two seasons because he felt the Alpine teams should have been allocated more than $2 million of U.S. Skiing's $14 million-plus budget. One result of the budget constraints that has had an effect on performance: U.S. ski team members are asked to do off-season conditioning individually, rather than regularly as a team at a central training facility.
"We give them a program and expect them to follow it," laments Mike Jacki, who has taken over for Peterson as CEO of U.S. Skiing, while Peterson stays on as a consultant through the end of this season. "That's not fair to the athletes, and we're going to change that. I'd like to see the bulk of the off-season training spent together. We have to put the athletes in an environment where they will succeed."
Jacki, the much respected former head of U.S.A. Gymnastics, has his work cut out. First he must restore the sense of spirit, teamwork and cooperation that has vanished in the past six years under Peterson.
2. Board, thy middle name is meddlesome. O.K., O.K., so lots of amateur athletic boards are meddlesome. But this one takes the cake. "When I was Alpine director, certain members of the board were calling me twice a week, asking, Why'd you train here? Why'd you leave this person home? Why'd you do this?" says McMurtry. "They practice micromanagement. They want to get involved on a day-to-day basis. One year I tried to cut an individual who had lost his focus and desire, and I was told by a board member I could not. These are decisions that should be left to the coaches, who at least are accountable."
The primary Monday-morning quarterback on the U.S. Skiing board? Beattie, a former coach, so powerful and well connected in the ski community that few will criticize him on the record. "Dealing with Beattie was a colossal pain in the ass," says another former Alpine program director—there have been six men in that job in the past 10 years—who asked that his name not be used. "His attitude is, if we give these guys another dime, they'll just [fritter] it away. The sport has bypassed him, but in his position as a television commentator and member of the board, he still has tremendous clout."
"Beattie's a strong-willed, tough guy," says Peterson. "Boards like ours have very strong-willed, opinionated, successful individuals on them. If a coach complains that the board meddles, it shows the weakness of the person saying it."
Beattie, for his part, vehemently denies having ever been meddlesome. "Those criticisms come from disgruntled employees who didn't get the job done," he says. "My main advice to them was always to run the program or it would run you. These coaches have been free to coach the team in their own way. Coaches have a way of looking anywhere other than at themselves. The only thing I feel I'm guilty of is probably caring too much about the U.S. ski team."
No one disputes Beattie's motives. It's his methods that have not always been in the best interests of the Alpine directors and their staffs, according to several who've been there. Incoming board chairman Nick Badami, who takes over in the spring of 1994 from Thorn Weisel, denies that the board has been guilty of looking over the coaching staff's shoulders, but he has nonetheless made assurances to Jacki that under his direction, the board of U.S. Skiing will behave in a more circumspect manner. "They're going to work through me," says Jacki. "I can't have trustees calling my coaches and saying what we need to do."
3. The coaching at the national team level is minor league. "The U.S. has a lot of second-tier coaches," says one former ski team coach, now working at a ski academy. "We don't have the quality people that are needed to produce world-class results." The kind of person who ends up coaching the U.S. ski team is generally more adept at getting along with the board than at getting results from the skiers.
"Frankly, being a U.S. ski team coach is not a very coveted position," says Doug Lewis, who won a bronze medal in the downhill at the 1985 world championships. "Over half the athletes have been there longer than most of the coaches."
Small wonder, given the turnover in Alpine program directors. Since 1984 that critical position has been held by Bill Martors, Harald Schoenhaar, McMurtry, Peterson, Agee and the current man on the hot seat, Paul Major, who has been a coach with the team the last 10 years. "My holding the job could be an example of the Peter Principle," says Major. "I may have risen to the level of my incompetence. But I think we're going in the right direction. AJ [Kitt] and Tom [Moe] are winners and a half dozen of the women. If it takes me two years to get some medals, they probably should get someone else."
Winners? Kitt hasn't even won a medal this year, the result, some believe, of a bad training regime. Others attribute his slide to his falling in love with Miss Canada, Kate Elder, whom he met at last year's Miss Universe pageant. And Moe, whose two third-place finishes are the brightest point in the World Cup season for the U.S., has never won a World Cup race—though he was a two-time gold medalist in the junior world championships.
It's not like the U.S. ski team hasn't had raw talent. From 1986 to '93 American kids won 17 medals—nine of them gold—at the annual junior world championships for skiers 19 and under. "Our guys, when they were 18 or 19, were skiing right with [Norway's Kjetil Andre] Aamodt [this year's overall World Cup lead]," says McMurtry. "Then they got left behind. This constant upheaval in the program has to affect the team."
"You'll always have one or two competing for a medal," says Lewis, who retired at 24, which is several years before a male skier usually reaches his prime. "But until there's unconditional support of the athletes, we won't win and win again."
"It isn't until a skier's 26 or so that he can contend every race, but our kids don't stay around that long," says Dave Gavett, head of the prestigious Green Mountain Valley School, a ski academy in Waitsfield, Vt., whose graduates include Kitt. "They'll make a splash, have a bad year, then they're out of there." Gavett is married to Traudl Hacher-Gavett, who skied on the German team for 15 years. "The constant message she got in Germany was, We're going to stick with you. That's not the message that U.S. kids get. No athlete could survive on our ski team 15 years. We just continue to feed the lambs to the tigers."
Tamara McKinney, whose 18 World Cup wins make her the most successful U.S. woman skier ever, agrees. "You need coaches who are not only knowledgeable but are in tune with each athlete psychologically," she says. "You can analyze the tar out of skiing to try to find what's missing technically, but none of that is worth anything without inspiration. That inspiration is the difference between first and 15th."
U.S. skiers start out at a disadvantage. About 75% of the World Cup circuit is held in Europe, which gives European skiers a significant home field edge. Their racers can scoot home for a few days each month, enjoy some home cooking, recharge in a familiar environment and return in time for the next race. U.S. skiers, many of whom go into withdrawal after three months without a Big Mac, go back to their hotel rooms and mope while watching German TV. "It can't be an excuse, but it's a fact," says Finn Gundersen, head of Burke Mountain (Vt.) Academy, which is Parisien's alma mater. "By the end of the season you're really struggling to keep your head up. It takes a special leader to overcome the system."
Where might such a person be found? "There are eight or 10 coaches who've turned out winners everywhere they've gone, everybody in the business knows who they are, and the U.S. doesn't have any of them," says one former ski team coach. One example: Five years ago the Norwegians lured Dieter Bartsch of Austria to head their men's program. Norway now has one of the strongest Alpine teams in the world. The right man at the helm, without interference, can make all the difference.
Jacki, the new U.S. Skiing head, knows the value of world-class coaching, having watched Bela Karolyi turn the U.S. into a world power in gymnastics. "The genius of Karolyi," says Jacki, "wasn't anything technical. He was able to convince the Kim Zmeskals that this performance was the most important thing they'd ever do in their lives."
Sounds like inspiration.
4. U.S. ski team members are soft as grapes compared with their competition. As one hears this so often when discussing the flagging fortunes of the ski team, there must be some truth in it. Gary Black Jr., publisher of Ski Racing, likes to tell about the time he heard a woman weeping early one morning before a World Cup race in Switzerland. He asked her what was the matter. The Swiss girl explained that she had sprained her ankle the day before and had just squeezed it into her boot. She was determined to be one of the forerunners in the race, even though the pain was excruciating.
"An American kid just wouldn't do something like that," Black says. "That's what gets you to that next level. [Luxembourg's] Marc Girardelli, who's won a record five overall World Cup titles, raced the last eight races last year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The focus and dedication of the top Europeans is so different than what you get from the top Americans."
Critics point out that ski racing in the U.S. is so expensive that racers are primarily rich, often spoiled, kids. There's nothing inherently debilitating about affluence. McKinney came from a well-to-do background. Italy's Alberto Tomba was born to wealth. But it takes a special person to make the required sacrifices to be a world-class athlete if that success isn't needed for financial independence. As Charlie Meyers, ski writer for The Denver Post, says, "If an Austrian skier bombs out, he goes back to the farm. If a U.S. kid bombs, he goes to medical school."
Compounding the problem is the role of ski academies in grooming U.S. athletes. Many critics believe that graduates of private Eastern boarding schools like Burke Mountain Academy, Stratton Mountain (Vt.) School and Green Mountain Valley School, who make up almost half the U.S. team, are unnecessarily pampered by their coaches and have trouble with the independent life of the international circuit. Says Major, "The academies have great race programs, but everything's spoon-fed. The coaches do the work on their skis, carry their bags, wake them up. The athletes are coddled."
"The danger is we're creating a team of crybabies and whiners," says Christin Cooper, silver medalist in the giant slalom in Sarajevo. "To win in Europe you have to be a scrapper. You need perseverance. You've got to be flexible and adaptable."
Some members of the U.S. team are content just to be on the squad. Wintering in the Alps. Free equipment, free travel. Meyers calls them jacket racers—skiers who are happy to strut around in their jazzy U.S. ski team parkas, whether they finish fifth or 55th. Major would like to rid the U.S. program of such hobbyists by not filling all the slots the Americans are allotted in World Cup races and the Olympics. If team members don't perform at a reasonably competitive World Cup level—top 15 finishes—Major would drop them to the B team. "I'm not interested in having a kid on the Olympic team just so he can put it on his resume," says Major. "We've got to find winners."
Jacki supports Major's position. "The whole environment around here has to change. It sends the wrong message when you reward skiers for finishing low. I've always felt if you set the standards higher, our top athletes will meet them."
5. Too little is spent for development. This has been one of Beat-tie's gripes for years. "The coaches aren't the problem," says Beattie. "The problem has been we need a big, well-thought-out development program, and that takes a lot of things, including money. We need a marketing program. We need to get kids involved and excited about our sport."
It isn't happening. Ski racing isn't cool. There has never been a charismatic, successful skier on the order of Tomba to attract young Americans to the sport. Phil Mahre, who had the talent, had the personality of soapstone. The attractive, articulate McKinney was never strongly promoted. And a generation of U.S. kids in ski country have ignored Alpine racing and, frankly, would rather be snowboarding.
Few parents will push their kids to get involved in a racing program because of the prohibitive expense. For all those millions of recreational skiers out there, only 6,600 were involved in U.S. Skiing's Youth Ski League in 1992-93.
What's U.S. Skiing doing to make the sport more accessible? Lots of talk, not much action. Every time the Alpine budget gets trimmed, development money is the first to go. Last 'Summer, Parisien decided she wanted a personal coach—a first for U.S. Skiing. The ski team, acknowledging that Parisien was entitled to "special treatment because of her three career World Cup wins, accommodated by naming Rob Clayton. Where did the money come from? "Straight out of development funds," recalls Agee. The experiment didn't work, and Parisien, who has finished no higher than eighth this season, is back training with her teammates.
The ski academies, which, after all, are still churning out the best teenage skiers in the country, complain that they are doing so without dollar one of financial help from U.S. Skiing. Some 30% of the skiers enrolled in those schools, with their $17,000-plus annual tuitions, are on scholarship—a figure that could be increased with some support from the U.S. ski team. Jacki would like to help. "It seems to me if you've got an academy that produces a Julie Parisien, who goes right to the U.S. team, you've got to do something for that academy or they won't produce any more Julie Parisiens. You have to support a feeder system."
Rebuilding U.S. Alpine fortunes is going to be a long process requiring patience and vision, two qualities that have been appallingly absent from the goings-on in Park City. Says Beattie, "I firmly believe that the U.S. can be a great ski power again."
Can be. Should be. But don't look to Lillehammer for signs that it will be.