ASPEN – By finishing 22nd last week in Lake Louise, Canada, despite a lousy start position, Aspen native Wiley Maple bought himself the chance to ski in the next four World Cup downhills, beginning Friday with the Birds of Prey race at Beaver Creek.
Maple also reduced the financial load he and his family will have to carry, as solid results at the most elite level of racing bring the opportunity for better compensation from event organizers, the national team and FIS, the ruling body of ski racing.
Funding a portion of his ski-racing tab isn’t something that’s new for the 24-year-old Aspen native. Everyone below the U.S. Ski Team’s alpine A-Team level has for several years picked up at least $25,000 in annual costs to help pay for training, lift tickets and other uncovered expenses. That’s in addition to another $20,000 to $25,000 for travel overages, physical therapy, off-season housing and the like.
What is new in this post-Olympic season of mercurial funding is the dearth of “named” athletes to the U.S. Ski Team and the rise in number of “invitees” — those who are invited to be part of the team for the year, or a shorter length of time, but don’t enjoy full team status.
Once a member of the U.S. alpine B-Team, Maple is now considered an invitee and that can make it hard when trying to raise money for the cause.
“If you’re a U.S. Ski Team athlete, people understand that,” said Mike Maple, Wiley’s father. “And by understanding that, they’re excited about it and about raising money.”
People don’t readily comprehend the concept of an invitee, or an independent racer, Maple added. Especially when, attired in a team uniform and skiing under the U.S. team banner, they look identical to a fully named and funded athlete, even if they aren’t.
The price to come back
By all accounts, there are more American racers than ever before going it alone financially on the World Cup and NorAm levels, as independents seem to have become more the norm than the exception this season.
“There are definitely more independents,” said Hailey Duke, American slalom specialist. “This is what the times are like now.”
Included in that group is former team veteran Resi Stiegler, who finished 11th Sunday in the Aspen Winternational slalom.
Left off the team roster after what she described as a “rough couple of years,” Stiegler estimates that skiing as an independent could cost her between $80,000 to $100,000.
That’s close to what Megan McJames spent last season as an independent who funded a last-minute trip to the Sochi Olympics. It appears in line with early projections of annual costs that are being tabulated by the ski team.
Under new president and CEO Tiger Shaw’s direction, the U.S. Ski Team seems to be taking a more bottom-line approach than before. Based upon athlete and team interviews, there is less flexibility now with regard to criteria selection and accommodations for injured athletes who sat out the prior season.
Part of the team’s new approach is producing information about how much an athlete actually costs the organization each year.
“It is $70,000 or greater we are estimating at this point [with] details to follow this spring,” Shaw said.
“To field an international team like, say a ‘B’ Team,” requires a list of personnel,” he added, which include a program administrator, multiple coaches, trainers, technicians and physical therapists. Travel, room and board for the employees, some maintenance of the Center of Excellence training center in Park City and other ancillary costs are figured into the total bill.
“When someone says that an athlete, who is asked to cover their travel, room and board only, is paying all of the cost of having them be on the team, they are incorrect,” said Shaw. “Why do people think it is cost-free to provide all of the above?”
The U.S. Ski Team is unique in most of the world in that it does not receive government funding, Shaw said.
The NorAm league
Also competing here during the first two days of the NorAm Cup was Michael Ankeny, a six-year member of the U.S. Ski Team who skis with the independent Team America.
Ankeny said he missed making U.S. Team criteria this season by a narrow margin and was originally stunned with the news. A former coach stressed to him, “It’s not about being on the U.S. Ski Team but about being the best you can be.”
That convinced him to seek out Team America, the Vail-based team which is funded to the tune of about a half-million dollars a year by racing supporter Dan Leever. He has maintained that the lack of funding available to U.S. athletes is a detriment to their success on the international stage.
The growth of independents and the rise of teams like Redneck Racing, Team America and Aspen-based Team Geronimo may be positive for racers who are seeking different avenues to full U.S. Ski Team status.
“They are grouping together and that is powerful and effective. They pool resources and work together which is totally logical and not new,” said Shaw. “I hope some of these guys make criteria. I’d love to celebrate their success.”
Duke said that despite the work involved in fund-raising, (she has established a foundation), “I have a lot more control over my own career.”
Being hungry for success could also prompt a wave of athletes to dig deeper than ever before.
CJ Feehan, web editor for Ski Racing magazine, said Shaw’s “pay to play” philosophy may already be netting some results because the skiers now have more “skin in the game.”
“Look at Resi. It’s the strongest she’s ever been,” Feehan said.
There have always been independent ski racers. Bode Miller opted to race independently in 2007/08 rather than live by the rules of the U.S. Ski Team. Also notable is Marc Girardelli, the 1985 overall winner of the World Cup who skied as the lone racer for Luxembourg after having a falling out with the Austrian ski team.
Journalist Patrick Lang said that in retrospect and based upon conversations they’ve had, Girardelli may have chosen a different path and not tried to make it as an independent racer.
“He would have won twice as many races as part of Austrian team,” said Lang. “He said he would have suffered many less injuries than he did,” ostensibly because Girardelli would have had access to better training facilities, coaches and therapists.
Finding adequate training facilities and venues to set courses is even more challenging when an athlete isn’t directly associated with a national team. It’s difficult for independents to train speed (downhill and super-G) because of limited hill space, which is why most stick to technical disciplines like slalom and giant slalom.
The U.S. team isn’t the only ski entity that’s tightening its belt. Lang said there’s no funding for a Canadian downhill team this season, which is quite a contrast to a team that once bragged of having the “Crazy Canucks” speed skiers.
“Clubs are struggling everywhere. Teams have less money. Everybody has less money” since the recession, he said.
Lang, whose father Serge co-founded the World Cup with Bob Beattie and Honore Bonnet, pointed to another reason for the rise of independents in ski racing: Racers are now enjoying much longer careers.
“Killy, he retired at 24. Sailer left at age 22 or 23,” Lang said. “It’s a trend because it’s a business and experience has become so important. That’s why Bode Miller will still be winning races at 40.”
Stiegler, 29, said she is both excited and apprehensive about raising her own money and managing her own career.
“But it’s going to get easier if I keep getting results like this.”
Asked about the rise of non-affiliated racers, Stiegler said, “No, I’ve never seen this many.”
Nor has Mike Maple, who noticed a recent shift in the ratio of team athletes to invitees. Whereas once there would be three team athletes to every one invitee, now that ratio has flip-flopped.
“That strikes me as backwards,” Maple said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on stories about the ski industry, land use and Snowmass Village. This story was published by Aspen Daily News on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014.