Imagine working your entire life to achieve the job of your dreams. You’ve put in the time to gain the knowledge necessary to be dubbed an expert in your field. To deviate from the path toward your goals was never really an option if you wanted to play in the big leagues, so you put all your eggs in one basket. Your hard work pays off and you land the job. Once you’re on the inside, you experience turbulence – you succeed, and you fail, just like anyone else. But when it comes time for you to let that dream job go, whether it be by choice or by force, you must rebuild your career in order to survive.
Professional alpine skiers go through a similar process, except they do not have the same luxuries that a typical member of the workforce does, or that other professional athletes do for that matter. Some of them pay to compete at the highest level in their sport due to lack of funding. There is no such thing as severance or any kind of retirement fund for them to lean on while they work to figure out their next steps. University is not always an option – many alpine racers choose to forgo education to be on the national team full-time because in most cases the pursuit of the two goals simultaneously makes success harder to reach. So, when their athletic run is over, most ski racers are faced with the question, now what?
“When you’re a professional athlete, that sort of defines who you are, actually it defines every ounce of who you are,” says World Cup winner and retired U.S. speed skier, AJ Kitt. “Then all of a sudden you’re not a professional athlete and you’re trying to figure out what’s the definition of me. That’s a tough process.”
Kitt retired from the U.S. Ski Team in 1998 after making his World Cup debut in 1988, competing in four Olympics, and earning six World Cup downhill podiums in addition to winning in Val d’Isere. When he chose to retire he knew he was making a decision that not many ski team athlete’s get to make, but that didn’t make the transition any easier.
“It was like a switch going off. That was it. It was pretty much like, you’re off the team and good luck with your next adventure,” he says.
Kitt retired in the 90s under the supervision of former U.S. Ski & Snowboard President, Bill Marolt. At the time, a program called the Race of Champions was the main event that made alumni feel recognized by the organization. Each year, ex-athletes that had notable careers (aka athletes that earned medals) could return at the U.S. Nationals to compete again alongside current athlete’s. But the program has ceased to exist.
As of the mid-2000s, programs have been put in place to help ease the transition into the athlete’s next phase of life when it comes to career and education. In partnership with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), Ski & Snowboard is able to provide help for alumni and current athletes in a multitude of ways, such as providing workshops on career development, offering internship and employment opportunities with Ski & Snowboard partners, connecting athletes with a company/trustees that can help them kick start their next career, and providing counseling via a staff sports psychologist when athletes are ready to start their new journey.
Julie Glusker, Director of Athlete Career & Education, says that in 2018, just 18 retired athletes across all sports utilized these resources. In 2019, that number has gone up to 38. Any athlete that has ever been a member of the national team is welcome to seek help from her office.
“There is no expiration date to my service,” says Glusker. “If an athlete seeks me out, I will be there to help connect them with whatever they need, whenever they are ready.”
Despite the resources made available to athletes looking to make a career change when their time on a team comes to a close, the ‘pain points’ stated in the now public ‘Athlete Project’ still highlight problems within the system, particularly when it comes to offboarding. The report, released in July of 2019 by Ski & Snowboard, takes a deep-dive into the athlete experience and sheds light on the thoughts and feelings of current athletes, alumni, and other stakeholders in regards to the organization’s overall treatment of the athletes.
According to the report, at present, touchpoints between alumni and current athletes are either self-initiated or non-existent. There is no formal process for leaving the team. Exit interviews are few and far in between. Celebration of retired athletes is inconsistent, and for the athletes that do not have the opportunity to formally retire, they are often unaware of their status on the team until team selections roll around each season and they are not named.
These issues are so deep-rooted in the culture of Ski & Snowboard that the “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” attitude has become expected from retiring athletes. While this attitude tends to leave athlete’s with a bitter taste in their mouth, some have come to recognize that that’s simply the way it is.
In fact, Marco Sullivan, a four-time Olympian who has competed in more World Cup downhills than any other American male, says that after watching his teammates’ experiences while leaving the team, he didn’t expect so much as a phone call from the organization when he chose to retire in 2016.
“There’s a ton of ex-ski team people that just get the phone call in the spring that they’re not invited back and then there’s nothing,” Sullivan says. “Even with myself, I was on the team for 17 years and once I announced my retirement, there was no exit interview – no one called me to see what I could contribute back. And over the next months and years, I have done events with the Ski Team, I’m still kind of involved, but still, no one has tried to pick my brain for what could make it better. That doesn’t necessarily make me mad, but I do feel like it’s an oversight.”
Sullivan says that upon his exit, he did get a call from past President Marolt to congratulate him on his career, something he found a bit strange seeing as these kinds of phone calls occur sporadically. Current Ski & Snowboard President Tiger Shaw’s line remained silent.
After giving their entire lives to the sport, some athletes feel being unacknowledged by higher-ups within the national organization is disrespectful. Given the issues with funding, most professional skiers and snowboarders that are recognized as top U.S. athlete’s have at least partially funded their own careers. To not even be given a phone call or offered some kind of exit interview they say perpetuates the transactional culture.
“I mean, I know people who have had therapy to deal with it,” says downhill World Champion, Hilary Lindh. “It’s traumatic because when you’re on the ski team, it’s such an intense experience. Your whole life – your heart and soul – is involved in trying to do something and if it doesn’t work out, you’re left with a really bitter taste in your mouth. A lot of people struggle with moving on. How do you let go when it hasn’t turned out how you want it to, and you’re being kind of treated like crap?”
Alongside Kitt and Sullivan, Lindh is another athlete who feels fortunate to have made the decision to retire. After earning a silver medal in the downhill at the 1992 Winter Olympics, accumulating five World Cup podiums, and finishing her career with a gold medal in the downhill at World Finals, Lindh chose to call it quits early on in her career.
“I retired instead of being forced out. I know a lot of people are not asked back, or the end of their career is mostly just because they are not invited back. I’ve just always felt so fortunate that that wasn’t my experience. I mean it’s hard to move on even when you have success,” says Lindh.
The three phases in need of improvement acknowledged in the report – joining the team, competing on the team, and leaving the team – are the result of a culture that has been fostered over time, a culture that takes credit for the successes of individual athletes, then casts them to the side when the results are no longer there. Under the magnifying glass of the Athlete Project, U.S. Ski & Snowboard is faced with a choice: acknowledge it’s failings and improve, or continue down the path that it has been on, a path that many internal and external onlookers deem unhealthy.
Lindh thinks one place Ski & Snowboard could start is by bridging the vast gap that has been forged between the organization, current athlete’s, and it’s alumni.
“Having people around who have experience that you could lean on, learn from, or just support that you’re not the only one that’s ever gone through this before, and be able to talk about it [with athletes] who you are not in direct competition with, that could be really valuable,” says Lindh.
Counseling and mentorship from alumni has the potential to make current athletes feel more supported during their time on the team, and could, in turn, improve results and facilitate better team chemistry. Current athletes want to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, and so do alumni. It’s human nature to want to be wanted. The USOPC has the capacity to connect current athletes with mentors if athletes seek out that resource. Otherwise, ex-U.S. Ski Team athlete’s are not being utilized by Ski & Snowboard to their full potential, as a community to lean on.
The lack of “team” culture that currently exists has already led to the natural creation of ‘subcultures’ or support networks under Ski & Snowboard’s umbrella. Take the American Downhillers for example. On the tour, the American men that compete on the speed circuit have created their own sort of family over the years that provides community even after its members have left the circuit. Those were the guys that made Kitt and Sullivan feel loved and recognized when they chose to retire – their teammates, their brothers.
“When you’re in Europe and you’re on the road, you’ve got the [Ski Team] jacket on but I felt like we were somewhat operating autonomously. We always felt like that was our show, and that was part of what allowed us to be successful,” says Kitt. “And that is what has directly driven the American Downhiller culture to what it is right now. There’s something there that the rest of the team culture can learn from.”
Upon his retirement, Sullivan decided to bring the traveling band of heroes home and turn it into a full-on brand that gives back to the ski racing community via camps that allow current athletes, alumni, and coaches across genders to come together to share their knowledge with kids who dream of one day standing in the World Cup start gate like their mentors before them.
“I don’t think I set out to do [American Downhiller] because it was unique. I still love skiing and ski racing, it’s something I really know a lot about,” says Sullivan. “So for me to totally disengage from the sport just wouldn’t be satisfying. As long as I know that I’m an expert in the field, I felt like it would be cool to give back in some way. Watching the kids hang out with the guys that are their idols is just so special. And whatever I can do to keep promoting that I think is what I’m going to try and do.”
Unfortunately, Ski & Snowboard does not formally offer an avenue for alumni to give back to the sport or the organization, unless they do so financially or on a board of some sort. Yet Sullivan, Kitt, and Lindh all say it wouldn’t take much to get them back involved. Their expertise and love for the sport is something they would be more than willing to share to some degree, whether it be through coaching, or helping fundraise for current athletes. American Downhiller is proof of that. All it would take is for someone to reach out and ask.
As of last month, Sullivan took a position on the foundation side of the organization for that reason alone. He wants to help current athlete’s feel supported, and as an alumnus, he can speak to their experience. Someone on Ski & Snowboard’s staff recognized that and decided to reach out.
“[Ski & Snowboard] is the main advocate for our sport in the U.S. Even though there are some things wrong, I don’t think that it’s unsalvagable,” says Sullivan. “I think if they just put themselves out there and ask a lot of athletes, they would get a positive response. It just hasn’t really been done before. Maybe just swallowing their pride a little bit and admitting that they could really be helped by the current and former athletes, that would be a big step in the right direction.”
The question is, will Ski & Snowboard take this example as an opportunity to utilize their most undervalued resource, their alumni? As the community has seen throughout the years, change does not happen overnight, nor does it happen until one or a few step up and change the rules.
“The attitude of [Ski & Snowboard’s] culture is they are going to write the rules no matter what. You’ll have to either abide by them or not play the game,” says Kitt, speaking as an ex-athlete turned ski racing parent that now has kids of his own going through the Ski & Snowboard’s development pipeline. “Unfortunately, they’ve got the power, and they’ve obviously shown that they do over the years, that’s never changed. But I can say that they’ve created more acrimony in the ski world then they’ve built goodwill and I think that’s unfortunate. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I can tell you that there is a lot of denial out there within the team. I don’t think they really understand who they are and what their value is in the sport.”
Despite all of the negativity surrounding Ski & Snowboard from those close to the organization, these athletes see the Athlete Project as the first sign of acknowledgment from the higher-ups that the need for a culture shift is long overdue, and that they plan on doing something about it.
“You gotta give the team credit for getting this consulting group involved, taking a deep dive, and taking a look in the mirror,” says Kitt. “It’s always the first painful step towards improving, and it’s good that this is finally taking place. It’s a painful process, but in the end, everyone will be better for it. I certainly give them a lot of credit for having the moxie to do it.”