Dartmouth: A U.S. Ski Team hotspot

by Samantha Hussey | 2/6/17 2:25am

With 17 different athletes on the U.S. National Ski Team currently affiliated with Dartmouth in some way, the College has consistently served as a hub for top skiers in the nation. Although each U.S. National Team skier who has come through Dartmouth has a unique background, all share the same deep passion for skiing that began at a young age.

For these racers, skiing is a year-round affair and their schedules are jam-packed with training camps, dry land training, competitions and prep periods. They share the ultimate goal of ending up on the World Cup circuit and qualifying for the Olympic team. In between traveling and training, these athletes look forward to what little downtime they do get, and quite a few must balance their time as students as well.

Dartmouth has a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Ski Team that dates back to the early 1950s. Aside from the College’s academic prestige and competitive skiing program, its biggest draw for these athletes is the flexibility that comes with Dartmouth’s D-Plan, which gives students the option to select terms to be on or off based on different academic, work, travel or service opportunities.

Brian McLaughlin ’18, a member of the U.S. National Alpine team, finished five carnival races on the podium during his sophomore year, proceeding to earn first-team All-American honors by securing third place in the slalom at the NCAA Championship. He noted the flexible schedule and renowned academics as the two key factors in his decision to choose Dartmouth.

“With the quality of academics and the fact that the D-plan works really well for being on the U.S. Ski Team, being able to pick and choose terms was definitely a plus,” McLaughlin said. “Just having a great school and ski program; it was kind of a no-brainer [to choose Dartmouth].”

Julia Kern ’19 is currently entering her second year as a member of the U.S. Cross Country Team after an impressive first year in which she had a SuperTour podium, a trip to World Juniors, two podiums in the junior races at U.S. National Championships and three podiums in two separate junior races at the OPA Cup finals in Italy. She saw Dartmouth as the ideal environment to continue pursuing her academic and athletic goals.

“I knew [Dartmouth] had a strong ski program and a lot of U.S. Ski Team, both alpine and cross-country, members had gone through the program and had great experiences doing both school and skiing,” Kern said. “[Dartmouth] was the place where I could achieve my goals academically and athletically at the highest possible caliber.”

Most skiers have Dartmouth paths look different than the average student. While there is no set academic plan, U.S. Ski Team members can take anywhere from four to 12 years to get their degrees; students take specific terms or even years off from school to focus on training or recovery from injuries. Undergraduate dean Natalie Hoyt, who works with many of the skiers, emphasized that the College supports all students in their endeavors and that the decision to enroll by terms is very personal.

“There is no ‘normal’ for students who ski competitively,” Hoyt said. “Some students enroll for the spring as their first term, and then stay enrolled until they are planning to ski again. Some students enroll for only springs until they decide to focus on their academic career or when their ski career is no longer what they would like to continue.”

While Dartmouth accommodates to the needs of these student-athletes through the D-Plan, many of these skiers have found balancing both extremely difficult. David Chodounsky ’08, currently a member of the U.S. Alpine A Team, graduated with an impressive double major in engineering and geology in just four years. He won the slalom title at the NCAA Skiing Championships as a freshman, and became the captain of Dartmouth’s ski team in his sophomore year. After graduation, some of his achievements include winning the U.S. national slalom title in 2009 and competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Reflecting on his Dartmouth years, he noted that balancing academics and skiing was always a challenge.

“Since we’d spend so much time on the road and away from campus during training and competitions, we have to manage our time between school work and training,” Chodounsky said. “We also have to work with the professors to shift schedules around to make up class work, labs or tests whenever we were away from campus. Many professors were happy to accommodate our schedule, but some were less understanding, which made it that much harder for us to juggle all our obligations.”

After Michael Ankeny ’13, a current engineering student at Dartmouth, attained World Cup points in 2016 after finishing 21st in Adelboden, Switzerland and 19th in Kitzbüehel, Austria, he earned a spot on the national Alpine B team. Ankeny’s troubles with majoring in engineering stems from not being able to take courses in consecutive terms.

“[As] an engineering major, you have to take Math 3, 8 and 13,” Ankeny said. “Normally, you take those one after another, but I have to take Math 3, wait nine months, then take Math 8, wait nine months. It’s definitely a little hard to keep it fresh in your mind.”

In addition to a lack of academic continuity, a lack of consistent social connection throw some skiers for a loop.

“One of the biggest difficulties has definitely been building up a sense of community and social group, especially because I didn’t do my freshman fall,” Kern said. “I think I lost a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of new people and establish those relationships.”

Despite the obstacles, these student-athletes have found Dartmouth’s ski teams, fellow members of the U.S. Ski Team, and other organizations like fraternities and sororities to be good sources to build and maintain important social ties on campus.

Samuel Morse ’20, named the top downhiller in the country within his age group in 2014, attained impressive results at World Juniors on the 2014 Olympic track in Sochi, and is now currently a member of the Alpine C Team. He finds that the break from skiing is much needed and helps him refocus when he returns to training.

“It was such a blessing to not think about skiing, to unplug, to go to Foco and sit down with people and not talk about ski racing,” Morse said. “That definitely helped since it sort of balanced the two. I was pretty burnt on ski racing, and it made me hungry for it again. Just taking a step back and doing something different and then I’m already seeing improved results in my skiing since going to Dartmouth and a renewed passion for it.”

Andrew Weibrecht ’04, a member of the Alpine A Team, won bronze and silver in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, respectively, in the super-G. He found himself facing the same predicament as Morse.

“It was always difficult for me to have this one focus ­— it feels like I’m putting all of my eggs in one basket,” Weibrecht said. “The time right before I started school, I was a little bit unsure whether I wanted to continue on the path of skiing or whether I wanted to go to school full-time, but having a different focus reignited my desire and pushed me to pursue the next level.”

While having national team members on campus provides a different camaraderie for the skiing program, it has also posed some challenges for Dartmouth’s collegiate team. One of the biggest challenges starts with recruiting, according to Peter Dodge, men’s alpine skiing head coach.

“With recruiting, I’m looking at the same athletes to recruit for Dartmouth as the U.S. Ski Team is looking to name to their U.S. Development Team,” Dodge said. “If they have a great year, they may make the U.S. Ski Team so it’s a challenge to manage the recruiting. We have a lot of athletes who defer a year, so there are a lot of athletes out there and not sure when they are going to come, enroll and compete for us.”

Dodge emphasized that having skiers competing with the national team versus for Dartmouth is beneficial for not only the individual but also the team and the school.

In order to foster a more cohesive transaction and working relationship between the national team and collegiate teams, the U.S. Ski Team in the past year created the National University Team.

“The concept there was that it would be a 50-50 sharing,” Dodge said. “They were full team members, and they would train with the US Ski Team when they weren’t training [and competing] with their collegiate team. This is a cooperative relationship and is a big step forward.” ,

The only member of the Dartmouth community to be named to that team is McLaughlin, who joined before coming to Dartmouth. He said the National University team now serves as a program that provides training opportunities in the summer and fall.

“You’re mostly with your college team during the winter,” McLaughlin said. Ideally the people that are on the university team make that next jump so by the time they graduate they can be skiing at the World Cup and be skiing at a higher level. That’s the hope: that this university team is a pipeline to the World Cup — an alternative from being on the C or D team.”

In addition to juggling a challenging training and academic schedule, the sport also entails extreme financial burden. Chodounsky noted that costs can easily amount to $20,000 to $30,000 per year, especially when factoring in the cost to travel internationally.

“When I started my post college skiing career, and before I made the U.S. Ski A Team and became a ‘fully-funded’ athlete, I was financially responsible for quite a bit of my season... obviously I couldn’t do it myself, especially coming out of Dartmouth with college loans to my name as well,” he said.

Despite the financial responsibilities, there are many opportunities to raise that money due to grants, scholarships, and private donations from businesses and individuals. Patricia Mangan ’19, a member of the 2017 U.S. Alpine C Team, reinforced that “fundraising is a big part of our sport on the national level.”

Even with these difficulties — time, money, academics — Dartmouth’s U.S. Ski Team members are driven by passion.

“You do it because you love it,” two-time Olympian Nolan Kasper ’14 said.

Kasper performed exceptionally during the 2011 season, winning the Europa Cup slalom title and taking his first World Cup podium. Despite spending all of 2013 recovering from an ACL and MCL injury, he bounced back in 2014 to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics, finishing as the top American in the slalom. For him, representing his country on the world stage makes the complex balancing act worth it. He’s also appreciated Dartmouth for the cultural exposure it has given him.

“The ski world is pretty small and isolated and especially when we travel to Europe, we get to experience different cultures, but typically it’s like the same type of person that does well in this sport,” Kasper said. “Getting to meet people who are really good at different things is really cool.”

Ankeny added that skiing has provided him with an invaluable and life-changing experience.

“We get to travel the world before we are 21 years old,” Ankeny said. “It’s more of an unofficial education, a worldly education that you get. You learn how to travel, in a small group or sometimes alone, and get around and be competent in getting around. It brought me to all parts of the world that I never thought I would see if I wasn’t skiing.”