I've got a simple message to deliver for all those high school and college skiers that just finished putting on the cap and gown this year.
Don't quit skiing.
Well, maybe two messages. Congratulations (of course) on a well-earned diploma. Regardless whether it is high school or college, a diploma is an important step in life not to be taken lightly. Well done indeed!
Now don't quit skiing.
Given the tremendous growth of high-end junior programs over the past decade, there are more "seasoned" skiers graduating out of U.S. high schools today than ever before in history. Problem is...the number of those kids competing a full winter schedule even just one year AFTER high school graduation is smaller than a decade ago. Just shut your eyes when you look at the statistics on the number of college graduates that continue skiing at a high level the year after college graduation.
It's simple. We've got more kids going into the "prime" endurance development years than ever before. Overall they are entering those years in better shape, with better technique, with a better handle on logistics...yet our post-junior numbers are dropping like a rock.
There's a wide assortment of contributing factors for why this is happening that involves everything from socio-economic realities to New Years college bowl games. All these reasons would make an interesting column on their own.
Right now, the only message I want to deliver is to the graduates themselves.
Don't quit. Just don't quit.
Compelling Reasons To Leave
Yes, I know better than most all the reasons for high school grads to hang up your boards. I know that only few dozen colleges in the country have organized XC ski teams and they are spread out over a massive geographic area. I also know that many of those schools are private institutions beyond the financial means of most high school skiers and their parents. Finally, I realize that the "top shelf" NCAA teams are enormously intimidating to a developing skier.
Yep, I know all too well all the reasons for a college grad to wave goodbye to thinking about klister and a good V-1 arm position. Debt from student loans, grad school, parental pressure to "get a real job", relationships, frustration with college ski results, costs associated with ski racing, lack of support programs, lack of opportunities outside the super-elite...there's every reason in the world for you to bag it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Do - Not - Quit.
Better Reasons To Stay
As one of only a handful (maybe less than a handful) of coaches in all of North America that focus on these age groups, I'm perhaps more sensitive to this issue than most folks. Every single year I watch dozens of names from the Junior Olympic and NCAA/USCSA results disappear from the picture. These skiers aren't just taking a year off, they aren't just "busy"...they are quitting the sport for good.
Here is the bottomline why you just can't quit.
Between our upper teens and our upper twenties, the average person is in an extraordinary position to do amazing things with their bodies, minds, and spirit. Don't get me wrong, amazing things are possible throughout life...but some things just get harder and harder once you get outside this magic window.
When you are in your early twenties, a hard worker, single, motivated, and with purpose...you can pretty much put up with anything to make your ski dreams happen. You can sleep on floors and couches for years on end. You can tolerate eating rice and beans for a month. You can handle working manual labor jobs even when you've got a college degree in your hip pocket. You don't freak out spending up to three-quarters of a meager annual income on trips to ski races.
You flip the dial to a later in life and things will change. You'll meet "that someone". You'll realize you really want to own some things that don't come from a second-hand store. All the realities and pressures of "the real world" will inevitably come calling.
Given that the average World Cup skier is in the 27-29 age range, it is mindless to buy in to the idea of being washed up by 18 or 22. There are skiers in their 40s that can rock the world with the best of em'. If you think you can't get any faster young folks...you thought wrong.
Options, Baby We Got Options!
For those that don't quit in the magic window, there are indeed a multitude of ways that they can stay in sport...even at a really high level...and still "have a life". It's a drop dead mistake to buy into the notion that the only worthwhile reason to ski after high school or college is if you have Olympic Team at the top of your to-do list.
Within XC Oregon nearly three-quarters of our athletes are working in full-time, "career-oriented" positions. Several own their own homes. All are a viable elite wave threat in any local or regional race they enter. Some are developing to the point they are viable threats in any national or even international race they enter. Few make a dime ski racing, but every single athlete loves doing it and has found a very realistic way to keep their ski dreams alive.
Although our athletes are indeed fortunate to have a program created specifically for their needs in a wonderful place for XC skiing, there is no reason other athletes can't stay in sport post-graduation in other areas of the country. For instance, college club skiing can be every bit as rewarding as full-throttle NCAA racing. As long as you can get to snow on the weekends, you can go to school anywhere you want and still ski. Outside of college, the growth of major events has made it such that as long as you are a reasonable drive away...there's no reason to believe you can compete in everything from local 10km events to the biggest American Ski Marathon Series races.
Want more big event opportunities? A recent decision by the American Cross Country Skiers Board lowered the "official" age for a U.S. master skier to 25. Although any skier age 20-24 can still take part unofficially in the Subaru National Masters Championships, skiers age 25-29 now have a viable Championship alternative if the Olympic-level circuit just doesn't make sense for them. With luck, someday soon we'll be able to convince the World Masters Association to adopt a similar ruling!
On the international stage, every single Worldloppet marathon is open and waiting a skier just like yourself. You don't have to qualify. You don't have to have a wicked good ranking. You enter, you go, you ski.
Stay In The Game
It doesn't matter if you ski on your own, as part of a club, as part of a factory group or retail team...anyway that works, just make sure you still snap on the skis next winter.
It all comes down to staying in the game at whatever level makes sense to you and your dreams. As a recent graduate, you've got a blank canvas in front of you. All I'm saying is make skiing part of that picture.