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Alpine Skiing

Aiming high in one of the world’s most competitive sports

By Andrew Mitchell

After a disappointing showing at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City Alpine Canada went through a massive shakeup of staff and personnel, with the goal of remaking the organization and the national ski team into a worldwide contender.

Ken Read, a former member of the legendary Crazy Canuck downhill team, set the tone for the reworked program. His idea was simple — set the bar higher for coaches and athletes, and back those raised expectations with funding and expertise that makes it possible.

So far the new concept has been working, with overall team results improving from year to year. Last year was the best in history for the Canadian Alpine Ski Team with a dozen podium appearances, while Canada’s standing among nations improved from 12 th to sixth. Canada now has more skiers qualified in more disciplines than ever before, with start positions that make it possible to be competitive every weekend.

The team fell just short of its goal of an Olympic medal in 2006 but still made team history with three fourth place finishes and a fifth in Italy.

The Canadian Disabled Alpine Ski Team also had a strong season, improving to fourth in the nations standings while winning five Paralympic medals. Disabled skiers also won two overall World Cup globes last year.

Read is happy with the progress that has been made but knows the national team still has a long way to go before it can rival the top teams in the world.

“As simplistic as it sounds the most important thing for us was to start out with a clear goal of where we’re going, and then back it up with all the resources we can bring to bear,” said Read. “It’s made an enormous difference. We’re in this business to win, and we’re going to relentlessly support that goal. Putting our money where our mouth is sends a strong message to our athletes. When they can say to themselves, ‘I’m investing my life here, it’s my passion and my goal to be a champion and World Cup winner, and I see the organization I represent has the same goal and will support me in that task,’ that creates a lot of confidence.

“The difference is we’re performance-centred and athlete-focused, where the performance is related to everybody. We want the athletes performing, but also the coaches, ski techs, video technicians, wax techs, everybody. We even want the secretary at head office performing, and the guy in finance performing. The athlete-focused side applies to everybody in ski racing in Canada, from the six-year-old Nancy Greene skier to the people on the national team.”

The core of the national program lives in the Alpine Canada Strategic Plan 2006-2010, which is an update of an earlier plan that was released in November of 2003 to address the failures of the 2002 Winter Games. The success of last season has led Alpine Canada to shoot even higher over the next four years, and beyond.

The main goal of the strategic plan is to “deliver the human, technical and financial resources for the athletes of the Canadian Alpine Ski Team and Canadian Disabled Alpine Ski Team required for athletic leadership in World Cup, World Championship and Olympic competition.”

More importantly, the plan includes the framework to overhaul the entire ski racing system in Canada to create future champions, transforming everything from coaching to the way kids learn to ski and race.

The team’s goal in 2010 is to win at least four Olympic medals and seven Paralympic medals, and to have 75 per cent of athletes place in the top 12.

By way of comparison the national 2010 Own The Podium program, which was created with the goal of making Canada number one at home in 2010 by winning 35 Olympic medals, only calls on alpine skiers to win two medals.

Still, while the strategic plan might seem overly aggressive to some, Read is optimistic that the national ski teams have a realistic chance of meeting the goals.

“Each athlete knows that we have these goals and understands what we’re trying to accomplish,” explained Read. “It’s not intended to create pressure, but as an honest evaluation of what the country can do. In some cases we’ll make changes in our course to shore up any weaknesses that might appear, and if something’s going really well we’ll do what we can to make sure we can get more of that success.

“When we first published our objectives we got more of a response from the public than we did from our athletes. Some people were saying, ‘aren’t you guys being a little bold?’ But in our view that’s a statement of what we do. It’s a very competitive environment we’re competing in, and if we want to move up we have to set the benchmarks pretty high.”

This year the goal is 12 World Cup podiums, and two world championship medals. On the disabled World Cup circuit Alpine Canada’s goal is to remain in fourth place among nations, contributing another 20 medals to the bottom line — a reachable goal given the strength of the current team.

According to Read, most of Canada’s goals between now and 2010 will be reached with the current crop of athletes in the national program, although there are still opportunities for older FIS racers to get up to speed over the next three seasons and qualify for a spot with the team.

“I would say 75 to 80 per cent of athletes (that will compete in 2010) are currently on the national team or national development group, but there’s another portion that’s probably at least at the provincial team level right now. If you look at the Canadian athletes that competed at Torino, the youngest was 19. So if you extrapolate to 2010 the youngest might be in the 16-17 age group,” said Read.

“Right now we’re working to identify those athletes with potential, with Mark Sharp, our national technical director for the west, and Benoit Lalonde, our technical director for the east, making the evaluations to see who we can integrate into our elite stream.”

Given the fact that Alpine Canada will field a maximum of 22 athletes in 2010, Read says the current pool of potential athletes is about 40. The ACA will be releasing its criteria to qualify for the Olympic team based on results at the international level.

The Own The Podium program is contributing $110 million to 13 national winter sports organizations over the next few years, with about half the money going to increase the budgets of the organizations themselves. The other half is going towards sports sciences and technology. Read says the program is having a significant impact on Alpine Canada, and on Canadian sports in general.

While the funding is significant — an additional $1.6 million a year for the national team — Read says that still only represents about 10 per cent of Alpine Canada’s budget. However, he feels Own The Podium is important because of the tone it sets for sports in Canada by asserting that we can be successful at home, and backing sports and athletes with funding and resources.

“We were asked what we need. We’ve laid that out, it’s been delivered and now we’re taking the resources and responsibility… to invest in athletes and coaching, in technology and resources, to make it happen,” said Read. “That’s on top of the sponsorship dollars we already have, and we’re still actively soliciting sponsorships because there is always more we can do. While we’re fairly confident our elite team will be able to deliver what we need in 2010, we also have an obligation to make sure we have a competitive team in 2014, and that concerns me.”

Read says the team will need another $3 million a year before resources can rival those of the Austrian program, or a total budget of roughly $20 million, but so far he is encouraged by all the recent increases in funding. Team revenue has increased 150 per cent in the last four years, through a mix of sponsorship, fundraising, and partnerships with organizations like Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and Own The Podium.

While Own The Podium expires after 2010, Read says the program lays the foundation for the future of sport funding and management in Canada.

Not only does Own The Podium recognize the need for funding, it also makes it possible for Canada’s national sports programs to develop and share resources and expertise in an unprecedented way. For example, new sports science or technology developed with national programs will be shared with other Canadian teams, and experts like sports psychologists have been made available to everybody within the Own The Podium framework.

While Read mostly credits the team’s recent success to the fact that Alpine Canada has a strategy, he also says training is having an impact. While athletes don’t train more than in the past, he says recent developments in sport and an investment in coaching and training resources has allowed athletes to train smarter.

“The CAST program has been full time since before I was with the program, going back 30 or 40 years… but instead of relying on an off-season physical development program where an awful lot was left to the athletes, our athletes are evaluated regularly, with a higher level of supervision. Now athletes are working in groups, with physical training coaches and physiotherapists available, we have better monitoring for a better outcome. Sometimes that even means asking athletes who are a little too ambitious to train less — there was always that risk of over-training, where the outcome would be all wrong.”

Another driver for the team is the fact that athletes are doing better on the World Cup — not just in terms of podium appearances, but also in terms of qualifying for second runs, finishing in the top-30, and moving up the overall rankings.

“Results create momentum — no question — and build confidence,” said Read. “One of the most powerful things that motivates our athletes in international competition is trying to be the best Canadian, and when the best Canadian is getting on the podium, or close to it, that’s what you have to aim for.

“I think our athletes can hold their heads high. We’re a competitive team. And the fact that the person you might be rooming with or skiing against in training is doing well motivates you, excites you, and makes you believe in yourself. It all creates a flywheel of success that we’ve seen many, many times in many different sports. I know the Crazy Canucks were racing each other as much as the rest of the world, which is partly why they were so successful.”