Last year, at a Canada Cup race in Calgary, somebody pointed out to me that I was the second oldest person in the Open Men category. The startling part is that I was, at that point, 26 years old! "How could this be?", I thought. "I don't even have gray hair or a beer belly yet".
Then I wondered where all the skiers older than myself went. It is kind of sad, if you think about it; in a sport where the average age of a World Cup winner is something like 29, we in Canada have only a handful of people over even age 25 that still compete in elite-level racing. I, at least, never heard of any pension plans for skiers called Freedom Twenty-Five.
Naturally, the next question is what led to this sorry state of affairs? No doubt, the answer is complicated. Some explanations might include that people simply tend to move on to other things by age 25, such as school, work, or partying really hard to make up for all the years when you were a "skier dork". But if you break it down, it would appear that the real answer is that ski racing is simply not an attractive enough option for the bulk of people in this age bracket. There is very little support available in terms of both coaching and money to the over 25 athlete. ( I use "over 25" loosely. I mean anyone who is basically at the age where you might normally think about starting a "serious career"). For sure, the National Team program is terrific, as are the Development Centres. As we all know, there is only so much room on the National Team, and the Development Centres, quite rightly, focus on older juniors and younger seniors. What is more, by age 25, the Bank of Mom and Dad becomes a much less appealing and/or accessible option.
The purpose of this article, however, is not to whine, but to point out that things are improving. Here in Ottawa, for instance, I am very happy to be part of the xcottttawa.ca racing team, which manages to provide great year-round coaching, terrific teammates, as well as some significant help with other expenses thanks to some excellent sponsors. Ottawa is not the only place where the older senior athlete can keep plugging away. The X-C.com racing team, for example, also appears to be doing great things in this regard. In the United States, the various "factory teams" ( Subaru, Rossignol, Atomic, Madshus-Alpina etc) also seem to be keeping people on the boards. This is by no means an exhaustive list. The point is that opportunities are beginning to present themselves, and things are looking up.
If these types of teams were encouraged to grow in both numbers and scope (similar to what we have with pro and semi-pro trade teams in road cycling and mountain biking in North America), many would stand to benefit. In essence, we might wind up with an additional, self-supporting and independent mechanism for high-performance skiing in North America. This would benefit not only the people who race for them, but the sport as a whole. We would have bigger and more competitive fields at races, and more skiers plain and simple.
Essentially, these teams depend on two things: Athlete interest (every team needs athletes), and sponsor support and recognition ( Show me the money!). So, if you are an athlete considering what to do next, investigate your options carefully. There is likely an organization out there just looking for an athlete like you. And next time you run into a private supporter of our sport, let them know what a difference they are making. If this ball keeps rolling and picking up speed, who knows where we might wind up. If nothing else, maybe I will not feel like a dinosaur in the coming years.