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All American

Bob Beattie speaks out on the “alarming” state of collegiate ski racing in the United States—and how it can be fixed.

By Edith Thys Morgan

Above photo: Courtesy David Bayer Photography

This past May, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) CEO Tiger Shaw announced the first National University (N-UNI) Team, to the tentative applause of the skiing world. The announcement marks a major philosophical shift for an institution that, at best, has tolerated rather than embraced elite athletes progressing through the NCAA ranks. Critics lament the small numbers and lack of female representation on the six-man N-UNI roster, all of whom will compete for their respective colleges while also competing on the U.S. Ski Team (USST). Proponents like USSA Alpine Development Director Chip Knight—himself a USST alum, three-time Olympian and, most recently, head women’s coach at Dartmouth College—see it as a hugely positive first step. 

“It’s a pilot program,” Knight says. “Our hope is to provide a viable path for kids to start school and keep developing [as skiers]. The N-UNI Team is an opportunity to show this can work.” One person who was unequivocally happy with the announcement is the U.S. Ski Team’s biggest fan and boldest critic, Bob Beattie.

Beattie’s influence on alpine skiing started in the late Fifties and Sixties, when collegiate skiing was the repository of the top U.S. coaches and athletes. The New Hampshire native grew up with a love for all sports and attended Middlebury College, where he started his coaching career. He moved to the University of Colorado (CU) to coach football and skiing in 1956, at age 23. Beattie’s Buffs won the NCAA Championships in 1959 and again in 1960, with a team of U.S. racers. Throughout Beattie’s nine years there, CU battled with the dominant University of Denver team and their coach Willy Schaeffler. While Beattie prided himself on his all-American team, Schaeffler aggressively recruited Europeans, mainly Norwegians, who brought him 13 national titles from 1954–1970. 

Beattie went on to coach the first U.S. Ski Team from 1961–1969 (concurrently coaching at CU until 1965), coaching Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga to Olympic silver and bronze medals respectively in 1964. He co-founded the World Cup in 1966, founded the World Pro Tour in 1970, and was commissioner of NASTAR. An ABC commentator for four Olympics, Beattie’s name and voice became synonymous with U.S. alpine skiing. Master innovator, promoter and motivator, he remains a thoughtful and outspoken advocate of skiing, offering his views on how to transform, preserve and improve ski racing in the United States. Here, Bob shares his views on the state of collegiate skiing and where, with some encouragement, it might go.

 

How did you get into skiing?
I grew up outside of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Dad introduced my brother and me to every sport you can imagine, including skiing. We didn’t have much money but we loved the mountains, skiing and just goofing off.

And ski racing?
I got into ski racing in high school, then at Proctor Academy where I went for a year before going to Middlebury College. I was actually better at cross country than at alpine, but I told them I couldn’t compete in cross country because I had a bad heart.

Did you in fact have a heart condition?
No. But I wanted to race alpine. I tried for the alpine team every year. Finally in my senior year I knew I wouldn’t make it, so I raced cross-country. I also played football in the fall and tennis in the spring.

Who was an early influence in ski coaching?
I learned a lot from Bobo Sheehan (then Middlebury coach, whom Beattie temporarily replaced when Sheehan left to coach the 1956 Olympic team). He had a great way of working with people. And we both hated Dartmouth. (Laughs.) I still hate Dartmouth.

Describe your CU experience.
CU ski racing was a big challenge for me and a great love affair. We fought hard with DU all the way and made “only U.S. racers” our password. At one point, the CU athletic director called a meeting with Schaeffler, the DU athletic director, and myself to tell us to “slow down.” That only lasted for a week and we were at it once again!

Your reputation was one of tough love, working harder than the other guys and building team spirit through
suffering. How did that play at CU?

Maybe it was my football background, but physical conditioning was the key to everything.  In addition to hiking to train on St. Mary’s Glacier, we worked out five days a week in the fall. Coaches from other CU sports came to watch and they couldn’t believe it.  We worked out Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m.! Even today I exchange calls with my guys from then, people I tortured. They love to bring it up.

And nobody dodged the work?
When Spider Sabich—“only a freshman”—was late for training, I let the rest of the team take a break and made Spider do somersaults up the football field until he went into the trees and got sick!

When you first started at CU, you changed the NCAA rules (against Schaeffler’s wishes) so that three out of four racers counted (it previously had been four out of five). Then you took an innovative approach to increasing participation on the ski team.
The CU Ski Club had 3,500 members, so in an effort to broaden the CU Ski Team, I moved my office from the Athletic Department to the Student Union building. We had a film room there and I could take each racer’s video from the weekend and put them on his own reel. Every day around 10 a.m., the place was jammed and noisy, but it built enthusiasm for the team.

Do you still think that's the key—bringing skiing to the people?
Yes! I feel very strongly that CU should have a winter carnival at Eldora, like the ones they have in the East. But it could also attract a wider audience. It could have music and all types of events, both for college and recreational racers.

Beattie with an unidentified skier at the University of Colorado, where he coached for nine years, starting in 1956. Under his leadership and with "only U.S. racers" as his creed, CU won the NCAA alpine championships in 1959 and 1960. Photo courtesy of University of Colorado Athletic Department.

What makes college ski racing special?
Academics, the racers themselves, the spirit, and having both men and women competing—it will always stand the test of time. 

These rivalries throughout your career—Dartmouth vs. Middlebury; DU vs. CU; U.S. vs. European— were they bitter or friendly?
It was always friendly in the aftermath. That’s the way it is in skiing. When we get together those [rivalries and arguments] are the things we talk about. I even like that there are lots of Dartmouth people working for the U.S. Ski Team now. It is a disciplined and creative approach. I love that they are involved with college racing. Tiger Shaw’s wife Kristin left the World Champs in Vail to attend a carnival race. I love that!

How do you see the state of college skiing today?
College skiing, particularly in the West, presents an alarming situation. CU, DU, Utah and New Mexico all qualified the maximum 12 men and women allowed for the NCAA championships. They were the top four schools along with Vermont, but only two racers were from the United States! This is not right. Many Western schools (Washington, Wyoming, Nevada, and Western State) have dropped their programs. I question whether there will even be college skiing in a few years.

The European skiers raise the level of competition and lower the penalties. How does that hurt U.S. skiers?
By receiving scholarships, they are depriving U.S. youngsters the chance of receiving an education, and a future in racing. At CU I made it a point to have U.S. kids, many from Colorado mountain towns and others who later moved to Colorado after graduating. 

You have a great deal of respect for current CU coach Richard Rokos, and even supported him for the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame. Under Rokos, CU earned NCAA titles in 1998 and 1999. The majority of those athletes were born within a 100-mile radius of CU.   

The next generation of recruits, however, could not compete against what Rokos called the “Foreign Legion.” DU won four titles in row and UNM won a title with no Americans on the teams whatsoever. So Rokos brought kids from across the pond and CU won the NCAA title in 2006. With the pressure from financial backers, what could he and other college coaches do?
I disagree with the win-win-win approach. It's how you win. And winning can mean different things. It can mean more popularity for the sport. It can mean working with and strengthening local programs and U.S. athletes. 

The mix should mostly be homegrown. What will happen if more colleges are faced with financial problems and drop some sports? Where would CU, New Mexico and Utah fit, unless we show statewide support from the ski industry and local programs?

So the college thing is also an industry thing.
Colleges, local programs, the USST, retired racers, and the media should work together. Getting kids on snow and keeping it affordable is a challenge, but we can all help by working together and asking ourselves, “How can we best support our sport while expanding U.S. participation across the board?” Certainly, universities in snow states can be strong participants. Most families can’t afford the cost, especially with too much travel and parents with money working to “buy” success. We all know skiing is expensive, but we can correct this some by not traveling as much. It’s hard to increase skiing skills riding in a car or hanging out at some far away ski area. 

If the NCAA does not have the will or incentive to change the rules and limit foreigners, what can the coaches do?
Change the rules! Create new rules. In my ancient days we fought the FIS all the way about everything from race sites to seedings. One time in Wengen we fought over FIS rules about seeding and it lasted 3-1/2 hours. We won this battle (Kidd was scheduled to start the slalom wearing #45, but ended up in the first group) by not giving up, not by quiet negotiations! 

All the coaches have to do is stand up and be heard. I'm nudging them a lot. I may be taking a break but I'm not quitting on this one.

Not everyone agrees with you.
(Laughs.) Even my son Zeno disagrees with me. Like many of the college coaches, he believes the reason there are so few Americans is that they aren’t good enough. I say there is no opportunity for them. God bless the Eastern part of the country, where there are still American athletes.

What keeps you up at night?
This!

You’re an optimist. Where’s the hope?
We have a long way to go, but I am 100 percent convinced that skiing can thrive if it is promoted well at all levels.

Beyond going more local, how else could college skiing be improved?
I think having new formats and ideas should come about every year. Add new more interesting events. Maybe dual racing and snowboard events to attract the ESPN X Games audience and gain college press excitement. We should have answers when people ask, “What’s new?”

You haven’t always agreed with the USST approach to college racing.
In the past, the USST ignored college skiing. The philosophy was that you should pluck away top kids and bring them together to one place in a specialty school. I think you need to keep kids in local programs as long as possible.

Where do ski academies fit into that?
I am not a huge academy guy. (Laughs.) I understand it, but I think you can still go to a regular high school, or at least junior high.

What do you think about N-UNI?
It’s a great step in the right direction. The national team needs to work with colleges and college athletes.  What better way to develop kids and gain an education?  The colleges have good coaches and specialize in technical alpine events, plus cross-country.  

For coaches to keep their jobs, isn’t it all about winning?
There is more than winning the NCAA champs, particularly if not many people know about them. Let’s tell the story and let the secret out of the bag! Not all schools need to go for overall team victories. Some might want to specialize in cross-country.  

How do you feel about the U.S. Ski Team today?
It's exciting for me. The USST needs to work with the colleges and vice versa. I have lots of confidence in Tiger Shaw, who understands this and will make adjustments to increase the stature of college skiing.

So you’re a fan of Tiger?
Yes, even though he did go to Dartmouth. 

Edith Thys Morgan is a two-time U.S. Olympian in alpine skiing and the author of Shut Up and Ski. You can read her blog and learn more at www.racerex.com.