With funding pulled, racers form ASCA
Following an 18-month strategic planning review, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) pulled funding from elite sports, including ski cross. According to vice president of athletics Luke Bodensteiner, the USSA opted to redirect funds towards shoring up its alpine, freestyle aerials and snowboarding programs by establishing a domestic base of competition. Ski cross didn't qualify, but the USSA will continue to host lower-tier events.
As a result, after the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, racers Michael Duran and Daron Rahlves approached members of the ski cross community about forming the American Ski Cross Association (ASCA). The organization would supplement the costs of ski cross racers and serve to heighten awareness about the sport.
"The situation was that there would be no funding," ASCA board member Mike Jaquet explained. "So we set about creating funding for skiers to train, develop and compete on a world-class level." ASCA intends to field a team with enough credentials and money to win in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Leading up to the 2011 International Ski Federation World Cup season, ASCA procured resources for a first event. "We got our first donation in November and were able to fund a team to compete in Italy," Jaquet explained. John Teller's third place finish at the season opener on Dec. 18-19 in Innichen, Italy, brought the ASCA team what Jacquet describes as "instant credibility."
Teller has since taken over the World Cup rankings lead with a win Friday in St. Johann, Austria.
"The U.S. Ski Team is a big organization, so it is almost better that we are able to focus on ski cross athletes only," said Teller. ASCA will be crucial to his 2011 campaign. "Without this I would not have been able to travel to Europe."
That credibility, ideally, will help ASCA's grassroots mature into a long-term source of financing and development for ski cross. Eventually, the ASCA would cull both a men's and women's team of eight to 10 riders to compete regularly, with coaches and trainers priming younger skiers to ascend the ranks through a series of domestic races.
"Today, we have virtually none of this," admitted Jaquet. "We are years behind the [Europeans] and even in our own backyard to the Canadians."
Casey Puckett plans to change that. A four-time alpine racing Olympian and six-time national champion, Puckett has spent much of the last decade tackling ski cross. He won Winter X Games gold in 2004 and 2007 and, together with Rahlves, posted the U.S. Ski Team's only ski cross podium results last year.
Now, Puckett has been tapped as the ASCA's executive director. Leading a non-profit poses a different set of challenges than the mountains. "I've been wearing most of the hats right now, doing front office work," Puckett said.
That requires asking for money to sustain the ASCA's 501(c)3 designation. "Ski cross is an amateur, Olympic sport. ASCA provides people a place to put their money and gives tax breaks to those who support us," explained Puckett. While the ASCA has been banking on donations of varying size, it expects to meet its initial fundraising goal of $250,000 in 2011.
Puckett and Jaquet trust that persistence and strong results are key to more lucrative backing. "With a year under our belts, and if our results can continue at Winter X and the World Championships," Jaquet argued, "then I think we will be in great shape to secure corporate partnership money."
Puckett admitted that he worried about potential conflicts with the U.S. Ski Team. "My biggest concern when I came on was how they would view our efforts. So far, there's been no problem. They're glad we're picking it up," he claimed, stating that the ASCA has been assured there will be no conflicting sponsorship troubles. "We're working together."
The USSA's Bodensteiner didn't rule out reevaluating ski cross in the future. "We're in this to win more medals than other countries, and we'll support specific athletes and teams to do that," he affirmed.
Thus, the ASCA is picking up the slack. While quasi-retired, Puckett will don a jersey on behalf of the ASCA at least once more when Winter X returns to his hometown of Aspen, Colo. "It was a difficult decision, but I decided to jump into the race. It's right in my backyard," he said.
Puckett and the rest of the ASCA team -- consisting of Winter X veterans Teller, Caitlin Ciccone, Jean Rudigoz, and Duran's brother Pat -- will advocate for their sport across the World Cup schedule, which resumes in Alpe d'Huez, France on Wednesday.