America rising: U.S. ski mountaineering head coach Joe Howdyshell talks lessons learned from World Championships
For U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association head coach Joe Howdyshell, this month’s International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in Switzerland proved to be an opportunity for his youth and senior athletes to see in person what he had been telling them about leading up to the international event.
Considering the majority of the 35 Team USA ski mountaineering athletes were competing at a World Championships for the first time, Howdyshell advised them going into the event that the international competition would be much more dialed-in, efficient and faster than what they’d seen in the U.S. But it’s hard to grasp the difference until you see it for yourself.
“It’s exciting for me to see some of those light bulbs come on,” Howdyshell said.
At a 2019 World Championships Howdyshell described as more competitive than the previous international event two years ago, Team USA finished in seventh place of 31 teams. That compared with a sixth-place finish of 25 teams in 2017.
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That said, Howdyshell feels Team USA’s showing may have been more impressive this time around considering the increased level of skiing in senior and youth competitions, particularly in the youth because of the prospect of next January’s Youth Olympic Games.
“Everybody brought their A-game,” he said. “Everybody brought the best racers. It was a big year.”
Team USA brought its A-game too. Looking ahead, though, Howdyshell feels many of the first-time American racers departed the Swiss Alps with a greater hunger to dedicate themselves to reach that next level — that of the top Europeans.
“We get a kind of a big fish in a little pond feeling in the U.S.,” Howdyshell said. “We think we are really good at this sport and then we go over to Europe and see it’s at a different level. Most of the athletes in the U.S., it’s not a year-round sport.”
On that note, Howdyshell said one of the standout quotes of the week in Switzerland came when an American parent asked one of the top European countries about what specifically they do in their training to race so fast. The answer: 49 weeks a year, six days a week.
“And that was for a 15-year-old,” Howdyshell said. “And that is not the way I think most of us in the U.S. approach the sport. For most of us, I think there are one or two of the senior athletes who approach it with that level of dedication.”
Howdyshell full-well knows that the sport is still a nascent one, a growing one here in the U.S. The coach himself has only been involved in the sport for about seven years. As such, he says he’s still finding out “the why” behind what makes Europe’s best racers so good. Part of the difference, he says, comes down to the disparity in training and racing venues and the equipment the Europeans have access to compared to Team USA racers in Summit County. For example, Howdyshell said it can be a detriment to Team USA skiers that they train at Summit County’s elevation. Yes, 10,000 feet is harder to train at than 5,000. But that doesn’t mean an inherent advantage when a competition takes place at 5,000 feet. Rather, it’s the competitors who train each day at 5,000 feet who more routinely train at a faster pace, which can then be easier to replicate than someone transitioning from a slower pace at a higher elevation.
“And the equipment that they use over there, the race skier, actually works really well on their mountains,” Howdyshell said. “The snow isn’t as soft and light and fluffy as it is here. So a really narrow ski works. It’s fine. You don’t sink as much.”
In the wake of worlds, Howdyshell and Team USA left encouraged for the future. With so many youth athletes competing, Howdyshell said it increases the chances some of them may ultimately grow to become high-level senior athletes who can compete with the best in the world. But that’ll only come with more experience against the world’s best.
Case in point: Howdyshell said there was a race at the world championships where a skier finished each minute across a 30-minute span. A minute gap like that between racers is not common here in the U.S., he said, where in some races a skier may have the luxury of a four-minute margin. As such, a mistake may not be as costly. But in Europe, it could mean you lose ground to several competitors.
“Essentially, all mistakes are magnified by 10,” Howdyshell said. “So what was really exciting for me, is that, I think that there are a lot of lessons you can try to give people and athletes can understand from an academic sense why they need to do or practice something. But it isn’t until they have a real emotional reason to work on that skill, that’s when they take it seriously.”
Looking ahead, Howdyshell said the international ski mountaineering world was excited to see Team USA bring such a large youth contingent to Switzerland. Because the better the U.S. is at skimo, and the bigger it is here on the homefront, the better the sport’s chances of being introduced into the Olympics.
“The frank situation with the Olympics is that the Olympic Committee and everybody involved needs to make money,” Howdyshell said. “And for the sport of skimo to make money, having it popular in the United States is hugely important. … It’s not hinging on us by any means, but it certainly is something that helps, if we could make thousands of people in the U.S. be excited about it enough to be on TV. That only helps the chance of it being in the Olympics. And I do think the chance of it being in the Olympics is really only just getting better and better.”
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Herman is the freestyle skiing winner of the Summit Daily’s Peak Performers project, which honors the greatest athletes and most influential figures in Summit county ski and snowboard history.