Lead Image: There’s no doubt about it: the 2021-2022 season was by far the best year of Eileen Gu’s life. As her star continues to rise though, so do questions about her ability to maintain a delicate political balance. Image: FIS Freestyle Skiing on Facebook
#1: Eileen Gu is Becoming Way, Way Bigger Than “Just a Skier”: :
Hello, and welcome to Top Five Fridays, the June 10, 2022 edition! This week, we’ve got a couple of highlights from some of the top female Olympic athletes in the sport of skiing, as well as a pair of highlights coming out of Colorado. We start by sharing multiple pieces of news from Eileen Gu, inarguably the best women’s freeski athlete on the planet right now. In case you somehow don’t know Gu’s story, the long and short of it is this: she’s a skier who grew up in California, but opted to compete for China, her mother’s native country, in this previous edition of the Olympics. There, she won two gold medals, as well as a silver, cementing herself as the face of the games for China and rocketing herself to international stardom. While many observers have taken issue with her decision to compete for China, she’s always defended her choice as being made with the intention of bridging the gap between U.S. and Chinese cultures, while also setting an example for young Chinese girls. As a result of her unexpected role as liaison between the two countries, as well as her massive fame in China, Times Magazine announced that Gu has made their list of the top 100 most influential people in the world in 2022. You can read more about that achievement here.
Piggybacking off of that highlight is a second mammoth piece of news from the Gu camp this week. At the TIME100 summit, where Gu was invited to speak as a result of her inclusion on the list, she announced that she will be working with the U.S. Olympic committee in an effort to bring the games back to Salt Lake City in either 2030 or 2034. For Americans who’d love to see the games return, this is exciting news and has generally been well received. For Chinese citizens, the reaction has been mixed, with some seeing it as a betrayal from Gu as she’s now supporting China’s main political and competitive rival. Others, on the other hand, appreciate Gu’s role in attempting to utilize her dual allegiances to bridge the gap between the cultures. For us, as fans of skiing and spectators of the sport, we’re simply blown away that someone who only first appeared on our radar in August of 2020 has come to embody something much, much larger than the sport of skiing. All told, it was a big week for Gu, one way or another. To read more about the tricky dynamic resulting from her commitment to the U.S. Olympic committee, check out this write from Bloomberg.
#2: Colorado Ski Areas, Vail Resorts Both Announce Record Setting Seasons:
In other news this week, we caught another round of highlights and statistics from this past ski season, this time specifically focused on Colorado and Vail resorts. As we’ve previously shared, this past season set records in terms of skier visits to resorts, both nationally and regionally. This week, we learned that in addition to the Rocky Mountain region setting a record attendance this season, so too did the state of Colorado, having recorded 14 million skier visits. That figure is up by over 2 million from the 2020-2021 season, and beat the previous record by 200,000, which was set in 2018-2019. Of course none of this should be particularly surprising as we recently shared anecdotal news stating that Colorado resorts of all sizes, from family ski areas to multi pass destinations, all saw increases in both visitiations and profits this season. To learn more about the results from this ski season in Colorado, click here.
In addition to this exciting news regarding skier visits in Colorado, Vail Resorts also released figures from the spring quarter of 2022, which also set significant records. Over the course of February, March, and April, Vail Resorts earned $372.6 million- by far its largest quarter ever. For comparison’s sake, that’s over $220 million more than the company earned during the same period last season, which was impacted heavily by Covid protocols. Still, even with last year being an outlier, this year’s spring quarter is a testament to Vail’s seemingly unstoppable growth as it also broke the previous net-income record by $80 million, which was set in the same three month period 2019, the year before the pandemic hit. In other words, to put it plainly, this past February, March, and April was Vail’s most successful stretch yet. During that period, they earned more gross revenue (total sales), resulting in a higher net revenue (sales minus expenses) than they ever had in a three month period. As observers of the industry, it’ll be interesting to see if Vail is able to meet or exceed this again next season as their successful statistics may have come at a cost. After all, there was certainly no shortage of discontent amongst those who experienced crowding issues at their resorts this season. To learn more about their current record-setting success, give this writeup from the Colorado Sun a read.
#3: Vail Daily’s “Inside the Skiing Pipeline Pt 3” Explores the Collegiate Element:
Moving right along, our third highlight in this week’s news is the third installment of the Vail Daily’s seven part series “Inside the Skiing Pipeline.” In case you haven’t joined us for the past couple of weeks, Vail Daily recently released a seven part series that examines the U.S. Ski Team’s talent pipeline, with each installment of the series covering different aspects of the issue. In the first two installments of the series, we’ve learned about the myriad of factors that have weakened our pipeline in recent years, as well as whether or not the rising cost of skiing is a uniquely American problem. This week, in the third part of the series, we’re looking into the ongoing dynamic between NCAA ski racing and the USST. As we’ve seen in recent years, there’s been intense debate between the two organizations regarding whether or not the NCAA is a useful tool in producing world cup caliber athletes. From the USST’s perspective, the argument is simply this: to become a world cup athlete, you have to dedicate your life to training and can’t afford the distractions of college life. In the third part of the Vail Daily’s series, that fact is disputed.
In their research of the topic, author Ryan Sederquist found a number of arguments that speak to the benefits of strengthening the collegiate ski racing programs here in the United States. One of the most obvious benefits of leveraging the NCAA to train skiers is the simple fact that European nations don't have a comparable system. As such, we have a huge competitive advantage in America in that if properly utilized, the NCAA could greatly expand the talent pool of skiers, even if only a small percentage of them make the cut to the next level. While the article contains a number of additional arguments for the strengthening of the NCAA system, the other one that really resonated with us is the idea that the NCAA provides an opportunity for late bloomers to continue receiving the strength training, coaching, and sports science input that’s necessary to work towards their goals. At the moment, with the way the pipeline is currently set up, athletes are identified as prodigies at an early age and enter the USST pipeline by their late teens. As USST athletes like River Radamus have pointed out, that greatly reduces the opportunity for athletes who develop in their college years to find a pathway to the team. Specially, he cites Austrian skier Johannes Strolz who went from being an overlooked construction worker to a gold medal winner at this past Winter Olympics. He also cites Paula Moltzan, who was once cut from the development pipeline, dominated the NCAA circuit, and is now a rising star on the USST. That experience makes Moltzan living proof that the NCAA is capable of developing athletes.
There is, fortunately, some good news on this front. While there’s a ways to go before the USST fully embraces collegiate racing and a truly harmonious relationship exists, attitudes within the organization are changing and decision makers are beginning to warm up to the idea of working with the NCAA to discover and develop talent. There are a number of logistical challenges that remain, which are discussed in depth within the article, but the overall tone is that progress is coming on this front. To learn more about this issue, check in with the Vail Daily.
#4: Lindsey Vonn Has Been Inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame:
Finally, we round out this week with a special highlight featuring former U.S. Ski Team athlete and forever ski legend, Lindsey Vonn. This week, Lindsey Vonn was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame as part of their 2022 class. While it would be hard to consider this news a surprise, it’s still a momentous achievement for Vonn, and helps put the cap on an incredible, illustrious career. Over the course of an astounding 18-years, Vonn achieved a number of firsts and set records that stand to this day. Highlighting that list for the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame is the achievement of being the winningest female U.S. Ski Racer of all time at the Olympics, having three medals to her name. Additionally, she is still the only member of a U.S. Women’s Olympic Ski Racing team to have won the Downhill event. While not specially Olympic achievements, Vonn also holds the title of being the only American woman to hold four FIS Overall Crystal Globes, currently has the most FIS World Cup victories in the Alpine Skiing category for any woman, and is second only to Ingemar Stenmark in terms of World Cup victories for either gender. In order to fully appreciate this week’s news, it probably helps to know who else made the 2022 class. Joining Vonn in this year’s induction are Olympic legends like Mia Hamm, Michael Phelps, Michelle Kwan and Pat Summitt. In other words, the U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame is truly a league of legends and it’s excellent to see that Lindsey Vonn has rightfully joined her peers. You can read more about this in the recap from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team.