SOCHI, Russia — When David Chodounsky competes in slalom on Saturday, some would say it’s a miracle on snow.
Against the odds, Chodounsky made the U.S. Alpine ski team after racing in the NCAA for four years, representing Dartmouth. It’s a route that almost no one takes anymore because making the U.S. Alpine ski team is based on not only performance but also age. The requirements are deliberately more difficult for older athletes.
The philosophy behind it “is that if you’re not within certain ranking bands at certain age points, then you’ll never make it to a top five, top 10 in World Cup events,” said Tiger Shaw, a two-time Olympian and chief operating officer of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA).
“But it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “If you don’t allow outliers to progress, then you’ll never have outliers that compete.”
To make this year’s national team, ski racers born in 1986 or earlier had to win a 2013 World Championship medal or be among the top 25 on the World Cup start list (a rolling points ranking) in one of the four main Alpine disciplines.
So those like Chodounsky — and Warner Nickerson, a 2005 Colby College graduate who is not at Sochi — basically have to achieve Bode Miller–esque results in order to get any funding or coaching. Nickerson (born in 1981) is too old to be eligible for the B team, the C team or even the D team.
“If I was younger, I would have been on the U.S. B team for the last five years,” said Nickerson, a giant-slalom talent who has been trying to crack the team for eight years. He met the criteria only once, in the 2006–07 season.
“It stacks the odds against late-blooming athletes,” he said.
And because there are no speed events in NCAA Alpine racing, it would be even more exceptional to come out of college and immediately make the U.S. downhill or super-G team.
“Why are we narrowing the pipeline based on chronological age?” said three-time Olympian Erik Schlopy. “It makes no sense to me. Biological and emotional age — nobody can determine that. Look at Daron Rahlves. The best chunk of his career happened after he turned 28.”
Schlopy was referring to the four-time Olympian, Hahnenkamm winner and 2003 super-G world champion. But the same was true for Schlopy.
He came out of retirement five years after competing in the 1994 Olympics — before the age rule took effect — and went from being ranked last in the world at 26 to being third in the world in giant slalom at 28, competing in two more Olympics and earning a World Championship medal in 2003.
“Had I not been given the chance to train and travel with the team, I would not have been able to have accomplished that,” he said. Under today’s rules, Schlopy would have had to make the A team immediately.
Other nations aren’t as birth-date-obsessed.
Alpine Canada has an age component, but only for its C team.
“I think it’s the ski team’s best effort to do the right thing with limited funding,” said Eileen Shiffrin, whose daughter, Mikaela, won a World Championship and World Cup slalom title in 2013 as a high school senior and whose son didn’t immediately make the U.S. ski team out of high school and now competes for the University of Denver but did not earn a scholarship.
“Whenever you come up with a generalization like that, somebody’s going to get screwed,” Eileen Shiffrin said, referring to skiers in general. “Really, it’s a Catch-22.”
For the athletes, racing and a college education aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Two-time Olympic super-G medalist Andrew Weibrecht will eventually join Chodounsky as a Dartmouth alumnus — albeit slowly, through summer courses — but it won’t be the same as competing for his school.
Nickerson hasn't given up and won't race for another country. He said: “I just can’t see myself wearing anything other than the Stars and Stripes.” Yet his nonteam status makes him ineligible for athlete insurance — hence recent back surgery in Croatia.
Chodounsky, another outlier bearing great financial cost, went to an Ivy League school, and there are no athletic scholarships at those eight schools. He had to beat two-time overall World Cup winner Marcel Hirscher of Austria in 2010 to boost himself in the rankings toward earning a U.S. team spot.
But there may be heartening news for older racers this spring when Shaw takes over from Bill Marolt as the president and CEO of the USSA.
“I don’t fully disagree with the concept,” Shaw said of the age-based criterion. “But I don’t potentially like it being a hard and fast rule, because it’s a little too arbitrary. You could cause the discontinuation of somebody’s career, and that could have been a mistake.”
When he takes charge, he said, he'll "take a good hard look at that.”