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USSA announces strategic plan

With the prospect of as many as three snow sports being added to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association recently pledged to prioritize programs that are most likely to contend for medals – leaving at least a couple of teams in the lurch.

During its annual meeting last weekend, USSA approved a plan for a "long-term sustainable business model," vowing to devote its resources toward infrastructure and long-term goals in the first two years of the Olympic cycle (2011-12), then shift focus to supporting programs with "an immediate opportunity to capitalize on Olympic medal potential."

"We’ve never had it down on paper that way before," said Tom Kelly, Vice President of Communications. "But if you look at Vancouver, we certainly did that. We’ve always supported the medal-winning sports."

The organization drew flack at the 2010 Olympics for not fully supporting men’s ski jumping – a sport which does not have strong U.S. contenders or high public interest – during an economic recession that may have hindered fundraising efforts. USSA also stopped full support of other sports’ "B" and "C" team athletes in years leading up to the Games.

The team absorbed its share of bad press during the Games – and later when the New York Times discovered that President and CEO Bill Marolt made $652,000 in 2009 – but USSA collected a record 21 medals and boosted its fundraising profile enough to push forward with cutbacks.

As a result of the new plan, the Alpine Snowboard Team (think parallel giant slalom) and the Ski Cross Team have been disbanded in favor of discretionary individual support. Kelly said there are few elite U.S. ski cross competitors anyhow after the retirement of Daron Rahlves and the reduced schedule of Casey Puckett – both of whom were hobbled by severe injuries in Vancouver.

"Nobody really saw ski cross coming," Kelly said, calling it a catalyst for some of the change afoot. "It wasn’t really expected by anybody for 2010."

So which sports will get the windfall? The organization has a list of priorities, Kelly said, that it will fund as it meets revenue goals. Each of the three new sports the International Olympic Committee will consider has immense potential for U.S. medals in 2014, and a host of Park City athletes could be among the contenders.

Women’s ski jumping was denied inclusion to the Vancouver Games by the IOC after a high-profile lawsuit and some bitter words, but it will be a part of the Nordic World Championships at Oslo, Norway, from Feb. 26 to March 6. That might well serve as a barometer of interest when the sport is again considered for the 2014 Games next year.

The best U.S. athletes all live in Park City and train at the Utah Olympic Park. Lindsey Van, Sarah Hendrickson, Abby Hughes, Alissa Johnson, and Jessica Jerome have each had success at the top-level Continental Cups. The team was funded by USSA until 2009, when the IOC denied the sport’s bid.

Generating even more momentum than women’s ski jumping are slopestyle snowboarding – in which a rider goes over a series of jumps, rails and bumps on an inclined course – and halfpipe skiing.

Slopestyle would give TV networks another opportunity to feature Shaun White, the two-time defending halfpipe gold medalist with ginger locks who has emerged as the Games’ most iconic figure. Park City would likely have a full stable of U.S. Team potentials, not least of them being 16-year-old Dew Tour champion Sage Kotsenburg.

X Games Superpipe gold medalist and Parkite Jen Hudak has been outspoken in her desire to see halfpipe skiing in the next Olympics, as have equipment companies that say the grassroots interest in the halfpipe is too big to ignore. Longtime Park City resident and three-time X Games gold medalist Tanner Hall is one of a handful of high-profile stars in the sport.

"There’s pretty good momentum for all of (those sports)," Kelly said. The team will know slightly more after FIS Congress in Turkey next week, but the IOC will not decide which sports it will christen until sometime in 2011.

Kelly said USSA is unique among U.S. Olympic organizations because of the breadth of its scope. For more than 40 years, the organization did little to formally alter its approach to fundraising and athletic support, but since the 1992 Olympics in Calgary introduced freestyle moguls, there has been a litany of additions to the snow sport schedule. And most of them – ski cross and parallel giant slalom aside – have been a boon to the U.S. medal count.

With that in mind, President and CEO Bill Marolt commissioned a strategic planning committee in 2008, selecting a panel of luminaries in the snow sports industry to reexamine USSA’s approach.

The Board of Directors ratified the committee’s plan at its annual meetings earlier this month, with the stated aim of giving the organization greater flexibility through "variable sport management."

But USSA isn’t just going to play hot potato with the medal contenders, Kelly said. The organization has continued to provide governance, rules, rankings and event sanctioning for all ski sports.

"It’s performance-based," Kelly said. "As that performance materializes, it will become supported. There is a misnomer that our organization’s mission is to support every sport at every level. Performance answers all questions."

A summary of the report is available at http://www.ussa.org/magnoliaPublic/dms/executive/docs/USSAStrategicPlanningCommitteereport.pdf.


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