DU Ski Team follows a balancing act to achieve national success

Photo Courtesy of Denver Athletics.

Most Pioneer fans know that the University of Denver has won an incredible number of NCAA team championships. DU now ranks 12th out of all Division I NCAA universities with 31, trailing traditional athletic powerhouses like UCLA, Stanford, and Michigan. The Pioneers are currently tied with the University of Oregon.

Of course, Denver skiing has contributed in huge measure to DU’s overall success with 23 National Championships. They embark on their 24th title run on Wednesday, March 8th at the Cannon Mountain Ski Area in Franconia, New Hampshire.

DU’s ski team is loaded with stars but winning a national team championship often involves sacrificing personal gain for a team victory. The Denver Post did a feature story on DU’s Canadian alpine skier Erik Read who is balancing academics, collegiate racing, and skiing in World Cup events this season in Europe. He is just one of many extraordinary talents on DU’s team.

Read may be the best college alpine skier in the world but he may not win in New Hampshire in order to secure the highest possible team finish.

Collegiate ski racing is a bit of a mystery because events are oftentimes in faraway places, not covered live by TV or radio, held over multiple days and difficult for spectators to get a good view of all the action. Plus, the strategy top teams employ to vie for the championship require a delicate balance between individual achievement and team success.

For those unfamiliar with NCAA ski racing, there are two events each for men and women in the alpine disciplines of slalom and giant slalom. Then, there are two events each for men and women in the Nordic (cross country) disciplines to include classical and freestyle. The women race 5 and 15 kilometers while the men race 10 and 20-kilometer races. This year, Denver qualified 12 skiers – 6 men and 6 women – which is the most qualifiers a team can have for nationals. Three athletes, male and female, from DU will compete in each of the four disciplines.

Photo courtesy of Denver athletics. Denver Nordic classical skier.

What makes Denver’s success in skiing so unusual is that there is a great deal of luck in addition to skill and strategy that go into winning a team title. For example, in alpine skiing, a team cannot afford a DNF (did-not-finish). As a result, teams must use a strategy which encourages error-free skiing while also trying to get the highest possible finishing time. As a result, depending on the circumstances, a team’s best skier or skiers may elect to ski more conservatively to preserve a lead or keep their team in contention. Then, add variable weather, ski wax, equipment failure, a bad day, or a meet against an inferior opponent that is willing to take speed risks and a top team can easily lose places and points.

The same goes for the Nordic events. Oftentimes, snow conditions are variable and teams have to select the fastest wax for their skis. Unfortunately, conditions can change quickly in the mountains and leave some skiers with the wrong wax. Other variables include the contour of the courses which may better suit some skiers while disadvantaging others. Just like running events, there are tactical in-race decisions to either chase down lead packs or wait for them to come back to the group. Again, the best skiers may not place highly and inferior teams and/or individual skiers may be rewarded for taking tactical risks by seeking individual awards.

The balancing act between team success and individual achievement is the main factor that impacts how top teams will finish. Most schools have little chance to win the team title so their members will be seeking individual honors. Then, when individual standouts or risk-takers from weaker teams get solid results and place in-between the finishes of the top teams, they create a delta in team points awarded and, ultimately,  impact team point totals.

When considering all these factors, 23 team championships is an incredible feat by the DU ski team. Assuming Denver can manage this delicate balance, they have an excellent chance to bring home Denver’s 32nd national team title next week.