Photo courtesy of Denver Athletics
Maintaining a winning culture is a precious formula with a variety of methods that concern core values, an environment to succeed, commitment, demanding results and myriad other variables. It’s a complex process that few ever perfect. For a dynasty like the University of Denver Pioneers ski program, it has become a matter of tradition and innovation; a recurring expectation the athletes are devoted to and prestige they hold themselves accountable towards.
“They are the very best of the best that are taking advantage of our program,” head coach Andy LeRoy said. “Being a member of this team is going to come with a price. But hats off to our athletes who choose to be a part of a program that demands sacrifices in order to receive a quality education and compete for us.”
With the extraordinary feat of 24 national titles in their possession, the DU ski team has not only established a reputation of inherent success, but they’ve proven the pinnacle can always be pushed. It’s a culture that prides itself on internal competition and unwavering commitment.
“Skiing for Denver is incredible,” senior Alpine skier Tuva Norbye said. “It’s one of the best programs in the country. It’s very competitive. We spend so much time together training and competing that we become so close, like a family. But at the same time, it gets so competitive because we all want to get results and be a part of that success.”
Since 2000, the Pioneers have averaged a national title win every other year. To breach such rampant success, the coaching staff and athletes are committed to obtaining results despite the grueling challenges of being a Division l skier in a metropolitan city.
“Most of these kids came from a club that was on the mountain,” head coach Andy LeRoy said. “They literally walked outside and they hopped on a hill. I think the [lack of] proximity to the ski hill here at Denver is a necessary evil if you’re going to get an education.
“It’s probably another feather in the athlete’s cap that if they want to ski race and get an education. It’s not just going to come easy. They’re going to have to work for it and make sacrifices.”
Denver’s ski team features 12 Alpine athletes and 16 Nordic athletes. The Alpine skiers’ training is heavily reliant on access to slopes. The Nordic skiers, however, can get away with training on roller skis as needed.
“We train here locally a lot,” senior Nordic skier Eivind Kvaale said. “We train with the roller skis a lot where we can get a comparable effect. We do a lot of long distance runs with intervals. And we do a lot of core workouts to strengthen that area where we get most of our power.”
A typical day for the Alpine skiers includes a departure around 6 a.m. taking a roughly one hour-ride shuttle bus to the Loveland Ski Area. The skiers are then able to get a few runs in before they have to depart to return to campus by noon.
“It’s definitely weird waking up early waking up for a normal day of skiing and then coming back and heading to class,” freshman alpine skier Simon Fournier said. “I think it’s good being able to have the mountains so close to train and then being able to come back and attend class and get the information you need.”
The coaching staff recently installed WiFi into the buses. While the upgrade was a certainly a financial sacrifice, it ultimately was an investment for the student-athletes.
“On our side, the planning is how can we make things better or easier?” coach LeRoy said. “Things like WiFi sound so simple. But that’s two whole hours out of their day. So, whether they spend that hour scrolling through Facebook or doing their homework, it gives them the opportunity to be productive.”
Despite the additional hindrances of being a student-athlete, the quarter system is beneficial for circumstances the ski team encounters. The skiers reap the advantages of opting for a lighter class load during the season (Winter Quarter) in return for taking interim classes or summer courses to balance their schedules out.
“We have to manage our time well,” Kvaale said. “It’s tough at times. But during the season, I feel like we’re so focused and have such little time that we actually seem to do the best in school at that point in the year.”
Due to the demands of off-campus training and races on the road, the ski program is a notoriously tight-knit group even considering the different nationalities and genders that are concentrated on one roster.
“We’re a very diverse team,” junior alpine skier Andrea Komsic said. “There’s a lot of personalities, but that helps. You always try to push each other and help each other.
“Being a part of an NCAA team is such a different experience from a World Championship. Everyone is cheering each other on and you just feel so supported. You want your teammates to do well and obviously want the team to do well. You celebrate everyone and their results.”
More often than not, the Pioneers find themselves in a peculiar dichotomy where their skiers have better odds at representing their respective country at the International Federation for Skiing (FIS) World Cup, World Championships or even the Winter Olympics than they do at receiving a spot on Denver NCAA championship squad.
“It’s weird to think that it can be easier to make your world championship team from some country than it was to make the DU NCAA team,” coach LeRoy said. “There’s limited spots for NCAAs. We’ve routinely left home men and women from the championship who were good enough to go and win it themselves.
“It’s wonderful to have such depth and to have such talent on our roster academically [and] athletically. They know going in they may be the best in the world or best in the country, but there’s a really good chance you may not be the best on our team.”
This season alone, Denver has had to balance without alpine skiers Komsic (Croatia), Amelia Smart (Canada), Fournier (Canada) and Nordic skier Jasmi Joensuu (Finland) who all have missed a portion of Denver’s season to represent their respective countries. It’s an unusual task for a coach to cooperate with opportunities outside of their program, but it’s one that reflects Denver’s dedication in developing and exposing it’s athletes to the best collegiate career attainable.
“The NCAA championships is our number one goal,” coach LeRoy said. “But now you see why we have so many other goals. We demand a lot from [our team] and that includes out-skiing every other team. Whether that’s here with us at a race in Red River, New Mexico or in Maribor, Slovenia. Sure, we balance it around a little bit.”
The legacy of a program like Denver’s provides athletes with a rare opportunity to receive a quality education and while continuing to compete. The sacrifices along the way are minor impediments among a larger compensation.
“Getting the opportunity to get a degree and then still ski race at a really high level is really valuable,” Fournier said. “Once you graduate, you’ll have a back-pocket degree — you’ll know that you’ll be able to ski fully and freely knowing that your plan B is secured —that you’ll have a direction to go if ski racing doesn’t work out.”