Athletic programs are a source of pride for any strong university, and for the University of New Mexico, college sports provide a valuable activity and recruiting tool, an engagement point for students and a key cultural identity for the University.
As the president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and a collegiate All American skier myself, I’ve felt a very heavy heart recently in following the abrupt dismissal of the UNM Lobos Ski Team, one of the really important programs in NCAA skiing. My sadness is not just for the student athletes who have had their program disrupted, but also for the University which stands to lose a vital cultural program and one that typifies all that should be positive about collegiate athletic programs.
I remember well the spring day in 2004 when the Lobos won the NCAA skiing title, beating powerhouse Utah in Truckee, CA. It was a remarkable accomplishment for Coach George Brooks and his team, the first NCAA national team title won by the University and one of only two to date!
As an Olympian and collegiate All-American, as well as the leader of our nation’s Olympic governing body for skiing, I know well the challenges UNM faces in managing a broad athletic program within the University. I don’t envy the decisions UNM has to make. But I urge everyone in the University of New Mexico system to take a moment right now to reflect upon the importance of the Lobo Ski Team to the culture of your University.
Yes, skiing is a small sport in the big picture; there are only 35 schools in NCAA skiing. But from the hills of New England to the snow capped peaks of the Rockies to the mountain ranges of the west, skiing is a vital cultural component of mountain-based schools like New Mexico.
An important part of that culture is the academic value skiing contributes to the athletic mix. Historically, collegiate NCAA men’s and women’s ski programs at universities achieve some of the highest GPAs of any sport. The UNM Lobos ski team has the highest combined GPA among the athletic teams at the university. Skiing is also an ideal example of gender equity under Title IX, with wholly integrated men’s and women’s programs. The program has also supported over 200 All-American skiers within its program.
Why am I personally interested in Lobo skiing? Since taking the reins of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association in 2014, I’ve sought to broaden our sports nationally and to fully engage collegiate skiing into our pipeline. What happens within NCAA ski programs at schools across America greatly impacts skiing in our nation. UNM is particularly notable with its high number of American athletes in the alpine ski racing program. National team athletes, such as Katharine Irwin and Sydney Staples, have recently made UNM their home in order to pursue a great education and to race for the Lobos. Simultaneously, UNM is a visible participant in the USSA Rocky Mountain Division’s Southern Series Races at Taos, bringing great awareness to both the sport and the college.
What is ironic about the recent UNM decision is that ski racing in America is currently enjoying a renaissance. We are seeing the greatest integration of college programs into our national team pipelines ever, and the rapidly growing programs showcased by a host of superstars in alpine and cross country ski racing is increasing as well. It is truly an exciting time for ski racing in America: a time to expand, not retract.
I greatly respect the need to find balance for your University on this issue. On behalf of our nation of passionate ski racers, however, I urge you to reconsider and take a broader and deeper look at the role UNM plays in skiing’s national landscape. Evaluate skiing beyond its financial component of your athletic department, and consider skiing’s integral role in contributing to the overall culture of the University of New Mexico as well as the program’s impact across America.
President and CEO
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association
1982 All American, Dartmouth College