The University of New Mexico ski team has been a part of the Athletic Department since 1970 when the men’s ski team was founded. Last year the program was cut and, though it was later reinstated, some may be wondering what the status of the ski team is moving forward.
The decision to discontinue the New Mexico ski team was announced on April 13, 2017, but was reinstated less than a month later after several protests and a strong push by the community sought to save the program.
The ski team held its own press conference, advocating for the chance to continue competing in the sport it loved and received strong support, not just from the UNM community but also from across the state.
An Albuquerque Journal article by Geoff Grammer reported that donations to support the team came from donors throughout New Mexico. Some key members of the ski community like John Garcia, a Ski New Mexico board member, and ski industry figures Louis Abruzzo of Sandia Peak Ski & Tramway and Chris Stagg of Taos Ski Valley were influential in the effort to save the team.
Many UNM ski athletes, alumni and outside supporters took the issue to the Board of Regents to argue against cutting the program and asked for one more year of the ski program to figure what the team could do to find a way to pay for the costs. Seventeen advocates spoke on behalf of the team to try to reinstate it for the upcoming season.
In May 2017, then-UNM interim president Chaouki Abdallah announced the reinstatement of the ski team — though there was an expectation that coaches and supporters would use the upcoming year to find a long-term financial solution to address funding.
Lobo junior alpine skier Katherine Irwin also helped lead the fight to keep the ski team at UNM, giving many speeches on behalf of her and her teammates, who have found purpose and fulfillment competing in the sport for the University of New Mexico.
Irwin, a team captain, said the team had plenty of supporters. She said it wasn’t just the skiing community that backed the team, but she also received comments from professors at UNM, who expressed having some stand-out students who were a part of the ski team.
“A lot of times, people associate athletes with being at college to focus on their sport rather than academics,” Irwin said, adding that she felt professors really wanted to keep the ski team around. “The ski team saw a lot of support from the academic side of the school, and that was really cool.”
The ski team hoisted the first-ever NCAA Division I title in a team sport for New Mexico in 2004 but has also hit high marks in the classroom. Last semester the team garnered a 3.60 GPA for the men’s team and a 3.92 GPA for the women.
Eddie Nuñez, UNM’s new athletics director, had not yet been named to the position at the time of the controversial decision to end the program. Though he said he believed the people who did make that call, did so with the best interest of the department in mind. He said it couldn’t have been an easy decision for anyone involved and felt for the student-athletes and the people tasked with making the decision.
Nuñez said the outpouring of support was eye-opening, admitting he was unaware how high skiing ranked in relation to tourism — citing it as one of the leading industries in the state of New Mexico.
The athletic director said there is an agreement in place which he described as a “mutual funding model” which involves donors from the ski community, that ensures the program will be in place through next year.
He said the goal now is trying to figure out how to sustain that model, saying there is a possibility the agreement could continue in the future. Nuñez said he believes in the “village approach” and everyone knows that they need to be engaged and provide support to all of the sports programs in order to sustain them.
Some of the skiers were preparing for exams when they heard the initial news that the the ski program had been cut.
Nuñez said he felt learning from the way things unfolded in the spring and understanding what transpired could be a tremendous help when evaluating how to proceed in the future, if the Athletic Department ever has to go down that path again.
He said the decision to cut a sport and impact student-athletes and coaches is never going to be an easy process, and there is never a right time to do it, but past experience might help mitigate some of those issues.
For now, the athletic director said there are no plans to eliminate any sports.
Nuñez said he hopes to find a way to find a funding model that sustains the University’s programs at the highest level and that they represent UNM in the best way possible, both athletically and academically.
The ski team will open 2018 by competing at the NCAA U.S. Cross Country Nationals in Kincaid, Alaska on Jan. 3 and hope to continue having the opportunity to do so for many seasons to come.
There are many new members expected to be on the snow this season, but it is also an opportunity some returning participants have been looking forward to for a long time.
Youri Mougel, an alpine skier, said it will be his first time competing in the two years that he’s been on the team, after recovering from two ACL surgeries.
“This season is definitely going to be a challenge for me, because I haven’t skied in a while,” Mougel said. “I think it’s going to be trying to reach the level I was at, or even better.”
Despite the financial struggles and hardships in the Athletic Department, the actions of donors within the community seem to have sparked a flame for the UNM skiers, and they will likely have big goals for a season that wasn’t guaranteed.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.
Alanie Rael is a freelance sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. She primarily covers men’s and women’s skiing but also contributes content for football and hockey. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @AllyRael.