For a young athlete coming up the ranks, the first U.S. Ski Team Project is a rite of passage, typically equal parts excitement and intimidation. Going up against the top athletes around the country, trying to fit in and make friends with them while also trying to impress coaches in ski team jackets can make it hard to perform at your best. For young girls, this environment can be especially intimidating when faced with all new, all male coaches. Exclusively male, or male dominated coaching staffs have been the norm for so long in ski racing, that it’s been hard to even envision an alternative, until now.
At the recently completed Women’s D Team camp in Mammoth, U.S. Ski Team Head Women’s Development Coach Marjan Cernigoj enlisted an all-woman staff for the entire ten-day camp, upending the gender balance and rescripting that first camp experience. Cernigoj is no stranger to coaching young women. Before being a World Cup coach for the Canadians, Russians, Slovenians and Americans, he worked extensively at the club, regional and Europa Cup level. In his early coaching years he brought Yugoslavian phenom Mateja Svet to her first NorAms in the U.S., and Svet won her first World Cup two years later.
His extensive experience notwithstanding, when faced with putting together a camp with athletes from programs across the country, ranging in age from 14-18, including veteran D-team athletes and youngsters getting their first U.S. Ski Team exposure, Cernigoj was realistic: “It’s been a long time since I have worked with 14-year-old girls,” he noted. In the meantime, at the Ski & Snowboard spring congress he had participated in discussions about creating more opportunities for female coaches. When thinking of how to create the most productive learning environment, a lightbulb went off, and Cernigoj proposed the idea of an all-women’s staff to USSS Alpine Development Director, Chip Knight.
Knight immediately embraced the concept, and contacted Eastern Region Youth Development Coach, Kathy Okoniewski, who was both surprised and thrilled by the task of rounding up a staff. Cernigoj sought a group with diverse skills and geography. This included coaches from all across the country, as well as multi skilled coaches like Brandy Barna, who is also an athletic trainer, Lisa Seagal who is a PSIA Examiner, and former U.S. Ski Team member Katie Twible who is now a C Team coach.
SETTING THE TONE
Before the camp started, the D Team had met as a group in Park City during their conditioning camp to brainstorm on team values. Working with mindset coaches Julian Coffman and Alex Cohen, they identified four main values— grit, passion, community and commitment. At Mammoth, each D team athlete spoke to the younger athletes about one component. Second year D Team athlete, Ainsley Proffitt, addressed commitment and focus, concepts like going out every day with a plan so you know what you want to accomplish and don’t waste anyone’s time. Of the comfortable feeling that dominated the camp, Proffitt said, “I’ve never experienced anything like that. It was such a positive and cool experience. It felt more like a family, with everybody coming together and without the unneeded pressure.”
As Knight noted, “U16 athletes successfully crossed over with U21s, and a strong sense of team was fostered over the ten-day project.” On snow, proximity of multiple training environments—all manner of drill courses—allowed the entire group to be in close proximity while also working within specific groups. The bridge between ages and experience went a step further when the group had dinner and a Q&A session with World Cup speed athletes Alice Merryweather, Alice McKennis and Jacqueline Wiles. The vets went in depth about how they manage competition stress, and answered questions on a wide variety of topics.
On the snow, Okoniewski explained they enjoyed, “Good surface, great environments, excellent coaching and effective change.” Off snow sessions included recovery with former German National Team member, and current Mammoth conditioning coach, Katharina Golik. “The entire staff also participated in team/culture building that promoted communication, friendship, self-awareness, and overall connection to the entire group,” said Okoniewski. “We believe we moved through some emotional barriers and limitations by having an open dialogue at all times.”
The younger athletes clearly felt at ease in their first U.S. Ski Team project. As Riley Grosdidier stretched out a sore back at the bottom of the training hill, said “it was hard at first to realize how much you could open up.” Comments on the all-female staff included feeling “definitely more connection” and “less weird” having female coaches touch you when they needed to demonstrate correct body position. Riding the lift with Paige Dehart and Carly Hamilton, both at their first U.S. Ski Team project, their comfort level was clear. Both had been excited yet somewhat intimidated coming in. When asked to describe the overall vibe of the camp they agreed on, “friendly.”
The takeaway? “It’s amazing what a women’s staff can do!” says Knight. “They not only adequately coached the technical and tactical components on the hill, but they were also instrumental in connecting with and relating to the athletes off the hill. We need to do a better job supporting female coaches, who have a tremendous amount to contribute to athletes at all levels in our county.”
Staff at the Mammoth D-Team Camp:
Marjan Cernigoj – Women’s US D Team Head Coach
Katie Twible – Women’s US C Team Coach
Mary Joyce – Romark Academy
Kristina Revello – Rocky Central Region Development Coach
Lisa Perricone – Ski Club Vail
Brandy Barna – Ski Club Vail , ATC
Lisa Segal – Park City – PSIA Examiner/Specialist
Katharina Golik – Mammoth – Conditioning Coach
Kathy Okoniewski – Eastern Region Youth Development Coach
Editor’s note: Stay tuned tomorrow for the dispatch from the men’s D Team camp.