When Tommy Biesemeyer retired from ski racing last fall, he wasn’t thinking about legacy.
The Keene resident had been a member of the U.S. Ski Team for 10 years, competing all around the world in a long career that unfortunately was marked by a combination of bad luck and injuries. His start in the Super G event in the 2018 Winter Olympics was cut off by an Achilles rupture in a training run the day before the event was held. There would be no comeback this time.
Biesemeyer, 32, is now living in Keene, building a house near the family home where he grew up. He is finishing up a college degree at the University of Vermont and reports just having fun skiing at Whiteface and in the Adirondack backcountry near his home.
He didn’t realize he was the last in a long line of New Yorkers on the U.S. Alpine Ski Team.
Right around the time he announced his retirement, the U.S. team announced its Alpine racers for the current season: the top competitors on the A and B teams, and the up-and-comers on the C team and the Development squad.
In all, there were 43 named to the team — and none of them are from New York.
There is no one from the state competing in the World Championships now underway in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
It is the first time since at least the 1970s that the U.S. team has not included a racer who grew up in New York. From Viki Fleckenstein, through Olympic Gold medalist Dian Roffe, through AJ Kitt, through Dan Stripp, through Thomas Vonn, through two-time Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht to Biesemeyer, there was a string of more than 40 years where at least one New Yorker was on the team.
Saranac Lake’s Cesily Decker, now 22, was the next in line before a major crash in a training run at Lake Louise two years ago put her on the sidelines. She has left the U.S. team and attends college in Montana.
Weibrecht retired from racing in 2018 at age 32 after 16 years working his way up from the Development team to winning medals in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. He grew up and now lives in Lake Placid where most of his Alpine skiing these days is with his two young children.
He was part of a group of young athletes who came up when the focus of the ski team was on winning World Cup and Olympic medals. Accomplished racers received support.
It worked. The United States had great international success. With competitors like Tommy Moe, Daron Rhalves, Picabo Street, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn, the United States was back on top again, like the 1980s. Two-time Olympic medalist Ted Ligety is the last of that group still on the active racing roster.
There is a new crew of international contenders from the United States now, with Mikaela Shiffrin the best known, but others, too, such as Breezy Johnson, Ryan Cochran-Siegle and Tommy Ford. None are from New York.
It is not Alpine only. There is no one from the state on the Nordic team or snowboard team, either, right now.
It is a cyclical thing, according to Weibrecht.
“There are a lot of great racers out there,” he said. “There is a shift going on right now with the team; an emphasis on keeping more kids in the sport longer, so we can spot and develop talent.”
There are barriers, he acknowledges.
Cost is certainly one of them.
“The team is now putting more resources into developing talent,” Weibrecht said. “We need to support those who are better skiers, not just those who can afford better equipment and frequent travel.”
A part of the dilemma is education. Almost all those on the U.S. Ski Team attended a ski academy, a specialized type of secondary school where classes are organized around sports training. Burke Mountain Academy, started in Vermont in the early 1970s, was among the first. Diane Roffe is a graduate, as is Mikaela Shiffrin, who at 26 is already fourth on the all-time list of World Cup winners. Academies including those at Stratton Mountain, Suganbush and Killington in Vermont and Carrabassett Valley in Maine produce top skiers for the U.S. team roster.
But none of those athletes on the team has earned a college degree, at least so far. The choice at the elite level comes down to college or competition.
That college can come later is a common decision. Weibrecht completed his degree from Dartmouth after he retired from racing. Biesemeyer is on track to graduate from the University of Vermont next year. Two-time Olympian David Chodounsky, who retired after 2018, joined the U.S. Ski Team after graduating from Dartmouth in 2008, but he is a rare exception among U.S. Alpine racers.
That may be changing.
Many of the current members of the U.S. Nordic Ski Team competed in college before becoming international competitors. The Alpine ski establishment is now looking more closely at college programs to see if that route is a practical path to international success.
There certainly is no shortage of young athletes testing the ski racing waters. By far, the largest winter sports training program in New York is the Lake Placid-based New York Ski Education Foundation program. Right now, there are 35 racers enrolled in NYSEF’s winter term residence program and another 30 at the closely affiliated Northwood School in Lake Placid where Thomas Vonn and fellow former U.S. team member Jeremy Transue are coaching. In addition, there are many more in NYSEF’s weekend programs at Whiteface and Gore.
Are there some who have U.S. Ski Team potential?
John Norton, NYSEF’s executive director, has been with the program since 2010. He thinks that’s the case.
“It takes a combination of talent and family support,” Norton said. “I see that when I look out my window.”
The consensus seems to be that the absence of New Yorkers on the Alpine team this winter is an anomaly. Likely there will be again in the future, especially if a shifting emphasis to the development of talent widens the draw of athletes.
OTHER SKI ROSTERS
There is one New Yorker on the U.S. team this winter. Freestyle aerialist Chris Lillis from Pittsford, outside Rochester, is the U.S. champion and has been ranked as high as sixth in the world in his specialty, a combination of skiing and gymnastics.
Also competing for the U.S. this winter is 25-year-old Maddie Phaneuf from Old Forge in biathlon and 27-year-old Nina Lussi from Lake Placid in ski jumping. Both disciplines are a part of USA Nordic, not the US Ski Team.
The high school racing season wraps up Wednesday with both Alpine and Nordic races at Gore Mountain. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, there will be no Section II or state championships this winter.
The New York Capital District Ski Council has set its winter race date for Feb. 28 at West Mountain.
There will be two races that day.
Phil Johnson can be reached at [email protected].