Aaah, there's no place like home. Just ask U.S. Ski Team member Erik Schlopy. "Once in a while you get a whiff of goat in the hall," says Schlopy, "but it doesn't get in the kitchen."
He's talking about his home away from home, a rented farmhouse that he shares with teammate Bode Miller in the hills above Innsbruck, Austria. Half of the house is theirs and the other half is a barn occupied by five cows, six goats, too many chickens to count, a couple of pigs and a few stray cats. For a second season, the two will pay about $1,000 a month in rent to come to this rustic retreat, where they can relax and unwind between training camps and competitions in Europe.
Leasing some sort of foreign headquarters isn't without athletic precedence; witness the success of Americans Greg Lemond and Lance Armstrong, both of whom parlayed European bases into stunning wins in the Tour de France. Like his countrymen, Schlopy believes the house rental is simply the cost of doing business for a world-class ski racer. "I want to ski until 2006, and I saw this as a crucial decision in prolonging my career." Schlopy, 28, has the added perspective that comes from being in his third incarnation as a ski racer. As a top prospect on the U.S. Ski Team, he competed in the 1994 Olympics, then retired in 1995 and spent three years on the pro tour. The dream to compete on home turf in 2002 drew him back to the World Cup; he's spent the past two seasons reclaiming his international ranking and a spot on the national team. Now that he's back, he's making his own career decisions.
From a purely practical standpoint, a European base makes sense. Each trek across the Atlantic requires significant recovery time. "Every time you travel that far it takes a couple of weeks to really adjust," Schlopy says. "The cumulative effect of all that travel takes its toll." The Austrian home saves him two or three transcontinental trips, but more importantly it provides a place to go between races. Typically at the end of a Sunday slalom, the Europeans depart in their customized, signature model Audis for a few days at home until the next race. Meanwhile, the Americans pack their bags, load the van and set off for the next hotel. Now, after a weekend of races, Schlopy and Miller go back to their three-bedroom home to hang out in their living room, cook in their kitchen and even work on skis in their own ski room.
When it's time to race again, they pack one small bag and go. Most nights their landlords (who have become their No. 1 fans and surrogate family) invite them next door for a home-cooked dinner and, because they don't speak a word of English, a German lesson.
Schlopy and Miller rented the house with the team's blessing but without its support, so it is not a team facility. As far as other members of the squad bunking in, Schlopy is guarded about his investment. "I've had some of the guys come and stay, but this is a business decision and it's part of my training space," he explains.
The concept of a U.S. Ski Team home base in Europe has always floated around but never received more than a "geez-it-might-be-kinda-nice" shrug. Americans have traditionally opted to spend any free time at home, and they pay dearly for that option, in dollars and in air miles. That is changing, however, at the ski academy level.
The top ski academies are under competitive pressure to provide the best athletic and educational opportunities for kids, and they're sold on the value of a European presence. For the past two seasons, Vermont-based Burke Mountain Academy has brought courses and teachers to Italy's Sud Tirol for up to four weeks at a time. In addition to their own studies, students take classes in the community to meet Europeans of their age.
Green Mountain Valley School, also headquarted in Vermont, rented a small house in Zell am See, Austria, for four years before buying and renovating another Austrian home in Kössen. The GMVS facility is used purely for ski racing ((students bring course work but do not take formal classes) throughout the fall and winter. The youngest kids go for 10 to 20 days, and post-graduate students stay for up to six weeks.
For both schools, the decision was based primarily on athletics—with the expectation that cultural and educational opportunities would naturally abound. So far, the programs have scored on all fronts. As for the skiing benefits, they are clear. Both academies work with local teams to share training space on homegrown European training hills—the oft-gnarly, no-frills T-bar specials that make you tough. They have built relationships with national teams as well, training with them in Europe and initiating exchange programs. In addition to these advantages, there are the intangibles, little things that go a long way in making Europe a productive, rather than destructive, experience. The constant schlepping that has defined an American ski racer's lifestyle is undeniably taxing. No matter how nice the accommodations, when you've been living out of the same giant bag for six weeks, the prospect of waking up late in your own bed, doing laundry and putting your feet up on your couch with a grilled cheese sandwich and a mug of tomato soup sounds better than two weeks on the French Riviera.
The GMVS kids do just that when they come "home" to Kössen from a race. They also can go to the local gym, watch World Cups live on their European TV, tape episodes of "Survivor" on their American TV, connect to home via email, or take off on day trips.
"During fall training camps, when the glacier gets socked in or rained out, our kids do what the Europeans do and head home. When it clears, they go back. It's vastly more productive than sitting around for days in a glum hotel," GMVS headmaster Dave Gavett explains.
Former Burke headmaster Finn Gundersen is adamant that the ski racing experience should offer more than just flying to Europe and racing. "It shouldn't be a chore. It should be the best experience of your life," Gundersen says. From an educator's perspective, he sees that kids who have learned to live in Europe head to college with an entirely different attitude. From a coach's perspective, he asserts that once kids are relaxed and comfortable in their environment, results—and international success—will follow. "The kids on the ski team desperately want more from the experience," Gundersen asserts. "Why not concentrate on the whole person?"
Of course, any talk of a U.S. Ski Team facility stalls when it comes to financial backing, but the ski team does have access to sponsors—many of whom I'd bet would pay to stake their Yankee name, ballpark style, on Euro turf. It may not be Coors Field or 3-Com park, but an American base in Europe would be a grand slam for American ski racers.
Until that happens, Americans like Schlopy quietly create their own fabric of European life. He even has his own rodel—a wooden snow sled—and a rodelbahn across the road. The best part of the whole deal? "Near the end of the season," Schlopy says, "I'm not counting the days until I can go home."
Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com. Check out her previous Racer eX columns at www.skimag.com