The first and most enduring image of the Olympics is the spectacle of the Opening Ceremonies. There is no prouder moment than marching into the Olympic stadium with your countrymen, waving your flag to the deafening roar of an appreciative crowd and feeling the bright warm focus of the world's eyes for one sweet, slow lap. All sentiment aside, however, the image of athletes fitting together in rigid rows couldn't be further from reality. In fact, many of the top athletes who walk under the same flag create their own marching orders.
Personal coaches are the norm in most individual sports, but not in skiing, with its quasi-team structure and well-organized national federations. Historically, top athletes prefer to choose their own coaches. Indeed, it is only human to want more attention, especially if you can afford it. Think about it: If cost was not a factor and you wanted to get the very best instruction, would you sign up for a 10-person group lesson or pay for a private?
However, it is the nature of institutions to feel threatened by any influences that are outside their control. As a general rule, national federations don't like to have athletes working independently, and certainly don't want to call attention to them. So when superstars such as Alberto Tomba or Deborah Compagnoni-and so many before them-demanded personal coaches, they were stealthily incorporated into the team structure.
For most "normal" athletes, who haven't yet earned the power of celebrity, the federation makes no such concessions. If you can't fit the team structure or don't like the coaches, there are three choices: 1. Quit. 2. Break from the country entirely, a la Austrian defector Marc Girardelli, who became Luxembourg's lone star. 3. Maintain your nationality without the support of the national federation.
You have to be really good to go for option three. First, because it's going to cost you, and second, because you'll need a lot of confidence to overcome the naysayers and deal with the added pressure of being No. 1 of 1. Kristina Koznick, this country's top slalom skier, took on those challenges when she struck out on her own for the 2001 season. Now, in her second year as Team Koznick, she wears the U.S. Ski Team uniform and must qualify for the Olympics under the U.S. Ski Team rules, but is otherwise completely independent of the national team. It costs Team Koznick-herself, her coach, his assistant and a service man-an estimated $280,000 a year to keep its one-woman show on the road. Koznick's case stands out not because wanting a personal coach is unusual, but because it could not be resolved within the federation. To be sure, her situation was complicated by a romantic relationship with her coach. Such things may be a foregone conclusion on European teams, but are a no-no on the U.S. Ski Team-and thus compromised Koznick's ability to negotiate.
More typically, athlete and federation work together to save face. Swiss skier Sonja Nef, the reigning World Champion in giant slalom is, like Koznick, on her own program, training only occasionally with her national team. In Nef's case, injuries threatened to end her career unless she could train alone on clean courses, so her leap of faith was also her only option. Nef, who has been on her solo mission for five years, enjoys the best of both worlds, having negotiated a performance-based deal with the Swiss team. For every World Cup victory, she gets a percentage of her costs covered, and she's skied well enough to offset the entire amount. The liberty of having your own program comes with the trade-off of added pressure. On a team it is possible, even expected, that on bad days you are allowed to blend in and hide in the folds of the greater organization. But on a one-man team, every run is watched closely...sometimes too closely.Dan Stripp, a former U.S. Ski Team racer and coach, is now Koznick's private coach. "Sometimes, as a staff, we have to back off the athlete," Stripp eexplains. And then there is the pressure to perform in an environment of public skepticism over their decision. "We knew it would be tough, but we've never looked back," Stripp says. He was duly warned by Nef's coach. "He told me the first year would be tough, but that it only gets better."
Austrian Kilian Albrecht has experienced the pros and cons of racing, both within the national team structure and outside of it. He first made the Austrian team in 1990, progressed to the elite A team for four years but was cut in 1999. He knew he wasn't done racing. Labeled too old by the coaches, his only route back to the team was to recapture a top-15 world ranking. Through a friend and coach, Albrecht hooked up with the Green Mountain Valley School in Sugarbush, Vt., for training camps. He also hired Roland Pfeifer, who had enjoyed many years of success on the U.S. Pro Tour. On his own throughout that season, Albrecht trained with teams from Lichtenstein, Italy and Norway, as well as with clubs in Europe and the states. Regaining a berth on the world's most intense and powerful ski team seemed like a daunting challenge, but in reality Albrecht enjoyed the freedom. "It was kind of a relief to do my own thing," he says. "I always train hard, but I have to be comfortable in my surroundings." He ended the 2000 season ranked 13th in slalom, and last season he earned a spot on Austria's World Championship Team. Now that he is back on the team, he has hired Pfeifer as his service man to maintain some of the comforts of his former independence.
Albrecht is not the only World Cup racer to have integrated the lessons from the pros into the amateur ranks. After a stint on the U.S. Ski Team, American Erik Schlopy spent three years racing pro before returning to the World Cup. His comeback was made with the blessing-but not the financial support-of the national team. On the pro circuit, like in other individual sports, athletes learn to organize every aspect of training and racing for themselves. With that experience, Schlopy was able to plot his course back to the team and move beyond his teammates to the top of the GS standings
Indeed, the transition back to the constraints of a team environment presents a critical hurdle. Total self sufficiency can preclude the ability-and desire-to play well with others. "The success in Austria is that everyone does his own routine," says Albrecht. "Half fit the team structure, and the other half have to figure out how to have that one person who supports you 100 percent."
That is perhaps the one thing everyone really needs, whether on a team of one or 20. It brings to mind the success of Croatian Janica Kostelic, currently the world's best slalom skier. With no national federation to speak of, she made her way to the top-trained only by her father and only with her brother. They slept in their car at the foot of glaciers when they couldn't afford hotels.
She still maintains a very solitary training routine winter and summer. Her program was pretty simple: The case of a man with a dream and a daughter with a talent. When watching the parade of nations, it occurs to me that while there may be strength in numbers, it is nothing compared to the power of one.