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Norway Training Camp Sets New, More Positive Tone for U.S. Alpine Team

By Lela Moore | Aug. 30, 2022, 1:49 p.m. (ET)

Members of the U.S. Para alpine team pose for a team photo in Norway. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Walsh)

The U.S. Paralympics alpine ski team was on its way to training camp in July when it had to make a last-minute location change.

 

Tony McAllister, the associate director of Para alpine high performance for the U.S., called conditions in Switzerland, the group’s intended destination, “horrific.”

 

A heat wave across central Europe had made ski conditions less than optimal. So, the team instead headed to Norway, where the athletes trained on the Folgefonna glacier.

 

“It was a good camp to set the tone,” McAllister said.

 

He discussed a major shift within the team, after previous national team athletes had expressed concern that camp was not a positive or uplifting experience and that team culture suffered as a result. McAllister said the tone shift was welcome.

 

“It’s nice to be able to enjoy your job, whether you’re an athlete or part of the performance supporting team,” he said. “If people are happy, content, feel safe, then they’re more likely to be able to explore different areas of performance without the fear of failure (and) without being judged.”

 

Skiing, McAllister said, is unique in that the athletes compete individually, but they can only do so as part of a team. He said he encouraged a professional rapport among teammates, versus encouraging them to be friends.

 

“It’s like that family member analogy: You get to choose your friends, you don’t choose your family,” McAllister said. “You don’t have to like everybody all the time, but there is a minimum level of respect and acceptance.”

 

Everyone on the squad, he said, must adhere to certain core team values, but he encourages the diversity of personal values among the team.

 

“That enriches the environment,” he said, “so we’re not all clones of each other.”

 

He notes that staff is included in this calculation as well.

 

“It’s not athletes over here, staff over here,” he said, adding that he encourages a “melting pot” atmosphere in which both staff and athletes alike learn from each other. “Staff get better at their jobs, and athletes get better at going fast and winning races.”

 

When everyone is viewing performance from different angles and through different experiences instead of through the same lens, McAllister said, everyone benefits.

 

“Celebrating our successes, but then also being able to discuss when we haven’t done things as well as we could have done — not as an attack on an individual (but) as an opportunity to do better going forward,” he said.

 

McAllister solicited anonymous feedback from his team through surveys and phone calls that he hopes will lead to greater transparency in his decision-making processes. He said that he wants athletes to be comfortable using their individual voices, however they choose to use them. 

 

“We are a performance team, but we want to make it as enjoyable and as fulfilling and joyful an experience as possible,” McAllister said. “We have a theme on top of that in terms of making joy central to our day.”

 

Each day at training camp, athletes would share moments of joy that they had either given or received, he said. Because this was the first team camp since 2019, McAllister said he wanted to make sure the athletes had time to bond as a group and to spend some time exploring the area when they weren’t on skis.

 

“That’s one of the privileges you get as part of the national team,” he said. “You get to go and train and experience such diverse and exciting places.”

 

The team stayed at a hotel owned by a Slovakian family who made dinner for the athletes and facilitated team bonding during those meals. On the team’s last day in Norway, the group hiked to a waterfall. McAllister said watching his team ensure that everyone who wanted to access the waterfall, regardless of ability, could do so, was “a cool experience, a nice little memory for the camp as well.”

 

A return to fundamentals is the focus for this first year of the new Paralympic cycle. “This could be technical, tactical, strategic, whatever,” McAllister said, depending on the athlete. And for the staff, he said, the goal is to provide support to each of the 13 athletes on the national team as they work to perfect their own performance.

 

He said that the “mellow terrain” in Norway was perfectly suited to the task and that the rainy weather they experienced during part of the camp helped acclimate the athletes to conditions that have been a part of the last several major Paralympic ski events. Volume was more important than intensity at this camp, a ratio he said would change as the Paralympics draw nearer. But in the short term, with a world championships looming early next year, he wanted to help athletes build endurance for a competition that can last days and includes multiple events.

 

Overall, McAllister said he was pleased by the camp and by the reception the team’s three new members received.

 

“It’s a big shift for a lot of people,” he said of the emphasis on team culture and focus on ski fundamentals. “But I feel like it’s really going to kick back in terms of how athletes experience being on the team.”

Lela Moore

Lela Moore is a freelance contributor to USParaAlpineSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.