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Alaska will save money by cutting college skiing, but what will it lose?

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: October 31, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2016

Sadie Bjornsen’s road to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia included a pivotal stop at UAA. (Nathaniel Herz / Anchorage Daily News / FasterSkier.com)

Zuzana Rogers left the Communist country of Slovakia in 1994, lured to the University of Alaska Anchorage by coach Paul Crews' offer of a scholarship that would allow her to ski competitively and pursue an education.

Today she's raising a family in Anchorage and is part-owner of a physical therapy business that employs more than 60 people in six locations around Alaska.

The chance to ski at UAA, she said, "created the path of my life."

Joey Caterinichio left Anchorage after she graduated from West High in 1988 to ski for St. Lawrence University in New York. It was an expensive school and after two years she accepted coach Tom Besh's offer to come back home and ski for UAA.

Today she co-owns a medical products business in Anchorage and is coming off a three-year stint as the nordic director for the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association.

Returning to Alaska so soon after high school wasn't part of Caterinichio's plan until the ski team came calling. "It was the sport that brought me back … and that allowed me to finalize my degrees," she said.

Sadie Bjornsen came to Anchorage after graduating from high school in Washington's Methow Valley in 2008. She picked UAA over several other schools, impressed by coach Trond Flagstad's stellar reputation and by U.S. Ski Team leader Kikkan Randall's presence on the Anchorage ski trails.

Today she is an Olympian who is one of the best Nordic skiers in the world, a member of Alaska Pacific's nordic program and a convincing ambassador for Anchorage and Alaska.

Had it not been for the UAA ski team, Bjornsen said, "I would never have known to look at Alaska. I now think Alaska is the best place in the United States to train."

More than just dollars

Stories like these aren't hard to find — stories of student athletes from all parts of the world who came to ski for UAA and stayed to plant roots here.

They are befuddled by University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen's decision to kill the ski teams at UAA and UAF.

"It's horrible. It's heartbreaking," Rogers said. "It's been such a quick decision without any kind of warning. They were talking about three options to look at, and it just happened right away."

They believe the school stands to lose as much it gains by slashing the estimated $1 million a year it costs to field teams at UAA ($600,000 for alpine and Nordic squads) and UAF ($400,000 for a Nordic squad).

"This is not just about budget cuts," Caterinichio said. "This is about someone like me coming back because of sports. I got two degrees, I've employed people and I've given back to the community. There's a ton of us who came here because of sports.

"It's not just about dollar signs. I'm not an advocate for any sport to be cut, because it brings quality applicants to our college. These kids are trying to achieve good grades, and they're going to stay in school."

Johnsen is asking the NCAA to waive its requirement that Division II members field a minimum of 10 sports. In its request for the waiver, the university says it will cut four sports — men's and women's skiing and men's and women's indoor track — at UAA, reducing the number of sports from 13 to nine. At UAF, Johnsen's plan is to pare down 10 sports to eight by cutting men's and women's skiing.

If the NCAA grants the waiver and if the university's Board of Regents goes along with Johnsen's plan — two big ifs — there will be no more intercollegiate skiing in Alaska.

"It's just a sad day for UAA and UAF," said Judy Besh, an Anchorage woman who skied for both teams in the 1970s and later married longtime UAA coach Tom Besh, who died in a 1993 plane crash.

"I'm sure he's rolling over in his grave," she said.

Lutz Klausmann of UAA, left, chases Tyler Kornfield of UAF up a hill in a 2012 college race at Kincaid Park. (Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News)

Dazed and confused

The day after Johnsen announced his plan to eliminate skiing, the Seawolves dried their tears and went to work. They had a 7:30 a.m. practice.

"You could kind of tell there was something in the air. Everyone was trying to process it," said UAA junior Charley Field, an alpine skier from British Columbia.

The prevailing mood, she said, was determination: "OK, I guess we work even harder to prove to them they're making the wrong decision and do our best."

Since hearing the news Thursday, Field began wondering where she might wind up for her final season of NCAA racing and how many of her academic credits will transfer to a new school.

She also mourned.

"I felt bad and sad that no one else gets to come up here and experience what I've felt here in Alaska," said Field, who said because of her desire to ski in Alaska, UAA was the only college she applied to. "Alaska and skiing go together so well.

"… It's crushing other kids' dreams of being able to ski in their own state or come up here and experience such an amazing place to ski."

Johnsen's announcement caught many by surprise, because it rushed a timeline previously set forth by the university's Strategic Pathways budget review. Coaches and athletes believed they had more time to make their case to regents, legislators and other Alaskans.

"It hasn't been explained," UAA head ski coach Sparky Anderson said. "It was just suddenly presented."

Anderson said about half of UAA's skiers pay their own way to attend school, money the school will now lose as those students look for other schools to ski for.

‘It’s just unreal’

The UAA athletic department has been cutting its budget since 2014, Anderson said, going from roughly $12 million to $10 million. UAF's current budget is $6 million.

Johnsen wants an additional $1.2 million in cuts to UAA sports and $400,000 more to UAF sports.

Together, the two athletic departments make up 2.5 percent of the University of Alaska's total budget.

"They're fixated on 3 percent of the budget," said Michael Friess, UAA's track and cross-country coach. "They're not addressing the real waste in the system.

"Athletics is not the problem. Three percent by definition is not a big part of the problem."

The idea of Alaska schools eliminating ski programs confounds many.

"I can't imagine Alaska without a (college) ski team when we have the other teams that are still there," said Dick Mize, a linchpin of Anchorage's ski scene who helped create the city's network of cross-country ski trails.

"It's one that fits Alaska because of the conditions we have. It's just unreal that something this would happen."

It's a traditional sport in Alaska, and it's a lifetime sport, said Jim Burkholder, UAA's ski coach in the early 1970s.

"We've got athletes like Reno Deprey who's 86 years old and wins his age class in the American Birkebeiner," Burkholder said. "… We've got 450 kids that turn up for a high school race, half of them being girls. To me that's pretty important."

UAA cross-country ski coach Andrew Kastning, center, confers with Aslak Eira, left, Zackarias Toresson, center left, Pietro Mosconi, center right, and Toomas Kollo in the equipment room at the Alaska Airlines Center last month. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Part of the landscape

Even though most of their races are in the Lower 48, skiers at UAA and UAF are anything but invisible in Alaska.

The UAA ski team teams up with the Alyeska Ski Club to host the annual Ski Swap that draws thousands of people looking for second-hand winter gear and equipment. The UAF ski team teams up with the Nordic Ski Club of Fairbanks for the annual Ski Fest in Fairbanks, where the Nanooks offer introductory ski lessons.

As high school skier in Anchorage and a college skier in Fairbanks, Tyler Kornfield saw the impact college skiing has on both cities.

"On the larger scale it's interacting with people on the trails every day and taking to people in the chalet," he said. "People come up and ask how you did last week and you know they're as passionate about what you do as anybody else. It creates a sense of pride when a team does well.

"… We're out there every day on the trails, doing intervals side-by-side with juniors and masters. At the Anchorage Cup races we're there racing against them. And in Fairbanks at the Town Series races we get to talk to them after the races and interact. It creates such a positive community."

On the alpine slopes in Anchorage and Girdwood, UAA skiers also make an impact, Anderson said.

"Our ski team skis with the Mighty Mite kids at Alyeska, they ski with the Special Olympics kids at Hilltop, they do so many things in the community," Anderson said.

Kornfield, who continued racing after college and is an emerging star for Alaska Pacific's nordic program, said the UAF and UAA teams help fuel the success of APU's elite program.

"Those programs are built to combine academics and athletics," he said, "whereas at APU our main goal is to achieve the best possible results on an international scale."

A long, rich tradition

Skiing is one of the oldest sports at UAA, along with hockey and men's basketball.

The school joined the NCAA in 1977-78, but seven years earlier, Edmund Schuster became the coach of a fledgling UAA ski team. In 1972, Burkholder, the Dimond High ski coach at the time, became the coach.

Besh became UAA's first full time ski coach in 1977-78, when the school joined the NCAA and the AIAW, the women's counterpart to the NCAA until the NCAA swallowed it in the early 1980s.

In 1979, Britta Kjellstrand became UAA's first national champion when she won the individual cross-country race at the AIAW ski championships. She also anchored the school's gold-medal relay team, which included Judy Besh, Pam Richter and Sue Strutz.

In the years since, the UAA ski team has celebrated nine individual NCAA champions, three in alpine and six in cross-country.

On six occasions, skiers have been named UAA's Athlete of the Year, a group that includes two-time honoree Tobias Schwoerer, who came from Germany to ski at UAA and is now a senior researcher for the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Seawolves skiers have earned NCAA All-America honors 146 times. It's a long list — almost as long as the list of UAA skiers who have earned national or regional academic honors over the years. The ski team often posts some of the athletic department's highest grade-point averages and boasts a high graduation rate.

Bjornsen said her time at UAA taught her how to balance a full schedule of academics and athletics. She developed an ability to focus that helped catapult her to prominence in World Cup skiing

"I credit UAA and NCAA skiing for where I am now," she said.

Former UAA ski coach Paul Crews helps out at the 2007 Ski Swap sponsored by the UAA ski team and the Alyeska Ski Club. (Jim Lavrakas / Anchorage Daily News)

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