NorAms are canceled. So, now what?

While the U.S. Ski Team and Alpine Canada have yet to make an announcement, sources tell Ski Racing Media that the 2020-21 NorAm season is a no-go. Reports have been circulating to that effect for weeks, with travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada making the block of races previously scheduled for April 5-16 in Aspen untenable. 

One of the biggest challenges, according to sources, is travel back to Canada, which requires a litany of tests, paperwork and a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Some provincial governments have slightly different travel and entry standards, but, overall, logistics and cross-border travel amid the pandemic have proven too challenging to overcome.

In the absence of what many view as critical career-advancement races and point-scoring opportunities, many are left curious how U.S. and Canadian athletes will recover compared to their European counterparts, who have traveled and competed more freely during the pandemic.  

As part of its reporting for this story, Ski Racing Media reached out to U.S. Ski & Snowboard and Alpine Canada. Both federations declined comment, although Alpine Canada indicated it is working on a fallback plan for domestic races this spring.

Let the speculation begin. 

Without NorAms, there are several implications for U.S. and Canadian racers. First, for athletes hoping to make their national team next season or in the future, NorAms provide critical head-to-head competition and scoring opportunities that inform selection for special projects, races, and ultimately, national teams. There are also the coveted World Cup starts that are awarded to season-long champions in each discipline and overall. In the absence of a NorAm season, sources tell SRM those starts are likely to be grandfathered over from the 2019-20 season. This is a significant disadvantage to North Americans who were hoping to use NorAm titles as a means of earning World Cup spots. 

“The cancellation of the NorAms for the 2020-21 season is understandable but a huge bummer,” said up-and-coming FIS racer Emma Resnick. “A lot of my goals this season were NorAm-dependent, and it has caused me and many of my teammates to shift our focus towards races that we have been able to do, most of which are in Europe. NorAms are North Americans’ opportunity to race at a high level on ‘home turf’ with a lower point penalty. Overall, I’m super bummed that the NorAms were canceled this year because I was excited to try and perform well on a higher level, at home.” 

Resnick is one of the few American athletes who has chased the European circuit this season, competing in junior FIS races and Europa Cups overseas. Europa Cups are similar to NorAms, technically, although they generally feature a higher level of difficulty among a larger, more-competitive field in variable conditions. Resnick has remained motivated in her training and racing in Europe yet feels the toll both physically and mentally traveling between European races and the U.S. during her junior year of high school. Right now, Europe has one thing the U.S. lacks: low point-scoring opportunities. So it’s been critical, she says, to make the journey.

The lack of Continental Cups will leave North American athletes at a disadvantage against the European athletes from the standpoint of point penalties. This year, the lowest point penalty at a FIS race is 23, with the exception of U.S. nationals, which were held in November for 2020 and will be held in April for 2021. Those races carry a 20-point penalty.

The effort to hold national championships, which is commendable, will also be tough on the athletes. Typically, only a single racer can score a 20 by winning the race. And in order to get the 20-point penalty to begin with, the country’s best racers need to be in attendance. All told, it will be very difficult for anyone who doesn’t already have sub-23 points to score below the normal FIS 23. This compares to the Europeans who have access to an abundance of Europa Cup races with a minimum penalty of 15. Additionally, many smaller European nations will be hosting national championships with 20-point penalties.

Athletes like Resnick and Storm Klomhaus, who depend on points to dictate their world ranking for the U.S. team criteria and World Cup starts, are finding themselves relying on alternative methods to make their mark. 

“For athletes who are not named members of the national team, NorAms are the only way to guarantee consistent World Cup starts. Outside of that, we basically rely on time trials for any sort of a chance at getting starts,” said Klomhaus. “So it’s a bummer that athletes in that boat, including myself, don’t get that opportunity for next season with NorAms being canceled. It has been a crazy year, and this is one of the many things we can’t control, so I’m not going to dwell on it and just focus on next year.” 

In some cases, the lack of NorAms has brought about a collective sense of motivation. Resnick and Klomhaus look at the opportunity to train and build the mental fire to ski their fastest next season when they hope the regular NorAm schedule resumes. 

Head FIS coach for Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Mike Bansmer recognizes the lack of high-level races on difficult venues with prepared snow could lead to a longer development period for athletes missing this critical development experience. Yet, the general consensus has been to focus on the silver lining — more time training. The hope is that, in the long run, the increased time spent on fundamentals and tactics could make up for the lack of racing this season.

Todd Brickson, Rowmark Ski Academy Program Director, agrees. “Although it is unfortunate that the NorAms and other FIS races have been canceled, we certainly understand the bigger picture and support the priority to be responsible during the pandemic,” he said. “This is temporary, and we completely understand the decision. I know we are all looking forward to the NorAm circuit and a more regular FIS calendar returning next season.”

Canadians seeking contingencies

The cancellation of the NorAm season is another blow to Canadian ski racers as lockdowns and restrictions have prevented any FIS and domestic racing from taking place across the country, at all levels.

According to some coaches, the cancellation of the NorAm races will have a negative trickle-down effect and possible lasting consequences on the development system in Canada.

With the volume of red tape involved in COVID restrictions, namely event-hosting, quarantine and travel — which differ from province to province — Alpine Canada, along with the provincial ski associations, have been scrambling to come up with creative ways to salvage the ski season. The challenge with the NorAm situation, according to sources in Canada, is the “freedom of access” for the Canadian skiers.

“Across the board, we’re going to be in big trouble,” said Nick Cooper, BC ski team head coach. “There are no opportunities for North Americans to score under 23. Canada is suffering so much because every other nation in the world is ski racing right now, basically as normal. We’re not racing or doing anything much other than training. It’s a really tough situation.”

The challenge is creating fair opportunities between the two nations in a time when sport regulations differ — in some cases vastly from region to region.

One concept being discussed in Canada is a large national training and racing block for the provincial and national teams in April, hosted in a quasi “bubble” environment, similar to the NHL and NBA models used in late 2020. This would allow head-to-head racing and scoring opportunities to take place for the next wave of skiers in the country. And this, in turn, will support provincial and regional races in the future with a lower penalty and better ranking opportunities.

But the challenge with this scenario is that all skiers traveling, even within the country, would need to be deemed “essential.” According to the Canadian government, non-essential travel outside of Canada is prohibited and travel within the country is nearly as tricky. There are some exemptions, but most travel is required to be essential even within the Canadian borders.

It’s complicated for some provinces that are under a different standard of athlete carding and identification, which is important in determining athlete lists for essential travel. In Quebec, this status is conflicted between provincial and national-level athletes. The top tier of Quebec skiers, designated under the national NextGen status, would be able to travel and race, whereas the remainder of the team would not be able to travel.

This underscores the massive disparity between mobility in North America and in Europe. The top European competitors have “athlete credentials” that allow them to generally move freely between countries, albeit with a lot of COVID testing along the way. That freedom of movement has been dramatically restricted in North America, especially in Canada.

On both sides of the border, one thing is for certain: Athletes, coaches and stakeholders are eagerly awaiting an announcement from their respective federations with guidance for how to navigate the remainder of the COVID season. With full vaccine distribution on the horizon, there is optimism that these draconian regulations and restrictions will be a thing of the past next season.