Out in the Cold: How UBC's ski teams were cut off, and how they bounced back

The snowball effect

In the late 2000s, UBC’s campus deliberated if it should abandon the CIS for greener pastures — the NCAA. Simon Fraser University could do it, so why not UBC?  The rationale was that potential student-athletes were being drawn down south because of better competition and a more attractive scholarship structure, and so either the CIS needed to change or UBC needed to abandon ship. In the end, the debates came to nothing and UBC for the most part stayed put on this side of the border.

But in the wake of these campus-wide conversations came the idea that maybe the UBC’s sports structure needed to be revised. Stephen Toope, the UBC president at the time, announced a review of the UBC athletics department and an ensuing two year-long review process was kicked off.

When the dust settled in the spring of 2014, 24 of the original 29 varsity teams retained their status in some capacity, while five teams — the men’s and women’s alpine ski teams, the men’s and women’s Nordic ski team, and the women’s softball team — were reclassified as competitive clubs. The softball team appealed, sued the university and successfully regained their status, but for the other teams, their future was less certain.

Two teams that had a shared history would now be subjected to a shared fate.

The storm

The first time Kayla Johnston heard about the review and realized it would be official was at her first time attending the Big Block banquet.

“It didn’t really feel real,” Johnston said.

Johnston was a member of the Alpine ski team who had joined in the fall of 2012. She learnt that the review would take place over the course of the year, and then the teams that were removed would have one year left as a varsity before being transitioned into a Thunderbird Sport Club (TSC). She became the coach of the team in the 2014 and transitioned the team from a varsity team to the competitive club status in their 2015/16 season.

According to Johnston, the Alpine ski team was already considered to be an unconventional varsity teams to begin with. In Canada, varsity ski teams were unheard of.

“We were obviously one of the two teams that was kind of considered more unusual and that in Canada at least, Alpine and Nordic teams are normally not considered varsity, versus you go to the States [and] it’s a big thing down there,” said Johnston.

“Not so much up here.”

Skiing also wasn’t much of a spectator sport, and the Alpine team raced most of their competitions in the United States. Their training facilities also were not located on campus, but rather at mountains like Grouse and Whistler.

Going into the review however, Johnston felt that the team had some strengths that evened out their odds. The team regularly had a good showing at the United States Collegiate Ski & Snowboard Association nationals (USCSA) and tended to place highly. They also had one of the smaller budgets amongst the varsity teams.

“I know in the grand scheme of things we did not make a major portion of the budget. It was more like the benefits that went along with it that really helped the teams,” said Johnston. For her, all things considered and with everything judged fairly, the team looked okay.

The team did not make it past the first and second stage of the review. Johnston remembers that the teams found out they had been cut just as they were headed into nationals that year.  The Alpine team’s subsequent appeal was also unsuccessful.

“It was hard on the team because it was kind of like that attitude saying we weren’t good enough and were like, ‘There are teams here who are not going to nationals, you know?” she said.

The changes proposed by the review were to come into effect in September 2015, and then the team would start their year as a competitive club.

Bouncing back

In 2014, The Ubyssey followed up on the Nordic ski team several months after they had the sports review that year. For the most part, the team looked like they were taking the transition much better than one may think.

“We’ve always operated in the form of a competitive club,” said then team coach Robert Ragotte in an interview. “I don’t think it will be a big change for us.”

Fast forward to 2017, that sentiment still holds true for the Nordic ski team as part of the Thunderbirds Sports Club roster, according to its current club lead, Hannah Xavier. She joined the team during her first year in 2013, and is now the only member from prior to the review that remains — the results of which were entirely expected, according to her.

“As it came closer and closer to that decision-making process, we knew there was no way we would be kept as a team … we don’t have that kind of following that lot of bigger teams have. We were not surprised at all at the decision. It was expected.”

Xavier (first on the right, front row) and the Nordic team in 2014.
Xavier (first on the right, front row) and the Nordic team in 2014. File Steven Durfee

Not surprising indeed, as the team stands as the only university-level Nordic ski team in all of BC. The sport itself is a niche activity, according to Xavier. It’s common for her to come across peers who have little to no idea about the club. The expensive equipment and the travelling needed for competitions also intimidate them.

As a varsity, the Nordic team also didn’t enjoy the same amount of alumni sponsorship backing as other Thunderbirds teams had. This is not to say that there isn’t any alumni support whatsoever. These days, there are some former teammates that help out, whether in terms of travel planning or carpooling.

Among them is Nico Petch, an applied sciences graduate who was part of the team from 2008 to 2013, and served as coach in his last few university years. Petch is also certain that not much of the dynamic was altered after the review’s end result. This was especially since, according to him, the team had achieved varsity only just a few years before his tenure and even then, it was always a small group.

“[The review] didn’t really change what our team was. I’m not exactly sure what funding [the team] gets now, but I don’t think it’s much less than we did get,” he said. “We got very little funding as a varsity team compared to the other sports. It wasn’t surprising and it honestly didn’t change our operations that much.” The change did still bring in some inconveniences, however. Although Xavier had only experienced the perks of a dedicated varsity gym and additional funding for two years, there was no denying their usefulness.

“When we use the varsity gym, we were able to go as a team and do strength altogether as a team. Now, you can’t fit 10 or 12 people in the Birdcoop except [for when the TSC] provides a separate time on Sundays for [club] athletes.”

That said, this still doesn’t hinder the team training that much, as they typically train more outside anyway. If anything, the most frustrating to deal with is the administrative work. This involves a lot more forms, budgeting, meetings and planning for Xavier than before.

“It’s a lot that we have to do and it definitely takes up a lot of time. I feel a lot of pressure to make sure that everything is done at the same time, and [being aware of] everything that goes on the team,” she said. “But I have some really good execs that have been on top of things and have been helping. And TSC is very supportive and helpful as well.”

The Alpine team also seems to have stabilized and settled down within their role as a competitive club.

Jen Boughner is in her second year with the team and her first year as an executive, dealing with finances as well as fundraising and alumni relations. When she first messaged Johnston about joining the team earlier in 2015, the team was still in its varsity status. By September, it had fully transitioned into the TSC framework.

“When we came in September, the view was definitely 100 per cent shifted towards focusing on what we had with Thunderbird Sport Clubs and making it a great year. I think by the end of the summer, the decision about varsity had been finalized, and it was looking to just move on and work within the new model,” said Boughner.

Both Boughner and Johnston agree that getting cut off gave the team some more freedom, especially in regards to flexibility with their budget and spending. An example of this is highlighted in their transport costs. Varsity athletes were not allowed to drive themselves to their competitions, and so had to hire coach buses. The team can rent vehicles or make use of student vehicles to go to and from competitions.

So while the team has less funds, they are using their funds more for things that are useful and necessary. The team also has a vast network of alumni, ranging from the 1950s to a few years ago, who help with fundraising. In addition, most of their team aspirations could be pursued within the competitive club framework.

“Nothing changed in how we raced, so we still raced the same league at the same competitive level,” said Boughner. “It's just that how our budget was financed and the rules we had to follow with varsity versus TSC .”

Cold shoulder

Given the context behind their varsity cut-off and the current circumstances of Nodic skiing, both Xavier and Petch don’t hold any ill feelings towards the university administration for their decision back in 2014. Xavier conceded that despite the team regularly participating in community races and national tournaments when they can afford to, a lot more than that was needed to stay varsity. Yet, both agreed that the review process itself should have been much better handled.

“The whole review itself was pretty disappointing. Most people acknowledged that it was a failure,” said Petch, who added that even if the final decision made sense, it felt half-hearted. “Our team and alpine skiing in particular were cut from varsity because their review failed, and they needed to make some changes to save face.”

Xavier also expressed her dissatisfaction towards Ashley Howard, the former director of UBC Athletics who headed the review and was criticized for her lack of experience in varsity sports. “UBC brought in this brand-new person who didn’t have a history with athletics, and didn’t have a history with our sport or any of the sports,” she said. “[She explained] to us why we were cut. It was mostly because we didn’t have alumni backing and that’s hard to hear because we feel that what we do is important. But we also understood why.”

There was also some discontent about how the process was carried out in the Alpine team, particularly from former athletes who saw the process unfold and who saw the benefits that were taken away. Johnston mentioned that the team was told that there would be equal treatment between individual sports versus team sports and yet the only two varsity individual sports were cut. She also mentioned that the year-long process was not very efficient.

“The amount of money they spent on it would have funded our teams for the next century,“ she said.

All downhill from here

Whatever their feelings, what matters now for both teams is to look forward. As sports clubs, there are still plenty of potential opportunities to realize.

The Alpine team was very successful in their first year in club status. They hosted a training camp at Big White resort, several athletes placed highly in different competitions, and both the men’s and women’s teams qualified for nationals. To accomplish all of that with the reduced status gives the team some satisfaction.

“There isn’t really any talk about varsity because we are doing so well where we are right now,” said Boughner. “Definitely that would still be a long-term goal for us, but I think to achieve that, we have to establish ourselves first. Grow our team, grow our budget and then we’ll be able to really appeal in the future,” said Boughner.

“It’s definitely all in the radar.”

The Nordic team is already making use of partnerships with other Nordic skiing teams around BC, including that of the Hollyburn Nordic club on Cypress. Another goal is the ability to bring in more fresh-faced undergraduates to team, with Petch noting that the team used to be mostly made up of graduate students when he started. But now, Xavier is remedying that, regardless if students want to ski competitively or not.

“I’ve had a lot of people contact me that are like, ‘I really wanna train and ski with you guys, but don’t necessarily want to race’ … even though we are a competitive club, I don’t turn those people away. It’s a small community and I want that kind of dynamic. I still want to encourage that,” she said.