New season and the BSA has evolved with new premises in Aosta

The 2019-2020 season sees the British Ski Academy move into new premises. Director of the British Ski Academy, Malcom Erskine sat down with Racer Ready as the summer drew to a close and explained how the British ski racing market has changed over the last few years and how the BSA has refocused its targets.

The change in location has meant that the BSA can focus more on quality rather than quantity in terms of the number of athletes that it caters for during the winter season. Explaining about the move across town in Aosta, Erskine explained that the BSA operation “needed greater exclusivity. The old place was too big. If we had really grown when we moved from France that would have been fine. There are more players at the top level now so we are growing from base level with three strands. It starts with get-involved where we induct youngsters with a tendency for speed, then step-it-up for developing modern racing skills, and at the pinnacle be-the-best. Stepping it up is what we have always been good at. At the top level there is a lot of noise, which is fine, but for us it is important to cover the racing spectrum with a renewed emphasis on development.”

The British Ski Academy has been very good at raising the bar in terms of what it offers its clients. From bringing over stars of the coaching world from Canada to utilising some of the exceptional ex-racers that have come through the BSA ranks. This season sees Alain Baxter, a regular top ten World Cup slalom racer and Britain’s first Olympic medal winner at the Salt Lake 2002 Games (*), take over as Head Coach of the BSA programme. The roster this season see two ex BSA racers, Jordan Fellows (Children’s programme) and Fraser Buchan (Mini Programme), move from coaching part time to a full time basis.

Baxter is very highly thought of and had numerous other offers to return to coaching before settling on the BSA Programme. Such is his standing in the world of ski racing, Baxter is able to call upon favours from all around and people are willing to help him, something not lost on Erskine.

With the hunger shown by Fellows and Buchan, Erskine knows both have “huge potential. They are young men who have raced, graduated with sports science degrees and are making their mark as career coaches. All our young coaches get it, they understand that these kids have a window of opportunity. As coaches their mission is to make it work, to instill the disciplines early. Otherwise what are you doing? You become a ski instructor. Real coaching is giving junior racers the best input and encouragement to steer them on the path to racing excellence. If that gives you a buzz, you’re a true coach.”

It is not just these three coaches that Erskine holds in high regard, he is really pleased with the full range of staff that the BSA has assembled. Their full roster sees Alain Baxter head up the FIS programme with the evergreen Ruslan Nachkov. “And then at U14/U16 level we have the bases covered,” Erskine explains. “In charge is the brilliant Natalia Pruska, aided by Jordan and also Graham Dickson. Graham has something that all of the kids respond to, a happy go lucky guy. Then there’s Hope Whitelaw, a super professional young lady, really well organised.”

The Mini programme (U12 and U10) is being spearheaded by Fraser Buchan. Buchan recognised the need for continuity and structure and put this to Erskine. Together they have put a programme together in conjunction with Bori Nachkova helping with “skills and drills,” as Erskine explained.

Erskine knows what he is talking about as the stats show that at some stage all of the current British Team on the World Cup have spent time at the British Ski Academy. With seven full time coaches plus Erskine himself, who raced downhill at World Cup level, the BSA is looking more at Quality rather than Quantity for the new season and hopes to cater for in the region of 25 athletes on a regular basis with space for up to 50 should need arise.

Yasmin Cooper, one of the BSA’s long-term trainees returns to the programme. Before injury ruled her out of the 2018/2019 season Cooper won the Senior Downhill and Overall U21 titles at Tignes in 2018. Despite this she was not selected for national team status. Erskine says, “watch this space. Yas has been overlooked by so many in the sport, but her potential is still huge.”

It is not just a case of sending the racers away to the BSA and then sending them home at the end of their stay. Erskine recognises the need for more feedback going to the parents through the stay. “We have increased the fees marginally to ensure high coaching input and low athlete ratios, and to give the athletes an ideal academy experience,” Erskine explained.

Not only has Erskine redefined his coaching team, the whole operation has moved to a new base above Aosta. “We have full exclusivity with the new building,” Erskine explained. “It is a very pretty place called the Panoramique, south facing and a little further to the Pila lift, but only 10 minutes so I’m not worried about that. Changes to the programme see the athletes stay up on the hill longer, having lunch on the hill as standard. Because we are taking the Panoramique over completely, we can get everything how we want, the gym, classrooms, everything.”

One area that Erskine feels that the BSA ‘sets standards’ is in the schooling. “I am proud of our track record enabling young racers to enjoy getting really good at their sport without jeopardising academic grades.”

The triangle between the parents, the BSA educational team and the UK school is very important. “Feedback is generally favourable and often exceptional,” said Erskine, “but this year we will have live in teachers to flag up if a student starts to slip in any subject.” Erskine is keen to emphasise that schoolwork has to be completed to a high standard. “Our mission is for trainees to return to school up to or ahead of schedule. That has always been crucial. It’s hard work but it is all doable, it is just the culture.”

One of the success stories of recent years is that of how Zak Vinter left the BSA programme and went to Montana State University on a scholarship. An alternative path to that of another ex BSA alumni, Laurie Taylor, who went straight onto the British Alpine Team and now starts his second season of slalom at World Cup level.

“Before I started up the BSA it used to be the case that a few GB racers would attend international academies, going to places like Schladming and Stams (in Austria) where the top five in the year group would get looked after, and the rest had to really fight to get the same attention. The coaches naturally want to work with the best kids, it’s human nature. What we do at our academy is to provide an inclusive hub for the GB sport. It’s about looking after everyone, with no prima donnas, because you just don’t know where the talent might emerge. You get late developers, particularly in the UK, so you cannot make an absolute judgement.”

“There is a lot of untapped potential in the UK. I am glad to see that there are far more racers hitting a high volume of training and that the depth of quality is now really high up to U16,” continued Erskine.

The BSA is supported at corporate level by Artemis Investment management and has in its turn been the primary sponsor of the GBR Series over the last two summers. Erskine admits he has not been around to as many races personally as he hoped to but the BSA has had a presence where possible. “In principle,” Erskine explained, “the sponsorship has been good for business, in practice it is tough out there. It’s a brilliant series but we are now moving more towards club partnership training packages. The important message to get across is that the BSA has the infrastructure and the expertise to welcome teams with their coaches to our winter base. This way UK race clubs can ensure that their racers access extra training during the winter term without losing the continuity of coaching delivery. For a lot of racers it’s the missing piece in the puzzle. These days you’re not going to make it to elite level by waiting for the next school holiday.”

In 1996 the BSA took over the British Interschools Ski Championships. The popular event reaches its milestone 30th year in 2020, the second longest Alpine-based event (after the national championships and British Schoolgirls races).

Erskine knows the sport of ski racing. From being an infant holiday skier to an athlete, coach, programme director and Academy Boss, as well as having run major races for over twenty years, Erskine is authoritative on the UK sport. One topic dear to his heart is the lack of emphasis placed on national seeding by selectors and by the sport. He envisages a national seeding list for Slalom to include seeding from all surfaces of British slalom racing: from the summer racing surfaces of plastic and indoor to racing on the hills in the winter. “To have three national seeding systems for slalom is a joke,” he feels. “And such a missed opportunity. Imagine the dynamic of a giant ladder with Dave (Ryding) at the top of the UK slalom rankings and U12s stepping on the first rung at Club National level.” Erskine feels that governing bodies should embrace a wider view. He believes it would not require too much in the way of concentrated performance direction and engagement with racers and clubs to make this happen.

These are exciting times across the sport of Alpine ski racing and there are people pushing for innovation. Erskine is one of those pushing the boundaries. The sport is changing and targets are being set for the athletes and coaches to aim for: the big goal set by GB Snowsport is for the country to be a top five winter sports nation by 2030.

How does Erskine feel things are at the BSA: “Behind the scenes a more dynamic business set up has been put in place. We have identified what we are good at, we are bolstering some areas that needed work, and we have gathered an awesome team, possibly our best ever, to deliver.”

The British Ski Academy is at the forefront of bringing athletes to the mountains, of making the sport of skiing accessible to more.

* The Slalom bronze medal was subsequently withdrawn due to a positive test for methamphetamine. Baxter had locally purchased a Vicks Sinex nasal decongestant spray. A calamitous mistake because, unlike the European version he was used to, the North American product contained the banned substance. Baxter faced no sanction from FIS since the traces discovered were negligible and since the intake was inadvertent. Despite wide international support for Baxter the IOC’s decision to disqualify him was ultimately upheld by CAS, the court of arbitration in sport.

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