Meet Claire Thomas: Captain of the Dartmouth College Female Alpine Skiing Team
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Claire Thomas, 2019-20 Captain, Dartmouth Ski Team
We took advantage of the summer off season to catch up with Claire Thomas, the Captain of Dartmouth College’s Women’s Alpine Ski Team.
Claire grew up in Salt Lake City and started skiing soon after walking. At 18 months, she began to spend her days at Alta and Snowbird, which remain two of her favorite places today. By the time she was six years old, she was spending her weekends involved in Park City Mountain Resort’s local youth programs. By sixth grade, Claire had tried out for, and joined, the Park City Ski Team and began to travel regionally to ski more competitively. Though Claire attended public high school in Salt Lake, by sophomore year, she started to think about pursuing skiing in college. Despite growing up in the Utah Wasatch, Claire looked East and Dartmouth stood out immediately.
Now specializing in Giant Slalom, Claire shared her experience as the captain of an elite college ski team, what it took to get there, as well as her best technical tips, workout routine, and favorite gear. We can’t wait to see what’s next for this decorated college athlete, who is entering her final year at Dartmouth this Fall.
FROM UTAH TO NEW HAMPSHIRE – BECOMING A COLLEGE SKI RACER
Q. Most would agree that you grew up with some of the best snow and ski resorts on earth in Utah. Why come east to race in college!?
A. I view ski racing completely separate from free skiing. While coming east for free skiing would not be my first choice, racing is a different equation. I've found racing conditions in the east to be better! The ice preserves the snow, creating more consistent race conditions. Out West, the softer snow does not hold up and if you are not one of the top few racers, conditions become more challenging.
Personally, I also wanted to diversify out my experience and move away from home. While I was being recruited, the culture and camaraderie of the Eastern carnivals was very attractive to me. The teams are mostly made up of racers that have grown up skiing together in the United States. The West has a lot more scholarship money, which tends to attract international students. Dartmouth and Middlebury do not have that kind of scholarship money, but offer great cultures and tight-knit communities.
Q. Growing up, you were focused on academics and also played soccer. Talk about the pivotal moments that led you to pursue skiing in college.
A. By Sophomore year, I had started thinking about pursuing sports in college. My first decision was soccer vs. skiing. Even though I attended public school, I continued to participate in ski racing through the Park City Ski Team and did a bit of inter-mountain travel between Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Based on the cultures of the two sports and my underlying desire to spend time outside of Utah – skiing took priority. I knew this would be challenging as less than 20 colleges in the United States have NCAA-affiliated ski teams.
Q. Tell us more about how you chose Dartmouth and what you needed to do to attract their attention.
A. First, I found that I was performing better in races with icier racing conditions, like those found on the East Coast. I was also attracted to the more competitive liberal arts education. Even then, there are limited schools to choose amongst. Dartmouth stood out for its small team size, elite reputation among skiers, and overall community. However, my skier point profile was not where it needed to be to be competitive. When I started thinking about Dartmouth, I had about 80 points with the Federation of International Skiing and a typical female Dartmouth skier has ~30, so I knew I had a lot of racing to do to get it down.
Federation of International Skiing Points System Explained
The Federation of International Skiing (FIS) sanctions a universal point profile for ski racing. Globally, every racer is ranked by this system. Each individual entering FIS-sanctioned skiing starts with 1,000 points. Similar to golf, the goal is to lower one’s points as much as possible and this becomes more challenging to trim as the number of points falls. Races have penalties calculated based on their degree of difficulty; for example, in a college race, which has a 25-point penalty, the top skier will score a 25. By contrast, a World Cup race is the most competitive race and has a zero penalty. As a skier improves upon their point profile, FIS will take an athlete’s two lowest scores in a given discipline, average them, and that becomes that skier’s point profile.
COMPETITIVE CAMARADERIE ON THE DARTMOUTH TEAM
Q. Once you make the team at Dartmouth, are you assured to race in most NCAA events?
A. College skiing can be cutthroat, Dartmouth especially, given the caliber of racers our team has — on any given weekend half of our team doesn’t race. During the season, there are only 6 major races, called “Carnivals.” Our Women’s Alpine Team generally has 10-12 racers. However, a team can only bring 6 men and 6 women to each race.
Given this dynamic, tension can run high during the season. Placing in the top three on our team in a race one weekend qualifies you for the carnival the next weekend. Leaving the rest of the team to compete for the other three spots during weekly practices.
Q. Describe a typical practice regimen and workout routine.
A. During the season, we practice skiing six days a week, no matter what. Carnivals are Friday/Saturday and Sundays are off. We often travel to races on Thursdays. In the East, everything is so much closer than in the West. Our farthest drive for a race is ~4 hours to Sugarloaf for the Colby Carnival.
Outside of the season, we’re still very active. In the Fall, we lift ~3 times a week as a team. Core work is critical — it helps with stabilization and injury prevention as well as general skiing ability. Our go to moves include planks, Olympic Lifting with squats, weighted lunges and hanging from a pull up bar. In the spring, we train with the boys team and have weightlifting twice a week. In the summer, we transition to be more cardio-focused...biking is my preferred form of cardio. As a team, we also regularly run stadiums.
Q. What is your favorite event to race and why?
A. Giant Slalom! I love the speed of the event and the tempo of the terms...it is also the race where I am best!
Thomas Slalom racing during the Dartmouth 2020 Carnival Weekend
Defining Features of Alpine Ski Race Types
Claire walked us through the four alpine ski disciplines for college athletes and gave us some fast facts on each event. Beginning with the Slalom and progressing to the Downhill, the speeds get faster, the gates get progressively farther apart, and skis get longer.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM TIME AT DARTMOUTH
Q. How was your experience as Captain of the Team during the most recent season?
A. Overall, being Captain was not too different from being a member of the team. I did have a lot more administrative responsibility. There were challenges in navigating being a team member and being captain, especially when it came to ensuring all teammates adhered to team values.
I learned a lot about communication and leadership. It was also fun and rewarding to work closely with the Captain of the Men’s team. The two of us represented the ski team in meeting alumni who returned to campus over the winter.
Q. Ski travel and gear are expensive. Are you able to receive sponsorships?
A. During high school, I had sponsorships from Swix, for my poles and wax; Rossingnol for skis and boots; and POC for my helmets and goggles. Prior to Dartmouth, I actively promoted these brands. The NCAA does not allow promotion, though I remain affiliated and will tag these brands on social media as appropriate.
Q. Share you best advice for young skiers.
A. First off, I can’t overstate the importance of being part of a ski program. Developing skiers don’t necessarily need to go to an academy (such as the Winter Sports School in Park City or the Stratton Mountain School in Vermont), but being from a recognized group such as the Park City Ski Team is a necessity. By the time an athlete is 15-years-old, having a regimented workout program is also essential.
Pro Tip: For Young, Competitive Skiers Looking to Make their Mark, a Dedicated Academy Isn’t their Only Path to College Athletic Success
While the trend for young skiers now is moving towards private ski clubs and academies, as sports are becoming more competitive in general, Claire’s pro-tip is that an Academy or school with a reverse school year tailored towards winter sports athletes is not a necessary approach for those serious about skiing. The same benefits, she says, are available in a competitive ski program offered by an established mountain, such as the Park City team she joined as a younger athlete. These programs also can offer more flexibility for multi-sport athletes and those wanting a more traditional, high school academic experience.
To compete in college, aspiring racers need to compete in FIS sanctioned racing, this central rating system is critical to the recruiting process. In addition to the numerical requirement, this forum is where you can start to connect with college coaches. Once in high school, it’s never too early to start reaching out to coaches. The well-recognized programs often have relationships with the colleges, though the onus falls on the athlete to initiate contact.
Q. Let’s get technical! Will you share some technical tips with our readers?
A. Whether you’re a beginning racer (or skier generally) or Mikaela Shiffrin, you can always work on being on your outside ski. In other words, your body weight should predominantly be on your outside foot. If you’re “two-footed,” meaning your weight is on both your inside and outside skis, you have a tendency to fall to the inside, increasing the likelihood of being off-balance and ultimately, less powerful.
BEYOND COLLEGE RACING
Q. As you head into your senior year, what are your goals for next season and post graduation?
A. On the ski racing front, I want to leave Dartmouth with an All American title and finish in the top ten at the NCAA Skiing Championship. I also want to repeat as the Giant Slalom champion for the East.
Our national governing body makes it difficult to ski beyond college. It becomes really hard to secure funding and there’s not a lot of racing unless you’re competing in the World Cup. Unfortunately, this will probably be my last year racing. This summer I am interning for StartUp Health, a Venture Capital firm focused on digital health startups; longer-term, I am thinking about law school.
Q. Are you still able to enjoy skiing for fun, despite the level at which you compete and train?
A. Absolutely! I’ve come to cherish every opportunity to ski for fun especially since I've skied in the Northeast for the past three years, and it can tend to be a bit grey at times. But those conditions definitely make you tougher and love the general act of skiing way more, especially West coast bluebird days. I love free skiing at home...though I can never escape the little voice in my head coaching my technique. I hope I can take ski vacations for the next 60 years!
Role models? I always really looked up to Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn was a huge name when I was growing up. A more personal mentor is Jess Kelley, who was my coach with the Park City team and is also a very committed, kind person.
Favorite places to ski? Sun Valley, Alta, and Jackson Hole. In the East, I love racing at Stowe and generally think it’s a really fun place to be. Aspirational ski destinations? More skiing in Europe, where the après vibe is so much fun. Chamonix, specifically, and touring in Austria. A heli or cat ski trip also sounds really appealing. Place for backcountry skiing? Either of the Cottonwoods Canyon in Utah.
Gear? Lange (boots), Rossingol (skis), Hestra (gloves), Swix (poles), POC (helmet and goggles). I also love Skida and Dartmouth just partnered with Swany. Tech? I love my Garmin and use Strava regularly for my training.
Après spot? Goldminer’s Daughter at Alta. Lone Star Taqueria in Cottonwoods Heights, UT. Also, Apple’s in Sun Valley, and of course, the Frenchman’s Hot Springs in Sun Valley.