In 2015, racer Robby Kelley was invited to rejoin the U.S. Ski Team. There was one catch: a price tag of about $30,000.
"[My parents] really, really, wanted me to go back," said Kelley, who had lost his spot the season before. During his year off the team, however, he had helped form a group of his own — Redneck Racing — and he wanted to stay independent. "We had some arguments about it."
Kelley eventually declined the U.S. Ski Team (USST) nomination and continues to compete under the Redneck Racing banner. He's found success on his own, becoming a regular on the World Cup circuit and qualifying for the world championships. Now he has his sights set on the ultimate prize: the Olympics.
The United States sends its fastest skiers to the Olympics, whether they're members of the USST or not. The team that will compete next month in the PyeongChang Games is expected to be announced by Jan. 25. A maximum of four spots are available in Kelley's discipline (men's slalom), and he has an outside shot at one of the openings. "It's obviously been a lifelong dream of mine," he said.
Kelley comes from one of the most decorated families in ski racing. While his relatives have been competing at the Olympics for decades with the USST, he would be the first to make it independently.
"When I was on the U.S. Ski Team, there were no independent racers," said Barbara Ann Cochran, Kelley's aunt and a gold medalist at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. In recent years, though, she says independent ski racing has become much more mainstream.
Six-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller helped spark the trend in 2007 when he broke from the USST and formed "Team America." Other racers have followed suit, almost always after failing to make the U.S. team, or losing their spot. Kelley is one of the few skiers — perhaps the only one — to decline a nomination to go it alone.
"I see Redneck as a way to continue ski racing on our own terms," he said of the team, which also includes Tucker Marshall and former U.S. team member Julia Ford, who competed four years ago at the Sochi Olympics. "I wasn't very happy with my time on the [U.S.] team."
Like Miller, Kelley found the team's training plan restrictive. In particular, he wanted to shift his focus more toward the slalom (as opposed to the giant slalom), but found that difficult. Money was also a motivating factor. He was on the B team during his first USST stint, which was largely funded, but, had he rejoined, he would have been placed on the C team, which would have required a $30,000 contribution for expenses. (It takes more than $100,000 a year for the USST to put an average athlete on the slopes.) He thought he could do it on his own for less money.
"I don't spend nearly that much," said Kelley. "I try to do everything really efficiently."
Redneck Racing has developed a range of cost-cutting techniques, from stuffing clothes in with skis when traveling to stretching free hotel breakfasts in to lunches. "I always get the cheapest rental car," Kelley said. "No matter what." On a recent trip to Europe, he and fellow independent racer Michael Ankeny rented a small Fiat. Together they crammed 11 pairs of skis, four pairs of boots, two duffel bags, their poles and themselves, inside.
Kelley estimates his total costs at less than $15,000. Even that, he says, is more than offset by the increase in fundraising, sponsorship and stipends he's found as an independent. "I'm able to cover my skiing, and then have a little bit left over to live on," he said.
But Kelley also acknowledges the sacrifices.
When he was on the U.S. team, everything was taken care of for him. Redneck Racing, on the other hand, doesn't have a dedicated coach — they train with others whenever they can, and do it themselves when they can't. Redneck also doesn't have anyone to help prepare their equipment, which Kelley said is arguably the bigger challenge. The night before a recent World Cup race in Italy, he remembers spending seven hours in the ski-tuning room trying to get his setup dialed in and still missing the mark. "It was kind of a botched race," he said.
Despite the headaches, Kelley believes the decision to stay independent was the right one. While he says the USST makes sense for many skiers (especially those who compete in the cost-intensive speed disciplines), Kelley still takes issue with the team's general approach. "They support the guys at the top [and] don't worry too much about the people trying to get there," he said. "I think that's hurting ski racing."
Steve Porino, an analyst for NBC, was a member of the U.S. team from 1988 to 1992; a time when he says he even made a bit of money as a professional ski racer. In contrast, he estimates that someone in a similar position today would be paying at least $20,000 for their spot. On the whole, he says, there are now more gaps in the development pipeline that promising yet unsupported athletes can fall through.
"It's a huge issue," said Porino, attributing the problem in large part to the rising cost of the sport. That's exacerbated by the fact that, unlike in many other countries, Olympic sports in the United States do not receive government funds. "I don't think there is an obvious bright light right now as to how we keep this sport from becoming completely untenable in the U.S. financially."
Skiing isn't the only Olympic sport that's had to confront compensation and cost questions. Last year, the U.S. women's hockey team threatened to boycott the world championships in its, ultimately successful, push for more equal pay. Many Olympians have also resorted to crowdfunding their dreams, and PyeongChang is no exception (one example is skeleton athlete Megan Henry).
U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the national governing body, sticks by its strategy. "The resources we deploy are pretty squarely on the athletes that we estimate, or project, can have top international results," said Luke Bodensteiner, the governing body's executive vice president of athletics (the organization has also faced criticism for administrative compensation that can top $500,000 annually). "Ultimately, medals at the Olympic Games is what we're after."
Two-time Olympic skier Doug Lewis is supportive of that goal. But he also wonders whether too many resources are going to stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin, Ted Ligety or Lindsey Vonn. "When you're not on the team, but close . . . is when you need the money, the help and the care," said Lewis, who now runs summer conditioning camps aimed at young skiers. "Maybe that's where more of the [resources] should go."
Bodensteiner said U.S. Ski & Snowboard is making efforts to further support athletes. In late 2016, the organization launched a fundraising campaign for a $25 million athlete endowment dedicated to travel and education grants. With the money raised so far, they've already been able to distribute more than $200,000. The goal is quadruple that, annually. But, he adds, "the resources aren't limitless."
Kelley knows that problem all too well, but has never second-guessed his choice to leave the U.S. team. "It's a lot more freedom," he said. "I've been way less stressed." He also feels that he's skiing better than ever (though the race results have been a bit inconsistent). But, the competition is steep (including from other independents such as Ankeny) and, with only about a week left, the race to PyeongChang will be tight.
"I've just got to let my results speak for themselves," he said, "and hopefully they're up to Olympic standards."