JED HINKLEY DRAWS ON CLUB BACKGROUND TO MAP FUTURE FOR USA NORIC
Insightful commentary in Ticket to Fly Podcast interview with host Peter Graves
Longtime athlete, coach and program leader Jed Hinkley has experience at every level of the sport. He grew up in New Hampshire, skiing both alpine and cross country, as well as picking up ski jumping. A journeyman member of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team, he was a 2002 Olympian. Today, he has taken over as sport director for USA Nordic. Hinkley got with legendary nordic commentator Peter Graves for an insightful look into his past and his vision for USA Nordic.
How did you get into nordic sport?
Much like many people, I believe I actually started downhill skiing or alpine skiing probably around the age of two or three. I had gotten into jumping because my dad had been a four event skier growing up, mainly a downhill skier, but also skied cross country and jumped a little bit.
Who was an influential coach for you growing up?
Tim Norris was my first ski jumping coach. I believe Tim started coaching ski jumping in 1969 at Proctor and then I think he actually formed the Andover Outing Club. I actually like to use Tim as a great example. Not having a whole lot of base, he coached ski jumping for nearly 50 years. You don’t have to be an amazing ski jumper to be an amazing ski jumping coach. He is one of my favorite coaches and human beings as well.
What lessons did you take from your development director job into your new job as sport director?
We work in ski jumping because we love the sport, but I also think that it is a great vehicle to instill values that go beyond just the ski jump. I have a bit of a different perspective coming from a small club. In my previous role, it was an understanding of what it takes to run a small ski jumping club and the amount of work you have to put into hill prep, you know, getting athletes to events and just making it fun. Tim made it fun for us. One of the things that it definitely taught me was, you do stuff because you’re passionate about it. You do stuff because it’s the right thing to do. Being outdoors, skiing on snow, is something every kid should have the opportunity to do. Nordic combined gave me a great appreciation for being outside in the winter. Certainly having to jump off the ski jump gives you some courage and some ability to overcome barriers. And then on the cross-country side, just the determination and the willingness – a willingness to sort of put it all out and give it all you got.
Coming from a small club, you appreciate the role of volunteers.
Depending on how you count them, we have between 28 and 30 ski jumping clubs in the United States. I would say about 24 of them are run on a largely volunteer base. The vast majority of our clubs are completely run by parents, volunteers, former jumpers and by people who just have a passion for the sport. We wouldn’t have our sport in this country without that base. I do believe that we need to move in a more professional direction. And I do like to see more coaches paid so that we can just kind of have it be more of a profession that people can pursue. But I never want to forget those small clubs. And I always want to try to support our existing clubs that are doing so much to keep the sport going and to actually grow the sport.
What was your career like as an athlete and what lessons did you take away?
I’m certainly proud of those accomplishments, but I would say within my sport, I was maybe a bit more of a journeyman. I spent the majority of my career on the Continental Cup. But I think that one thing I took away is that I think that does help me give me some perspective on what a lot of other athletes are going through. The sort of struggles that a lot of athletes have trying to make it and pursue their dreams and perform and compete at the highest level.
You had exposure as an athlete to the early days of success of Todd Lodwick and others. How important is the hero factor in motivating athletes?
It’s really important for the younger athletes coming up to see the older athletes and see their heroes compete and being part of that environment. But at the same time, international events are expensive and it takes a ton of manpower to put them on. We’re really trying to find creative ways on how we can continue to host Continental Cups, FIS Cups and potentially World Cups in the future. They are integral to our sport here in this country, to inspiring the next generation and then also providing opportunities for athletes. But it’s certainly not an easy task to undertake.
What have you learned in your engagement with USA Nordic clubs?
When I took over the development role, it was certainly very important for me to not just be consulting with clubs from far away and not having an understanding of what was going on. I visited around 15 clubs per year. I would usually take about 11 to 12 trips and spent a lot of time talking to coaches, parents, athletes – helping out with things, holding clinics – but also just listening and hearing. How is your program growing or not growing? What are your biggest challenges? What are your biggest successes? There are certainly challenges and things that are unique to certain clubs, but there also sort of some universal challenges that I heard – getting the hills in shape, finding enough coaches because it isn’t really a profession, and then kind of having the money to be able to run quality programs. There isn’t a sort of one size fits all model that’s going to work for every club. But it’s really just trying to work with each individual club on doing the little tweaks, the little things that you can do to get more kids to to keep them at the club and little bit by little bit, continue to make progress and grow.
What things do clubs need?
I’m sure there’s not a sport out there that isn’t going to say we couldn’t use more money. And, you know, that’s true. But there is stuff that goes beyond money. And I would say that one thing that was universal from a club perspective is keeping the hills in shape. Our volunteer base for clubs is certainly aging and we’re sort of relying on the same people that were working on the hills when I was an athlete. And the standards at which we expect ski jumps to be is continually going up. What was acceptable when I was a kid is not acceptable today.
When I went to Slovenia to visit clubs, it wasn’t like they had these immaculate, unbelievable facilities. Actually, their strongest club looked a lot like some of our clubs here in the U.S. in terms that not everything was perfect. They were kind of, I wouldn’t say rundown, but it had some wear and tear. But what Europe, and Slovenia in particular, has more of than us, is that more clubs have a better progression of hills. They have more clubs with better progression of hills from small to big. And the other thing is, is they have hills with plastic on them where kids can jump consistently during the summer.
How would you assess USA Nordic today?
We’re about 10 years old. What has been done by the people before me in 10 years is pretty impressive. I also know that we’ve reached a point at which we want to take the next step in terms of performance on an international stage and really become more solidly in the top ranks at all levels. That’s not just going to happen overnight. But there’s going to have to be some very intentional work done to get us there. And the buck stops with me.
You’re new in your position, but how are you formulating things?
I moved into it in mid-May where I think we were all sort of still hopeful that COVID and coronavirus would come and go. And clearly it has not come and gone and it’s here to stay. I didn’t really think about having to deal with all this as I was taking this position.
When I came into the role, we had just done a survey of our athletes and our staff. I spent a lot of time going over responses, segmenting into teams and then also individual responses. I have made a goal to reach out to every national team athlete individually to have a conversation. I’m not quite there yet, given that we have a number of athletes on our national team. I’m here to support them and make sure that we have a working relationship and to just kind of pick their brains and hear where they’re at and how they’re feeling about things.
There are some themes involved in the survey and talking to people. One thing that we need to continue to improve upon is a vision of where we want to go, where we want to be both short term and long term, that we all buy into. What do we want USA Nordic to be in five years? If we have a vision, if we have a goal. OK, let’s take a very sort of analytical approach to meet that goal. What do we need to do?
In addition to having the vision and having a plan, as a country, we have oftentimes have not had a belief in our own ability. ‘Oh, it’s so hard for us to compete with Norway and with Germany and with Slovenia.’ We had this mentality that we’re not as good as those other countries and we are never going to be. We need to do a better job at believing in our own capability, believing in our system and believing in each other that we can accomplish more than we currently have.
And we’ve seen that strength with women!
Obviously an area where we are certainly strong is with Tara on the women’s nordic combined side. It’s a new and growing sport. So each year it’s good to see it continue to move forward. Tara has accomplished a great deal in sort of a young sport as it is. And we certainly are proud of her accomplishments and excited to be able to support her moving forward. But we also want to make sure that we’re not just saying, oh, you know, Tara is great, and we have the best women’s nordic combined athlete in the world. We should support the sport from a broader perspective. So we want to continue to see that move forward in terms of more competitions on the World Cup, more competitions at World Championships, more opportunities for these women to showcase their skills and really, really, really trying to push the sport forward, both for our athletes and for athletes around the world.
Any final words Jed?
I’m just excited you guys are doing this podcast. I want to thank you for having me on. I’m excited to be in my new position – challenges and all with COVID. And, you know, I look forward to doing more of these in the future and to hearing the other ones you’re going to do with other people.