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Q&A: Rob De Martini on USA Cycling’s new youth development program

USA Cycling CEO Rob DeMartini answers questions about the new Olympic Development Academy.

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Earlier this week we reported on USA Cycling’s Olympic Development Academy, the revamped youth development system that replaced the federation’s old model for identifying and then developing the cycling stars of tomorrow.

Riders apply for a spot in the Olympic Development Academy, and a selection committee chooses between six to 20 athletes per semester, based on a wide array of criteria, not just race results. Riders selected for the program then spend a semester attending training camps, learning from coaches, sports scientists, and nutritionists, and participating in races at home and abroad.

All six of USA Cycling’s disciplines will have Olympic Development Academy programs: road, track, mountain bike, cyclocross, BMX racing, and BMX freestyle.

And the program carries a tuition of $10,500 per semester.

The story produced a wave of reactions from readers, including a fair amount of criticism. We culled the most common critiques of the program and posed them as questions to Rob DeMartini, USA Cycling’s CEO. Here’s what DeMartini had to say:

VeloNews: This new program could limit the diversity of the riders in the program due to the cost. How do you avoid that?

Rob DeMartini: I think that is inaccurate. Under the old system, you had to be identified, and there was no formality to it. You either came from a devo team, or you knew someone who knew someone who knew [Higher Performance director] Jim Miller. Now, you can apply. I think Jim has over 200 applications, and 380 athletes interested, and we’re going to deal with those on their athletic merit. And if they have a financial gap that needs to be filled, that’s why we have scholarship money in the system. In the past, whatever money was invested was done so on the athletes in the system. So there was no way to get athletes who didn’t have access to the system. Look, elite athletics is incredibly expensive. Whether it’s racing in Europe, or learning about sports science, or receiving coaching, that stuff is expensive. We’re trying to find a way to make it more accessible so that expense isn’t what keeps you out of the system.

VN: How do you reach those kids who will be scared away from applying due to the $10,500 tuition fee?

RD: Throughout this process, we’ve told people: Do not let financial concerns impact your application. Just apply. Make that our problem. We’ll find a way to balance athletic merit and financial merit to get you into the program. We’re being held accountable to produce results, and we’ll take that challenge on. If you don’t have the monetary access to the program, apply and we’ll find a way to get you in. That wasn’t in the previous model because you already needed to be in the program to be identified.

VN: What financial problems is this new system supposed to solve?

RD: This program is designed to mostly pay for itself. We’re going to subsidize it with USA Cycling Foundation as well as [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] money. It’s still a negative revenue program for us, but it’s not here today because of the short-term impact of COVID-19. It’s here because we want to get more kids into the pipeline so we can have more athletes at the top of our disciplines at the world championships. It’s not being driven out of short-term financial challenges, it’s being driven by the goals of doing better in Tokyo than we did in Rio, and then doing better in Paris and Los Angeles in a way that is more relevant to this sport in this country.

VN: Other countries pay for young athletes to receive coaching and equipment for free. 

RD: Sure, Great Britain is government-funded. It’s funded off of the lottery. The U.S. Olympic effort isn’t. We get some money from [the USOC], but they don’t get money from the government, and the money is spread across 55 national governing bodies. Our five [Olympic] medals in Rio compared to other countries was relatively efficient. And, if we’re going to grow that amount, we need more money in the system. And the Olympic system in the U.S. predominantly privately-funded.

VN: Why not cover the cost for all of the kids to be in the development program?

RD: For kids to participate in the financials of the program means we can direct the money we have toward the kids who don’t have the ability to pay. We’re going to spend more on devo than we ever have before, and the participants will fund some of it. I think it’s a much more effective system to take the money — that’s the discretionary money in the program — and give it to the kids who don’t have access to it. That’s what scholarship is all about.

VN: What’s wrong with the existing way of running youth development through the federation?

RD: We won 18 world championships last year, so the entire system isn’t broken. There were two problems. One, it wasn’t deep enough, and it was too exclusive. The first time you and I spoke in California a year and a half ago, I had been getting to know the athletes, and they had this commonality of having gotten into cycling through a friend of the family member in the sport. What about the people that don’t have that? If we get 120 kids in the program that is two times what we were at our peak in terms of headcount, and the fact is we’ll have 20 percent scholarship means we’ll get kids in here who didn’t have access in the past. Over the last day of the online discussion, I’ve been seeing people completely miss that.

VN: What are the most expensive parts of the program? Why does it cost so much?

RD: It’s coaching and support staff; housing and meals; race entry fees and insurance for the kids and participants; strength and conditioning coaches, access to sports science and educational resources; and the infrastructure it takes to run a team. In the past, we had a team at the Tour of California and threw that together 40 days ahead of the race. That’s not the way to develop talent. The team did fantastic but we want constant touch with these athletes so they can develop at the highest and fastest level. It takes team infrastructure. This isn’t a profit-generating structure for USA Cycling. It’s where we want to invest.