Skiing is one of the NCAA’s oldest championships, but only four individuals in the long history of the sport have captured an individual national title as a student-athlete and then gone on to coach a team to a national title. University of Denver head coach Andy LeRoy completed the feat most recently when his Pioneers captured the first of three consecutive national championship titles in 2008.
It was an accomplishment that had not been reached in more than 30 years of NCAA skiing.
Denver’s John Cress captured an individual national title in 1956 before going on to coach Wyoming to a team title in 1968; Colorado’s Bill Marolt captured individual titles in 1963, ‘65 and ’66, then led his alma mater to seven consecutive team titles from 1972-78. James Page skied to a national title for Dartmouth in 1962 and 1963 before leading the Big Green to a tie for the title with Marolt’s Buffaloes in 1976.
LeRoy first took his place in the NCAA skiing record book in 2000 when he captured the men’s slalom national title as a student-athlete for Colorado. Eight years later he stood atop the podium again as Denver’s head coach and enjoyed the thrill of victory from a new perspective.
“It was more fun as a coach, absolutely,” LeRoy said. “As a coach, there are so many more people that are excited about it. I got to step back and watch their joy and their excitement and see the way it came together over the course of the year.”
LeRoy joined the U.S. Ski Team out of high school in 1993 and spent the next six years skiing internationally on the World Cup circuit, including an appearance in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. With one year of collegiate eligibility remaining, LeRoy joined the University of Colorado ski team under head coach Richard Rokos for the 1999-2000 season. Along with winning the individual national title that year, LeRoy was named Colorado’s Athlete of the Year.
“I’d been skiing with the national team for six years and trying to be the best in the world, and anything less wasn’t satisfying,” LeRoy said. “But at CU, I was being recognized for the work I put in all year long and I was able to reach all of the goals I set in that environment. I was able to recapture some of what I loved about skiing by being on a college campus.”
That experience as a student-athlete also equipped LeRoy for the unique challenge of coaching skiing at the collegiate level where competing with a team perspective is often new to student-athletes in a traditionally individual sport.
“We’re challenged in the sport of skiing in that you’re always competing as an individual,” LeRoy said. “So to try to meld individual skiers into thinking with a team mentality is a real challenge. Trying to get that kind of culture going in a team — it was helpful for me to have been part of a team myself.”
Senior A.J. Avrin has been skiing under LeRoy’s direction for four years as a member of the men’s Alpine team and was an All-American in giant slalom at the 2010 championships where Denver won its third consecutive team title.
“Seeing the ecstasy on his face when we won the title and sharing in our success, I just thought that was such a selfless reaction,” Avrin remembered. “It was almost like he was skiing vicariously through us and just sharing in our joy.”
LeRoy and the rest of the Pioneer squad will look to recapture that championship magic when they return to Bozeman, Mont., in March for the 2012 NCAA skiing championships at the same site where Denver won its 2008 title. LeRoy is familiar not only with the venue, but what it will take to capture another championship there.
“You don’t come across coaches very often who have had the kind of success that he’s had, as a student-athlete himself and an Olympian,” Avrin said. “It’s been a real blessing to be able to work with someone who understands the preparation that it takes to be successful, both mentally and physically, and has the experience to guide you through that.”