It’s time to give Sandy Vietze a break. If you’re familiar with the young ski racer’s story, you probably just rolled your eyes and wondered aloud how anybody could possibly defend a kid who two weeks ago got drunk, exposed himself to an adolescent girl, and urinated on an airplane (not on the girl, as numerous media erroneously reported). But stay with me for a minute.
Since the incident took place, Vietze has taken a lashing from the media, members of his Warren, Vermont community, and, most devastatingly, from the U.S. Ski Team, who dropped him from the development squad for “being in violation of the USSA [United States Ski Association] code of conduct and team agreement.” For exposing himself, he faces even more serious consequences: up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. As the New York Post so eloquently put it, “Everybody’s pissed at this guy.”
I understand the outrage. When I found out what happened I Tweeted that “If you're 18 and on the U.S. Ski Team, you need to be more responsible than an avg. 18-year-old.” I stand by that. Professional athletes are in the public eye and, no matter how old they are, need to have greater awareness of their actions. Vietze had to have known that just by drinking, he was in violation of A) the law and B) U.S. Ski Team policy.
Therefore, Veitze should at least be responsible for financing any therapy this young girl may need for post-traumatic stress. And I can’t argue with the U.S. Ski Team brass for taking serious action. But I do think the organization went too far.
Second chances have become as much a part of sports as Gatorade, and, based on glowing testimony from five people I spoke to within the ski racing world—none of whom wanted to be identified for this story—Vietze is certainly deserving of one.
Let’s examine the facts: Vietze made one bad mistake that led him to commit two others. He was drunk and walking through the plane in a barely-conscious haze when he decided to stop and relieve himself. Drinking was dumb, but what followed was not pre-meditated. He did not walk on that plane with the intention of becoming the mile-high peeing bandit. And he quickly acted to make amends for those actions.
My sources have told me that in the days after the incident, Vietze voluntarily signed up for Alcoholics Anonymous. For what it’s worth, I was also told that he tried to apologize to the girl to whom he exposed himself (newspaper reports say that the family refuses contact with Vietze). (For the record, I tried to get in touch with the Vietze family but received an e-mail stating that “the family has asked for privacy in this matter.”)
Based on what I’ve learned, Vietze’s efforts to make good don’t strike me as the acts of a desperate athlete trying to save face. Everybody I’ve spoken to has told me that Vietze is a “great kid,” “incredibly nice,” “very humble.” Jere Brophy, the athletic director at the Green Mountain Valley School, the ski academy in Waitsfield, Vermont, where Vietze was a star athlete, told the New York Post that Vietze was a “a super nice kid.” From what my sources knew, Vietze had never been in trouble for anything before this incident.
Sandy Vietze did not stage dogfights, he did not fire a concealed weapon inside a nightclub, and he did not lie to congress while under oath. Sandy Vietze did not put lives in jeopardy by getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated, as USSA president Bill Marolt did in March 2010—and kept his job.
What Sandy Vietze did was a mistake and he deserves to be punished, but he does not deserve to be forced to give up his dream of going to the Olympics.
As somebody who attended one of the other ski academies in Vermont, I have a sense of how hard Vietze has worked to get where he is. He’s spent hundreds of mornings in the gym before class and hundreds more conducting video analysis. He’s gone through slalom training in the sleet and rain and suffered frostbitten toes and fingers. I don’t expect anybody feel sorry for a kid who gets to ski every day, but, as in any sport, making it to the elite level takes quite a bit of sacrifice.
I’m sure that if Vietze knew he was throwing away years of dedication and progress by committing one brazen act, he would have put down the beer. I’m sure Sandy Vietze wishes he could take back everything that happened. He can’t. But the U.S. Ski Team can take him back. And they need to—immediately. To not do so is a disservice to their role in Vietze’s development as a human being and a disservice to the sport of skiing.
There is a short window for training great talent in ski racing. If the U.S. Ski team gives up on him now, when he is at his prime for being molded into a great skier, it could mean he is lost for good. More importantly, with Vietze on the team, coaches and administrators could also help him make wiser personal decisions. The U. S. Ski Team can do whatever it wants. But it seems to me that they should start taking responsibility for their athletes during the developmental stages, rather than shrugging their shoulders when those athletes make juvenile decisions as adults in the national spotlight.
To be a bit more specific, isn’t it better that your athlete make a mistake now, learn from it, and become a better representative of the team, rather than tell a national television audience that he’s raced drunk two weeks before the Olympics?
“All of us have made mistakes,” Billy Kidd, the 1964 Olympic silver medalist in slalom, told me a few days ago. “If you’re a ski racer, you’re always pushing the envelope. I certainly have, and I was just lucky to either live through them or to not do them in a public arena. He’s 18 years old. He’s going to have serious consequences, but I would like to see him get another chance.”