Welcome to the latest installment of FasterSkier’s season previews! Here we break down what to expect from the US Ski Team’s cross-country athletes on the international stage in 2012-2013.
With the pre-World Cup races in Muonio, Finland, just around the corner, now is a good time to take stock of what happened last season. When it was time to write this preview a year ago, the Americans were coming off of a very different winter. The most hyperbolic thing I could say was that Kikkan Randall’s two sprint wins from the season prior was evidence that the U.S. was carrying “serious momentum” into 2012.
We know what happened next. But Randall winning the sprint globe isn’t the only proof that big things had been in the works last November. The USST had just made some organizational changes; it declared a women’s team, added a large rookie class and then slashed the nordic budget.
The combination could have been disastrous, but what happened as the season unfolded was the exact opposite. Cohesion happened to new women’s squad and together they tallied unprecedented numbers of podiums, top-10s and top-30s. Randall, Liz Stephen and Jessie Diggins all finished the year safely in the Red Group.
The men have a little catching up to do, but they’re not starting from nothing. Simi Hamilton had a few breakout sprint top-10s. Andy Newell qualified for the rounds in every one of the twelve sprints he entered, making it to the finals once and into the top-10 thrice. Noah Hoffman and Tad Elliott each broke into the distance points for the first time.
But that was last year. This one will be different on many counts due to the importance of World Championships for every other national team on the circuit. Overall World Cup performance will take a back seat and the season will ramp up slowly with so many athletes, including the Americans, focused on peaking in late February.
On the scheduling front, there are also two weekends on the World Cup schedule in North America that present the U.S. with a home field-like experience. For the USST, the Canadian World Cups will be just another weekend of racing with added travel, but from a development perspective they’re hugely important. The U.S. will be able to start ten athletes in each individual race with its additional nation’s group spots.
“It’s a chance for a lot of developing athletes that are perhaps just below the national team level to demonstrate whether they’re ready to compete at that level,” said USST head coach Chris Grover. “It’ll be interesting to see what percentage of the European field shows up, but I’m excited to see athletes besides national team athletes maybe score some World Cup points.”
After Canada, it’s back to Europe for the Tour de Ski. At this point, Grover said that his Tour roster tentatively includes Randall, Stephen, Brooks and Diggins for the women and Freeman, Hoffman and Newell for men, though Newell plans to race only the first half.
“It’s a different situation this year. Last year it was the focal point, this year everyone is focused on World Champs,” Grover said. The athletes who are planning to ski the multi-stage event, he said, are doing so mainly to hone their race fitness.
How does the World Cup schedule work for the Americans? Overall, Grover says that the late-season focus will work to his athlete’s strengths.
“For us the focus for sure is World Champs, so we’re not looking too closely at the beginning of the season,” he said. “We’ll be training through those first races. There will be some weekends here and there that some athletes are targeting, and maybe for that one week they’ll lighten up for a certain event, but for the most part people are targeting World Champs.”
Last year was the first time, for the women or men, that American athletes stayed in Europe over Christmas to race the entire World Cup and Tour de Ski. That season-long focus worked out pretty well for Randall (see: crystal globe) and co., and Grover expects the women to rebuild that buzz this year, albeit at a different rate.
“I have no doubt that they’ll create that momentum again this season,” he said. However, “I don’t think they’ll be creating it right from the get-go. We’ve had a few injuries this summer. I think that they’re going to build into the season, and frankly that’s perfect.”
Randall has her recent foot injury to work back from and is being patient early on in order to be ready to go for podium-caliber performances in Val di Fiemme. Likewise, a nagging back issue affects Sadie Bjornsen’s early race schedule. She’ll be in the U.S. racing the SuperTour for the first period.
“She and [APU coach] Erik Flora decided that the best thing for her to do would be to start the season a little more conservatively…and then join the team in Canada to reduce travel during that first period and focus more on training,” Grover said.
That still leaves four women who will be starting the season in full health. Stephen, Diggins, Brooks and Ida Sargent are coming into this weekend’s FIS races in Muonio with more summer and fall on-snow time under their belts than they’ve ever had before. Based on performances last year and throughout the off-season, they should be stepping into the gates with confidence.
Stephen put together impressive uphill rollerski performances in Norway and Lake Placid, New York, throughout the summer. A ninety-second personal best up the Whiteface toll road, unchallenged, is no small feat. Back in July, Stephen said she hopes to nab some top-10s on the World Cup and, above all, reach the podium in the relay at World Championships.
Diggins will also be an obvious athlete to watch given her whirlwind rookie season in 2012. The 21-year-old may take time to get going this year, however. Everyone will be working into the season, but this will be Diggins’ first time racing in Europe in November.
“I think she’s going to be one that comes on in the middle of the season,” Grover said. “If you look at the race schedule for the opening period, there’s only one individual skate race in Gaellivare and a lot of classic races. So I don’t think the schedule is the best, necessarily, for her. But I think she’ll do fine, she’ll build momentum towards the middle of the season.”
Brooks, though technically a rookie, will be more familiar with the World Cup scene than she was last year. She surpassed all expectations in the SuperTour leader position last fall and will start her 2013 season knowing exactly what high-level World Cup racing entails.
“I’d put my bets towards her being stronger [than last year],” said APU coach Erik Flora said in a recent interview. “Her interval times have been dropping over the summer. She has been able to train regularly with the other top international skiers, and you can see she’s improving.”
Grover thinks that Sargent, too, is due for some breakthroughs based on the way she’s skied this fall. At the Frozen Thunder races in Canmore, Alberta, her classic skiing showed signs of significant steps forward.
“Ida continues to make some great technical improvements; I’m excited to see where she’ll be this winter,” Grover said.
All-in-all, the women have big expectations to meet. No matter what happens, the excitement they’ve built around their skiing will ensure that fans will be closely tuned in to their progress from this weekend onward.
Collectively, the men’s World Cup performance last year was a mixed bag. There were encouraging personal-bests for athletes in both sprint and distance events, but there were also weekends where the men fell short of where past results indicated they could be.
Freeman, who has acknowledged that his 2012 campaign was “one of the worst I’ve ever had,” has made changes to his training and says he knows he’s in good shape. He returned to the gym for the first time since 2006 this summer. His took time to figure out how to control his blood sugar, which has enabled him to do more intensity training than in the past.
“I generally have a pretty good sense of when I’m in shape and when I’m not, and I’m in shape,” he said last week before leaving for Muonio.
Freeman also found out this spring that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will grant him exception to the limitation on taking feeds in designated zones, and will allow him to take feeds wherever he needs to.
“I’ll probably still utilize the feed zones primarily and feeding elsewhere is when I’d use a backup, if something happens. As it’s been, if I miss a feed in the feed zone, I was more or less screwed,” he said.
If the flexibility in sugar intake ends up working on race day, it could be a game-changer for Freeman, who has fought to control the effects of diabetes for most of his career.
Moving forward, Freeman’s goals are simple: first, reach the podium in a World Cup distance race; medal at World Championships, and get back into the Red Group in time for the Tour de Ski.
“You never know where you’re at until you get in there with the field, but I feel good right now and I feel like I’m in a place where I can build from. The gun goes off and I’m going to do the best I can,” Freeman said.
The other American to watch, obviously, is Newell. We know he can throw down top-three qualifiers and reach the podium in the finals because he’s done it before. Producing twelve straight successful sprint qualifiers is nothing to scoff at, but he also reached the finals only once last year. Based on what he’s seen this fall, Grover thinks Newell will be a real threat in 2013, particularly because of his new training environment in Vermont.
“He’s had a great summer and fall of training, and I know a big part of that has been introduction of the SMS T2 team and actually having a pretty high level club support network for seniors at Stratton,” Grover said. “Having Gus [Kaeding] there as a coach he can get assistance on a daily basis, but also having Skyler Davis around and Eric Packer — Simi has been out there a little and so has Mike Sinnott — that’s really helped push him on a daily basis with his training. So I expect him to have a really good season.”
Hamilton, based on 2012 results, seems to be on his way to being a regular top sprint performer for the U.S. He struggled at the beginning of the season but ended his World Cup season on a high note in Drammen, Norway, with a seventh-place showing in the classic sprint. With another summer of training and confidence building under his belt, he should be a contender in 2013.
On the distance side, Hoffman and Elliott have both been putting in serious work on their weaknesses this off-season; Elliott on upper-body strength and Hoffman on technique. Both now know what it takes to reach the distance points. In terms of stated goals, Hoffman very clearly wants to take on the world. As to how much of it he can take in 2013, we’ll just have to sit back and watch.
Grover was encouraged by the way Elliott’s classic skiing had come along in Canmore. “I’m excited to see Tad in some classic races this year,” he said. “Tad’s made huge strides in his classic skiing. He skied a really competitive 10 k classic on Frozen Thunder with Andy, skiing just behind Andy and not too far behind Noah and Kris, all of whom are pretty dang good classic distance racers.”
The American lineup also includes Sylvan Ellefson in Period 1, who earned starts by winning the overall SuperTour in 2012. In Ellefson’s words, his first career World Cup races last season were a wake-up call but still a valuable learning experience. This time around he says he won’t be happy with just having made it to the show — he wants be racing fast and getting results in the top 30.
On the development squad, we haven’t yet really seen what Davis and Erik Bjornsen can do on the highest international stage. Bjornsen decided not to use the World Cup starts offered him last year. Though happy to have gained experience at the OPA cup level, he said in the spring that he is ready to make his World Cup debut.
Davis may have bitten off a too much too soon in starting last season in Europe right off the bat in his first year on the team. This November he won’t be in Scandinavia for Period 1, but Grover thinks the Vermonter has recently showed signs of marked progress.
“I’m excited to see how Skyler does in those sprints coming up. The last two or three sprint time trial’s we’ve run, he’s skied quite well and he seems to have made a big step forward in getting closer to the standard someone like Andy or Simi is at,” Grover said.
So there you have it. The season starts on November 24 and you all best be paying attention.
Alex Matthews contributed reporting.