BEND, Oregon — Late last month, FasterSkier reached out to U.S. Ski Team (USST) Head Coach Chris Grover to discuss the team’s recent nominations.
The original range of topics was fairly narrow, the new iteration of the USST athletes and staff. Grover, however, ventured into the realm of how the USST will be modifying its criteria for team selection before the start of the 2018/2019 competition season. The criteria Grover discussed in the following Q & A, conducted over the phone on May 22, dealt with future USST nominations: not championship-team selection criteria. In other words, the rewritten criteria he discussed will have to do with the objective benchmarks an athlete must meet to be named to the USST D-team, B-team, and A-team, respectively. Beyond the objective criteria, Grover noted that coach’s discretion will remain an instrument of some future team nominations.
FasterSkier: OK, let’s jump in and discuss the U.S. Ski Team’s A-team roster.
Chris Grover: First of all, let me say one thing that we have been working on now for perhaps eight months, is trying to create new selection criteria to the U.S. Ski Team. And Gus Kaeding, who is a new staff member for us, someone that we just hired in the last few weeks, who came out of business school last year after coaching before that. He has actually been crunching the data for us. He took a bunch of statistics courses when he was in business school. So he kind of volunteered to come and start helping us try to figure out how to make a much more objective selection criteria. As you know, right now we have criteria where it is often about 50/50 in terms of athletes who make the objective criteria and athletes that are selected through discretion. And our goal is to create selection criteria for the 2019/2020 season that we put in place this summer, or at least before the ski season begins when the selection criteria would start. It is much more objective. It shows pathways not only at the very high end and not only in terms of a junior worlds medal but all along the different potential ages and potential athletes.
So that is coming together. We are still working on it. It will probably be tied to an athlete’s world rank at different ages, but our goal is to take a lot of the guesswork out of future selections. We couldn’t have put it in place this year because the selection criteria was already published as of last year and we cannot retroactively go back once the selection period is opened and apply new criteria. We can only apply it in years moving forward, but I am really excited to get to a point where the guesswork for athletes and coaches, for parents, is taken out of it. And ideally those people can look at criteria before a ski season and go, “If I do this, then I will be nominated to the U.S. Ski Team.” That said, I envision that there will always be discretionary picks that we make. There will always be people for whatever reason that come on late in the season.
Like, for example, their world ranks doesn’t mesh with what their current potential is. They have outstanding results that for whatever reason we didn’t see coming. So I envision that there will be discretionary selections going forward, but our goal is to make it so that there are many fewer discretionary selections and it is much more objective and clear-cut. I am excited to put something in place and something that we will be pushing out to the team hopefully later this summer or the very early fall at the latest.
A U.S. Ski Team selection is different than say a championship selection. It won’t go to, let’s say, a committee like our U.S. Ski and Snowboard cross-country committee. We will probably push it around to some athletes reps but it won’t go to a greater community. Because at the end of the day, this is the U.S. Ski Team and it is not necessarily the same as qualifying for World Juniors or the U23 or the World Cup or the World Championships. It is a little bit of a different deal. And the selection, basically, it needs to reflect the goals of the organization. And the goals of the organization are to win medals at the highest levels in the sport.
That didn’t answer your question. The question was something about the A-team.
FS: Back to the A-team. It’s quite impressive as it stands. An Olympic gold medalist in Jessie Diggins, third overall ranked World Cup women’s sprinter Sophie Caldwell, sixth-ranked overall skier Sadie Bjornsen, highly ranked sprinter Ida Sargent, and one dude, Simi Hamilton, who was 17th in the final World Cup sprint rankings.
CG: So the A-team athletes. That is objective. They make the team based on being top 30 in the world in either sprint or distance. They were all clear A-team selections based on the team nomination criteria. I am not quite sure yet if we will keep that exact standard going forward. We may. We also are really diving into this new data and seeing what we can find out. So, all those athletes qualify objectively. And then, the only other athlete that qualified objectively was Hailey Swirbul because she was an individual medalist two times over at World Junior Championships.
FS: Let’s jump to the D-team then. Some renominations. There’s Ian Torchia, Julia Kern, Hannah Halvorsen and Katharine Ogden. Then the newest members — Hailey Swirbul, Ben Ogden, and Gus Schumacher. Seven total. Is this the largest D-team you have had for awhile?
CG: For sure the largest D-team in at least in the past decade. And really, I mean, obviously, we are very excited because the results, just World Junior results alone, with this group of athletes has surpassed any group of athletes that we have ever had come through the ranks of the U.S. Ski Team.
These D-team results for many of these athletes are better than those of any of our A-teamers ever were able to accomplish at the World Junior Championships. And obviously, we have gone from 2016 at World Juniors having never had a medal at the World Junior Championships to now having five medals as a nation. So it is a super exciting step forward. We are really excited to have all these new faces as part of the team.
And this is why we have hired Gus Kaeding. He has been hired as a D-team coach specifically to help nurture and shepherd this group of athletes through the next few years of their development.
FS: Does Bryan Fish’s job change? Does the job description change as it relates to these specific athletes?
CG: Absolutely. The challenge that we had is that for Bryan, for one coach to effectively manage seven athletes at a high level is pretty daunting as it is. Bryan has so many other tasks already, including basically creating all the materials for our coaches education and then implementing the clinics and certification conferences as well as running all of our development summer camp opportunities REG, NEG, NTG … assisting at the U16 elite camp and then also trying to coordinate efforts between the NNF and what we are doing and the American Birkie Foundation, which is coming on as a supporter as well. And then winter trips and what he is doing to oversee the Super Tour, it was just too much. It was too much for one person to handle and we needed some help. And the greatest need with all these incoming younger athletes was certainly with the D-team squad.
FS: I believe this is Ian Torchia’s third year on the D-Team.
CG: That sounds right to me.
FS: Do you normally have a sort of “statute of limitations” on D-Team membership?
CG: Yeah, we really should. In Ian’s case, he had mono the year before last and then kind of was coming back this year and a little bit inconsistent with results. But I think that challenge that you just alluded to really speaks to why we need different selection criteria, why we need more objective selection criteria. Because athletes at some point should be moving. Either they are moving off the D-team or they are moving up to the B-team or moving up to the A-team. But they have to have movement after a few years. And the same goes for B-team athletes, but it is really unclear. I mean, right now, we don’t have any sort of clarity as to what those markers might be. And so that is why it is critical for us to figure a more concrete pathway for athletes so that they know the expectation. So you know, Ian, I would expect with his age he is probably going to have to be on the B-team next year if he is going to continue to be on the national team. So I am hoping with these new criteria that we create and define that pathway or at least define the expectations, I should say.
FS: So the new criteria, those expectations as they relate to the D-team, would have be to SuperTour-specific unless these athletes have start rights because they have earned them?
CG: I think that is why we are really looking at world rank for athletes. This is probably the most helpful thing as opposed to how they did on SuperTour, how they did on World Cup, how they did at the U23 World Championships, what happens at the NCAA Championships. That is the challenge for us, especially in North America being somewhat removed from where a lot of the racing is happening, a lot of the international racing obviously being in Europe. That is the challenge. World rank is going to help us identify that picture in a more meaningful way.
FS: Does that mean a reliance on FIS points?
CG: The difference is between using straight-up FIS points and world rank is that with FIS points, you can have very low FIS points but there could be one hundred people packed in there between you and zero FIS points. But with world rank, it gives us a finite amount of people that are below you or above you.
FS: So then as I am understanding the world ranking, this is then some sort of proprietary ranking that you will have?
CG: The way Gus has approached this, is that he is taking a look at every medalist at the Olympics and the World Championships in the past ten years. He has retraced the development path of those medalists. We are including not only those that have medaled in individual events but those who have medaled in team events. And then retracing kind of what their pathway is. And then perhaps we are going to give a plus-minus, a little 80th-percentile type adjustment to it, that allows for some leeway for an athlete. For example, coming from North America where maybe the pathway is slightly different than it is for European athletes. What we are basically trying to identify are the pathways for an athlete to win an Olympic medal or a World Championship medal and clarifying where you need to be. What are the markers at different ages? And that will help guide as to what the right world rank is for a given athlete to make the team.
And yes, there are always going to be a few outliers. That is why still need some discretion built in there. Once we have selection criteria in place then an athlete will be able to identify what their world ranking is and know how they fit into that selection or don’t fit into it.
FS: Anything more about the D-team that we should chat about?
CG: I don’t think any additional comments on the D-team. We are just excited to have such a talented group. There are lots of other athletes we have been looking very closely at who we anticipate as potential D-team members in the next year, but I wanted to see them basically make another small step forward before some sort of team nomination was implemented. That is where this new selection criteria is really going to help us out. Right now, it is selecting athletes via discretion and it is a judgment call on every one of these guys. That is not ideal from our perspective and it is not ideal from the athletes’ perspective.
FS: On to the B-team. Rosie Brennan was obviously not renominated. So it’s status quo with Erik Bjornsen, Paddy Caldwell, and Scott Patterson with the lone new addition of Kevin Bolger.
CG: With Rosie, we did not renominate her simply because she had been on that B-team position for awhile and hadn’t been making the step forward, hadn’t been making the objective criteria. That said, none of the guys made the objective criteria, either. But that is kind of normal of a B-team athlete, and that’s the challenge. That is where the main challenge is for us — to be able to identify those athletes especially when they are post-U23 athletes but they aren’t quite skiing consistent top-30 on World Cup — and be able to identify which athletes are still on the path to making forward progress. We named the others on discretion: Erik, Scott and Paddy because they were making forward progress on the World Cup. And then Kevin obviously had one of the best entrances to the World Cup of any U.S. athlete in history. So he really showed up and he did exactly what he needs to do to demonstrate that he absolutely has a ton of potential.
That was an easier call for us. The questions with the B-team and discretionary choices go back to why we need to create a new selection criteria.
FS: It’s within an athlete’s right to advocate for themselves. Did you get any pushback in terms of Rosie not meeting objective criteria?
CG: I’d say Rosie was very magnanimous about the decision and very professional about the decision. And for Rosie, and just like any of these athletes who kind of fall on the edge of making objective criteria, we absolutely still believe in them. They are invited to camps. We want to be able to work with them. They are going to be invited to competitions. We are going to be inviting many athletes to come and ski and fill World Cup start spots. So we want to be able to provide an opportunity for these athletes and Rosie is absolutely no exception. She is one of our best distance skiers in the country. We want to find opportunities to help her improve and make a step forward and we need to create an objective selection criteria that identifies that pathway and what the demands are better for athletes like her.
FS: Looking at the athletes on the B-team, Scott Patterson obviously had a killer Olympics and a great Holmenkollen 50 k. Was that in the forefront of your mind with regards to his renomination to the B-team?
CG: Yeah, and he had a pretty rough start to the year. According to him, he had a pretty serious setback in the middle of the summer around an ultrarunning race that he was doing in Montana. And it really set him back and he struggled during World Cup Period 1. He seemed to come into his form during the Olympics. Scott actually skied quite well in the spring. Unfortunately, in the first distance race of the World Cup Finals, he and Erik both went down and they struggled to recover in a high-paced race in Falun. But I think Scott is definitely beginning to demonstrate what his potential was from the Olympics onward.
FS: Paddy Caldwell had some impressive time-of-day pursuit results early on in the season.
CG: He, unfortunately, got sick at one point during the Tour de Ski and he got sick during the Olympics. He definitely had some setbacks. But, overall, he skied quite well for a young athlete, the youngest of the group — being his first full year of World Cup. He would need to take a step forward this next year. Now he has a year under his belt. Now he is going to have to start scoring some points and those points are going to need to come from events that are beyond simply having a fast time of day split in a pursuit. But, that is going to be the step I am guessing in order to get whatever world rank he is going to need for this new selection criteria. That is what it is going to take.
FS: I believe Paddy is not here in Bend. That said, Paddy decided to remain in Europe and compete in and finish the Tour de Ski. Does it look like he would do the full complement of the Tour de Ski again?
CG: I am not sure. It is a real challenge around the Tour de Ski versus U.S. nationals. Because we have a selection criteria, although we have not implemented a new selection criteria, and we have not created the new selection criteria yet for the World Championships in Seefeld. But we have had a selection criteria for the last two years which has, obviously, two pathways: one being U.S. National Championships and SuperTour and the other being World Cup, including the Tour de Ski.
That makes it a real challenge. For those athletes that are on World Cup during Period 1, it makes it really hard to decide whether they should go back to U.S. nationals to qualify or whether they should go to the Tour de Ski. We are going to be encouraging probably anyone who is not really skiing well during World Cup Period 1, to go back to U.S. nationals and race at U.S. nationals and try to create a very robust selection process at U.S. nationals.
So you are right, Paddy is not here in Bend, he is doing finals at Dartmouth right now. So we have not had a chance to talk through those scenarios quite yet. One thing that for sure we are going to change about the selection criteria, and this is something to discuss with the community at the Cross Country Committee meetings in Park City, is that we are going to remove the final stage of the Tour de Ski from the championships selection period for distance athletes, and for sprinters as well. The distance period for selection will close on the day prior to the final climb. That has been a point of contention, as you know, within the community. Are we selecting the right athletes by having athletes who are racing uphill in skate? From my personal perspective, the athletes who have done well in that are the athletes that you want on a major championship team. They are aerobic engine skaters. But it is no problem from my perspective to remove that stage and hopefully remove some of the contentious feelings about that particular event.
So I don’t know exactly what [Paddy’s] plan will be yet. U.S. nationals versus a Tour de Ski. I think for a lot of these athletes, including him, we are going to see how people are skiing during Period 1 and whether it makes sense to ski the Tour de Ski or whether it makes sense to go back to U.S. nationals.
FS: Does that mean the USST will establish real concrete criteria as to whether or not someone would come back to U.S. nationals or remain on the World Cup?
CG: No. That is really challenging. If you create concrete criteria or something like that, then it probably needs to be blind to the athlete’s age and experience, but should it really be the same for an athlete who is 22 years old versus an athlete who is 34 years old? I don’t think it ever should. I think it is always important that there is some sort of coach’s discretion that is left that can contribute to making that decision because a younger athlete who might have ten or twelve years of World Cup ahead of them certainly can benefit perhaps from that experience more than an older athlete who might at the end of their career.
I think the heartache in the community comes when people think that we are looking at that decision as in prior to having qualified for the major championships instead of long-term development. And I can tell you from our staff perspective when we are making decisions like that, we are looking at two things. One: can the athlete contribute to outstanding results on World Cup? In this case, begin the Tour de Ski immediately? And second: is this athlete a U.S. athlete that we are trying to really develop for the future who would very much benefit from having this stage and experience and experience at these particular venues at this time?
FS: Erik Bjornsen. He’s been on the B-team for awhile. He scored points in many early season distance races, including a ninth place in Seefeld’s mass start race.
CG: If he had raced the end of the Tour de Ski, had he raced those last couple of distances races, he may have made the B-team criteria. But one of his biggest goals for last season was to represent the U.S. in the team sprint in PyeongChang and to fight for a medal, so he was very focused on that. And that is why he stopped the Tour de Ski when he did, in order to get ready to race in Dresden. That was the one team sprint on the calendar last year. So he wanted to have the experience. Just from the aerobic as well as anaerobic and the tactical side of that as well. That was his real focus last year. And team sprint, for some of our key men, will continue to be one thing that we absolutely target and it probably remains one of our best chances at a medal.
FS: You are obviously still here. The assumption might have been that at the end of an Olympic cycle, a very successful cycle, that perhaps you would step down. Can you talk about your decision-making process to remain with the U.S. Ski Team?
CG: First of all. We are extremely lucky to have the staff that we have and one that has been as effective as they have been and as loyal as they have been. That goes not only for the coaching staff but also for our service team staff and also for so many of the volunteer providers that we utilize every year.
We have a handful of docs, PT’s, massage therapist — all of who we go back to year after year and ask for weeks and weeks of their time away from work, away from their paying work, away from family, and we ask them to volunteer their time and they keep coming back. We are incredibly lucky to have a staff that we have been able to retain. For Matt [Whitcomb], he came on in 2006, so I think he is going into his 13th year with the team. Jason [Cork] and Bryan [Fish] both came on the year right after 2010, I want to say 2011-2012, somewhere in that range. We have had a lot of longevity. Oleg Ragilo, who is our head technician, is back and he has been, I don’t know how many years he has been with the team, quite a few. He has been with us twice actually.
Also, Jean-Pascal Laurin, Tim Baucom, and Andrew Morehouse, all of those guys are returning. We do have one change on the service team. And that is that Marek Sander, who had been Kikkan [Randall’s] and Andy [Newell’s] tech, has decided to go back to Estonian biathlon which is where he came from when we hired him. Instead, we are hiring Eli Brown. Eli, people will know, he’s a former head coach of the University of Utah, but has been somebody that has been volunteering his time at least the last three major championships plus some World Cup racing for us as a technician.
And so we have just hired him to replace Marek as one of our technicians. So our staff is quite similar, obviously, we brought on Gus as well.
The other change that we are going to have, it’s a little bit of a job title change for Matt. Obviously, Matt has been our women’s coach. This year we have him in place to work with both men and women. So that Jason Cork, Matt and myself all basically work as a team with all of the World Cup athletes. We felt like we needed to change some of our setup in order to accommodate the needs of the team. We had some veterans that retired last year. When you have a smaller quote-unquote, “core”, at least the U.S. Ski Team on the World Cup level, we need to be more versatile in terms of helping and being able to help both men and women on a daily basis. And be more versatile with what our job requirements and our job titles are.
So we have some small changes there, but in general, we are really lucky to have everyone coming back. I think in terms of my own continued work with the national team, I will most likely continue until my family says stop and or until I don’t feel like the athletes are getting what they need out of my leadership. So, either one of those two things will be my cue to step down.
FS: For example, Jason Cork is out there testing skis with Jessie Diggins prior to races. I understand why she is a huge investment and the return on investment is important to the team, too. I understand why she might get a lot of resources. And it sounds like Matt is Simi’s coach and that has been going on for a year plus maybe. That said, as things might look from say Cork, Matt, and you redefining roles, how might that look different on the ground during race day?”
CG: It won’t look so different. Like you just alluded to, we are a smaller team. Well, I should say, we are starting to be a fairly big team. We are a smaller ski nation in terms of what our total imprint is on the World Cup and what our budget is perhaps, at least compared to our biggest competitors. Because our budget is so small compared to a Norway or a Russia, everybody, as you know, on our staff tends to do everything. And that is why job titles don’t always really make the most sense. We can give ourselves a title, but everybody ends up once in awhile cleaning some klister at the end of the day. That is just part of the nature of our program. So someone like Jason, he is spending a lot of time in the wax truck. Not only actually helping Jessie but as a key part of our service team as someone who helps Oleg with the overall organization of what we are doing on a daily basis. So someone like Jason is going to be in the wax truck quite a bit. And then also have coaching duties. Matt will be in the wax truck quite a bit less and have a lot more on the coaching duty side. I am going to have a lot of logistical work on a daily basis as well as a lot of staff management and athlete management type task, as well as some coaching duties.
But it is pretty hard to define those more specifically. They definitely change from day to day and week to week. The three of us are trying to basically cover all bases at that World Cup level.