“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” — Pierre de Coubertin, International Olympic Committee founder
Sylvan Ellefson loves that quote, part of The Olympic Creed. And he loves it to this day despite being on the wrong side of the U.S. Nordic Olympic Team naming, which was made official last week on Jan. 22.
For athletes like Ellefson, a 26-year-old Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV)/Team HomeGrown skier, the news came Tuesday following a U.S. Ski Team (USST) meeting over in Europe. Ellefson was home in Colorado with his wife, Sarah, anticipating, like a kid on “Christmas morning having to wait until everyone was up to open presents,” he wrote in an email.
“Tuesday was probably the longest day of my life,” Ellefson continued. “I was trying not to build the day up in my mind, but it was literally impossible. I was stressed in the morning and didn’t sleep much the night before. All I was doing was thinking about it. I was thinking about the call I was going to get.”
He told Sarah how he was feeling and she recommended he go skiing to clear his head.
“Right now I’m going to go for a nordic ski because its what I love to do,” Ellefson wrote on Facebook Jan. 21. “I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life living a dream. For me it’s never been about the end result, it’s been about getting out and crust cruising for 4 hours and slogging though inches of slop at a SuperTour and laughing about it after. I had to remind myself of that … I would love to be a 2014 Winter Olympian, but no matter however this year, this day, turns out, I know that it’s been a long, fun road of hard work and it can only get better from here.”
That night, he went to work with Sarah, a physical therapist in the Denver area, and the USST email popped into his inbox. Sitting on a patient table, he read it and laid back on the table. He looked at Sarah, then shoot his head with what he described as a forced smile.
“It was really hard for me to take,” Ellefson continued. “Immediate emotion always takes over. Anger, disappointment, sadness… but this was something that I had never felt before. But again, just like that morning, Sarah helped me put everything back into perspective. She reminded me of all the amazing relationships I had developed in skiing, all the amazing places skiing has taken me and all the things I had already accomplished in my ski career.”
Two weeks earlier, Ellefson won the 30-kilometer freestyle mass start at U.S. Cross Country Championships for his first national title. That put him one gigantic step closer to making his first Olympics, but nationals had never been touted as trials. Making the team was instead a numbers game: rank in the overall World Cup top 50 — which required racing over in Europe — or rank above everyone else in the U.S. on the International Ski Federation (FIS) points lists.
In the fourth edition of the FIS points list, based on the last calendar year through Jan. 19, Ellefson was the fifth-ranked U.S. man in distance events — behind SSCV/Team HomeGrown teammate and USST member Noah Hoffman, who prequalified on the World Cup, former USST member Kris Freeman (Maine Winter Sports Center), Brian Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus), and Matt Liebsch (XC United/Team StrongHeart). On the sprint list, Ellefson ranked seventh.
Ultimately, the USST picked seven men and seven women for an Olympic squad of 14. They chose not to fill their quota of 17, and U.S. Head Coach Chris Grover explained on a conference call that they told athletes and coaches “from the get-go” that they only intended to bring those they planned on starting.
“With seven women and seven men, we have our start positions filled,” Grover said. “Seven and seven was the magic number for us.”
“The cross country community has followed a vision that its athletes could, indeed, be Best in the World,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) Vice President of Athletics Luke Bodensteiner wrote on the USSA blog.
“Our 2014 Olympic selection criteria reflected that vision, challenging athletes to ski into the top 50 in distance or sprint on the FIS World Cup rankings – a challenging but attainable level,” he wrote. “Seven women and three men stepped up and met that mark – the most ever to achieve the top criteria. We supplemented those ten qualifiers with four other talented athletes who achieved the highest rankings on the FIS points list.”
In an email, Grover elaborated, “The USA Team is headed to Sochi to not only participate, but to perform on the biggest stage in the World and to demonstrate the strength of US Cross-Country ski racing.”
The team size wasn’t preplanned, he said in a follow-up phone interview. They simply wanted to make sure each start position — four per gender per individual race — was filled.
“In terms of the exact team size, whether it was 13 athletes or 14 athletes et cetera, we really had to see how that last points list came out, so that we knew how many sprinters we had and how many distance skiers we had,” Grover continued. “That was especially true on the men’s side, where the FIS points and the final selection criteria really played into it. Athletes, particularly on the men’s side, had been asking us how many athletes we were planning on bringing to the Games, and we said that we would fill our spots, fill our start spots. So they knew that ahead of time.”
On the men’s side, the U.S. team selected Freeman as its second distance skier and Gregg as its third (after Hoffman). Torin Koos (Bridger Ski Foundation/Rossignol) make it with the third-best FIS sprint ranking, and Erik Bjornsen (APU/USST) was chosen as the fourth man on the sprint list. USST teammates Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton had prequalified on the World Cup. Liebsch was 0.04 points behind Gregg on the distance list, which Grover said they used as their third criteria (forgoing discretion) to make the final picks.
“We really tried to apply the selection criteria in the most fair way possible,” Grover said. “That becomes, for sure, a challenge, especially on the mens’ side when you get down to the sixth, seventh, eighth guys, you’re really splitting hairs because the FIS points are so close at that point. Because they were so close we opted not to use discretion. It really wasn’t a fair way to do it.”
In the end, the U.S. team drew a line at seven men and seven women. That left three spots to be redistributed to other nations, like Canada, which picked up two additional quota spots on Thursday and added two women on Friday.
For the U.S., the big question became: why not bring Liebsch and Ellefson, and a woman or two on the cusp like Kate Fitzgerald (Alaska Pacific University) and Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus)? Even if you couldn’t guarantee them all starts — what’s the risk of having a couple alternates?
“The challenge is that we don’t get extra credentials,” Grover explained. “The amount of credentials that we have is fixed, so whether we bring 14 athletes or whether we bring 17 athletes, our staff size remains the same. We couldn’t bring any additional staff.”
The Olympic Organizing Committee limited the number of visas granted to team staff members, one club coach explained. At one point, it was down to two coaches and four wax technicians per team. As a result, the quality of support for a given group of athletes becomes a deciding factor.
In terms of developing the sport, Grover said that doesn’t happen at the Olympics.
“The Olympics is the pinnacle of the performance or competition pipeline,” he said. “Development happens on the SuperTour. It happens at Europa Cups and Scandinavian Cups. It happens at World Juniors and U23s. Occasionally, it happens on the World Cup, in terms of giving young athletes a start at that level. It does not and should not come at the World Championships or the Olympics. … It’s not a development trip; it’s a competition trip at the very highest level.”
That said, Grover encourages young athletes to make the Olympics a long-term goal.
“But you don’t go from winning a race on the SuperTour to the Olympics in one step,” he said. “It takes many, many, many steps, many competition steps in between. It’s not always linear. There’s jumps and there’s times where you plateau and you fall back. But you have to have success at every level along the way.”
For those that spent the last decade of their lives or more working toward that Olympic goal, to come so close but fall a few points (or fractions of a point) short came as an incredibly tough blow. Grover said some of them took it with “great grace” and “real style,” and a couple were “extremely disappointed.”
Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation) was the eighth-ranked sprinter behind seven USST women who made the team: Kikkan Randall, Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, Ida Sargent, Holly Brooks, and Liz Stephen.
“This is the year my peers, who I have raced against since I started nordic in eighth grade, are all going to the Olympics for the first time, I yearn to be there with them,” Bender, 26, wrote in an email. “I will never forget the roller coaster of emotion I rode while waiting for either an email or a phone call the night of the 21st. Next time, I will not be on that coaster.
“My support system has given me a big hug,” she added.” They have told me I am motivating to them, which in turn, reminds me to stay strong. I wish I hadn’t gotten mono and lyme [disease] two summers ago. I wish I hadn’t had a herniated disc this summer. But I don’t know what else I could have done that was in my power. I am not making excuses, but I will not forget them either.”
Bender won the skate sprint at 2014 U.S. nationals for her second sprint title, which she explained was a “giant relief.”
“Not repeating lasts year’s result in the classic sprint was immensely aggravating, and even if I had won two sprints, I don’t know if that would have changed anything,” she continued. “The only thing to do now is to look forward. My plan is to race the Boulder Mtn Tour, the upcoming Supertours, Birkie, and then head to Europe for March.”
Caitlin Gregg was next on the sprint list and eighth behind Fitzgerald (in seventh) and six prequalified USST women on the distance list. Gregg, 33, was aiming for her second Olympics after notching a historic U.S. women’s distance result at the 2010 Games. At U.S. nationals earlier this month, she won the 20 k freestyle mass start by an unprecedented 3:36 minutes.
After her husband, Brian, earned a trip to his first Olympics, Caitlin wrote in an email, “Team Gregg is all very fired up about having two Olympians on the roster now 🙂 So basically our roster is 100% Olympians!”
At the same time, it was bittersweet.
“I am bummed to ski so well this year and not make the Olympic Team but I am staying positive and using this opportunity to look at the big picture!” she wrote. “My work with under-privileged kids in North Minneapolis gives me incredible perspective! To have the opportunity to chase the Olympic dream at all is extremely wonderful. Once again I am forever grateful to the countless individuals, companies and organizations who have helped make my career possible! I will use the story of not being named to show the entire ski community that the triumph is not only in making the team but in the approach and almost more so, in the response and actions when you do not make it!!!”
After spending some time on snow with Brian in Toblach, Italy, she planned to fly home to Minneapolis on Wednesday.
“I will visit the Boys and Girls Club, I will ski with the Loppet Nordic Racing crew and I will compete in the entire weekend of events for he City of Lakes Loppet! My hometown race,” she wrote. “Of course I will also be focusing once again on the Birkie and sharing the love of skiing with the 10,000+ people who will also be racing that day!”
While Brian’s parents, twin brother and sister-in-law will be in Sochi to cheer him on, Caitlin explained she’ll race stateside (in the marathon circuit, SuperTour and other races) for financial reasons. She is the defending champion and a two-time winner of the American Birkebeiner, which dolls out $39,000 dollars in prize money, including $7,500 to the top male and female in the 50 k skate.
“What a great journey this has been,” Caitlin added. “[Brian] saw me off before Vancouver and now I will do the same for him before Sochi! We are psyched to be an Olympic Duo and look forward to being involved with skiing for a very, very long time!”
“She is the best partner in the world,” Brian wrote in an email. “She has been coaching me all winter. Writing my training plan, planning our diet, interrupting her own workouts to video, time or lactate test me. In 2011 she told me she would do everything to help me make the 2014 Olympic team. Next she wanted to make it herself too. The US women are so strong but we decided to go for it. Watching Caitlin win every skate distance this year was just amazing. I am so proud of her. It has been an emotional two weeks and we are just so happy to have each other.”
Fitzgerald, 26, explained in an email she was grateful for the love and support of her family and friends.
“It is sort of a bitter sweet experience — bitter because I didn’t make it but sweet that I was so close!” she wrote. “Especially with such an incredible team! US skiers have really upped their game and I am really proud of that. I can’t wait to watch our team kick butt and take names at the Olympics.”
Four of her APU teammates — Randall, Brooks and the Bjornsen siblings — are on the USST and Olympic team.
Liebsch declined to comment publicly just yet, but wrote on Facebook: “…The U.S. has decided not to fill all their quota spots and will only take 3 distance men (I was ranked 4th on the list). I have the best sponsors, family and friends and have been blessed in so many ways! Time to train for the Birkie!”
Ellefson summed up that he was “bummed to be honest. How could one so close not be? I wanted one more taste of being able to perform on the world’s stage. But now I get to watch some of my best friends do that and I’ll be cheering my [butt] off every single race during these games.
“I have always believed that happiness can be found down many different avenues so when something gets you down, you find something that reminds you of and brings you back to that warm, fuzzy, familiar place,” he wrote. “I can’t get stressed over missing an Olympic Team nomination. I won’t let it get me down. So now I’m busy getting back to the drawing board for the next adventure.”
— Chelsea Little contributed reporting
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” — The Olympic Creed, Pierre de Coubertin