Following the Olympic Trials, Who’s Hot, Who’s Not, and the Strange Anomalies of USSA Scoring

FasterSkierNovember 23, 2005 Guest Editorial by Mike Trecker

Fast, furious and freezing. What an amazing couple of weeks it has been in Alaska following the trials and tribulations of those competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. For most of those trying out, it is just an accomplishment getting to this point. They have trained diligently through the summer months while scrambling to put together something that resembles sponsorship, scraped enough funding together to secure travel plans for the first half of the season and trekked their way to the far reaches of the north to begin their quest.

Fairbanks, Alaska is where it all begins every four years. For many American Nordic racers, making an Olympic Team is the pursuit of a life-long dream, but reality takes hold in the surreal setting of Fairbanks. The air is still, day after day, and the temperatures hover around zero even though it is barely November. The racers feel the pressure of mid-winter as they step off the plane, time to get the game face on.

“How strange is it that I was just trail running in 60 degrees last week?”

When the NorAm crowd arrives at Birch Hill, they already know that the skiing will not be great, but they will definitely be skiing on snow, that is guaranteed, and the joy of skiing permeates the early part of the week. That is what it was like again this time around. But it’s the Olympic Trials and there are races to win! Here’s what we have seen so far.

Kris Freeman and Kikkan Randall! These two standouts lead the 'who’s hot list', sweeping every event offered up so far, save one. Beckie Scott, Canada’s gold medallist, skied away from the women’s field on the first day, putting 2 plus minutes into second place Randall. Aside from that lone defeat, Kikkan is starting to look like the consistent racer that could contend for some high placings come February.

Beckie’s win in the pursuit also showed some of the flaws in the points scoring for the tryouts. In the U.S., we follow the USSA/FIS point formula to establish a consistent points list that we can simply pick the top 6 to 8 skiers, avoiding potential lawsuits that other sports have suffered in their tryout process. Normally the field would be ecstatic to race against Scott, one of the best in the world. However, in that first race, because Scott put so much time into second place, the ‘percent back from the winner’ part of the formula devastated the Americans.

Randall scored 102 points plus the 75 point penalty, giving her some 177 points in the USSA system. In contrast, at a local Colorado meet last year, my wife, Natalie Ward scored 158 USSA points for 6th at the NRL level. Granted, the field in Colorado was tough and her 6th place finish was OK, but for that result to count better than Kikkan’s 2nd place finish at a NorAm – Olympic Tryout race?
The problem is primarily that these racers have flown or driven all the way to Fairbanks and because of some anomaly in the scoring, they have to throw out a perfectly good race that could have helped their average. Right now there are several American women trying to make a big move onto the national scene and this race could have helped their cause, but because of this strange circumstance in the scoring, they feel like they have been ripped off. This happens with enough frequency that some of the ladies have referred to it as the “F’d Value”, a take on the F Value standards that rate different events. We would be wise to re-examine our points system for team tryouts in the future, as this “F’d Value” attitude breeds a long-term skepticism about the national program, in turn, affecting women’s development over the long haul.

Enough of the women’s points problems, here’s a short list of the ladies that are showing their cards early: Randall, Wendy Wagner, Liz Stephen, Brooke Hovey (formerly Baughman), Anna McLoon, Alison Crocker and Tazlina Mannix. These women have shown the consistency it takes to make the Olympic Team. Some big names holding their cards for later: Sarah Konrad, Rebecca Dussault, Abby Larson, Aubrey Smith and Hillary Patzer. Dr. Sarah Konrad, the strongest woman from the U.S. at last year's Worlds, is in Norway with the U.S. Biathlon Team waiting out the rain, she'll be in Canada for the World Cup as well as Soldier Hollow for the U.S. Championships. Konrad is strong and tough and definitely ready for the coming months. Dussault and Larson are the big guns for the Subaru Team and perennial contenders for national championship victories so don’t count them out yet. Both these women are strong veterans and are likely looking to peak at the Olympics, biding their time, preparing well and looking after their health. Stay tuned to the Subaru channel come January. Smith and Patzer are former U.S. Development Team members and have been around long enough to know that anything can happen between now and the end of Nationals. These two are part of the core group of women that have been given the ‘close but no cigar’ type support from the USST over the years and anger can be powerful fuel. Smith and Patzer may just get their big chance by the end of January.

Speaking of health, how critical it is to maintain fitness and stay away from the viruses that can plague even the most careful. Case in point: James Southam of the Rossignol Team. Southam burst onto the stage last year winning the 15k individual freestyle race at the Soldier Hollow Nationals, securing a start in the World Championships. Southam again started great this season, finishing 4th in the opening pursuit, however, the arctic air sapped his strength and he succumbed to the common cold right after. James has had to skip the following races, missing an opportunity to improve his average or in the least, defend his position. People can’t move up on you if you beat them all the time.

Nevertheless, put Southam squarely on ‘the hot list’. Who else is hot for the men? Here’s the short list: Kris Freeman, Justin Freeman, Andrew Johnson, Lars Flora, Chris Cook, Torin Koos, Andrew Newell and Dave Chamberlain. There are a host of others nipping at these guy’s heels and don’t count them out either, you guys know who you are, keep them honest out there.

What about Carl you say? He’s hot too, picking up a win at a national level classic race in Sweden last weekend. Well what about Zack Simons, last year’s SuperTour Sprint champ? Good call, Simons has a great shot at the Olympic Team as well but has struggled so far, dropping out of the Fairbanks pursuit and qualifying only 12th for the Fairbanks sprints. Electing to not start the next round, look for Simons to rebound in time for the West Yellowstone races. How about Leif Zimmerman, he was U-23 champ for the SuperTour last year? Another good call. Zimmerman rivals Andrew Johnson and Swenson for the ‘smoothest technique’ title. He showed great power and resiliency last season but has struggled thus far in ’05-’06. Look out for Leif at some point this season, hopefully in time to make a strong run at the Olympics.

One more? What about our relay team? What about John Bauer? Well that’s the question of the day. With Kris Freeman ripping it up and Carl looking to be at his very best in February, many of us have started wondering about defending that 5th place from Salt Lake. If Bauer can come out of the North and sweep through Soldier Hollow like he did last time, look out, we just need a fourth and it’s off to the races!

Well that was fun last time wasn’t it, but sorry to burst your bubble it’s not going to happen this time around. Although J.B. was making a run and looking to come back one more time, he just wasn’t hitting his high marks in testing that he has in the past and after considerable deliberation, has decided to officially retire from racing competitively. He is committed however, to enjoying the life-long sport of x-c skiing and I’m sure you’ll see him out there flying down the tracks. Let’s all give a big toast to John Bauer of Duluth, one of America’s finest ever Nordic racers and a fine ambassador of our sport. Cheers John Bauer, thanks for the memories and good luck.

Up next: The West Yellowstone Ski Festival. The SuperTour moves on to West Yellowstone, a traditional Nordic Mecca at Thanksgiving time, where racers, coaches, juniors, trade people and masters races all meet to train and eat, and maybe play a little snow football after the big feast on Thursday. But for the racers that are trying out for the Olympics, the snow football is out, can’t risk tweaking anything before one of the biggest races of your life, so it’s up to Husaby and the juniors to run the power option left.

The top racers however will use the West Yellowstone races as their last chance tune-ups before the December World Cups. Those not secure in their start positions for Silver Star and Canmore will be scrambling to move up in time. The World Cups are the best chance for points on this side of the ocean since Salt Lake and thus, the best chance to improve one’s overall average score before selection. Also, if there was ever a chance to ‘show something to the coaches’ in case of possible coaches discretion later on, the World Cup is it. Those not getting a start in the Canadian World Cups will feel left on the outside looking in as the Olympics get closer and closer, so look for heated competition with mid-winter ferocity in West Yellowstone.

If you’re headed out to West, don’t forget your hydration belt for the many kilometers and don’t forget your cowbell to cheer those hearty souls giving it their best for the U.S. in ’06!

Mike Trecker, from Aspen, is a former coach for the University of Colorado currently skiing for Alpina/Madshus. He is busy playing Santa’s helper in the basement of the Ute Mountaineer as their receiving clerk but in his spare time enjoys skinny skiing and going to bull fights. Really he just likes to watch Caddyshack over and over in between cycling and ski season as a new form of ‘fall training’.


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