Universal Sports will kick off a season of coverage of the FIS Cross Country World Cup this weekend, anchored by longtime sport commentator Peter Graves. A former U.S. Ski Team coach, Graves began his career covering cross country for ABC at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid and is one of the sport's most knowledgeable experts. He has worked eight summer and winter Olympics. The U.S. Ski Team caught up with him for a preview of Universal Sports' coverage this season.
The opening of the World Cup season is always important. How does this year look, with the season kicking off in Sweden this weekend?
This weekend's World Cup opener is in Gallivare, Sweden – another venue like Levi, Finland that is above the Arctic Circle – will be a coming out party. It's the chance to roll the dice and see where you're at after months and months of training. You'll really get to see how all the hours of training paid off. The importance of starting the season off on the right foot cannot be overstated. Setting the stage for this long season ahead is important. What's more, folks here at home can watch it all on Universal Sports.
Tell us more about Universal Sports.
Universal Sports was formerly known as WCSN, the World Championship Sports Network. The network had Webcast many nordic events the past few years, but will greatly expand this year. Over the summer WCSN partnered with NBC, the Olympic network, to form Universal Sports. The biggest benefit of the partnership is that Universal Sports is now broadcast into over 30 million homes on cable TV, in addition to Webcasting. And, beginning this season, the Webcasting is free — no subscription is required!
How much cross country coverage can we expect?
We plan to have a lot of nordic television this season and I am really happy about that. You know we nordic fans never get enough TV time – we're hungry for that. I remember Marty (Hall) saying years ago at Telemark, that when I can sit down in front of my TV with a beer in my hand and watch cross country skiing from my easy chair, then we will have arrived. Well, I suppose that time has come. You know NBC Sports has been building its Olympic nordic coverage a lot over the last few Games and that has gotten viewers interested. They have done a great job. Now we want to keep building on that and bring in nordic fans to watch the World Cup on a regular basis. That is the hallmark of what Universal Sports is all about. The current cross country schedule calls for same weekend coverage of World Cups through the Tour de Ski. And hopefully it will continue through the end of the season.
What about big events like the Tour de Ski?
It's in Universal Sports' plans, for sure. The Tour de Ski, in only its third season has been gaining momentum. It's modeled after the Tour de France – different venues every day, varying formats, sprints, hill climbs up mountains in Val de Fiemme. It is my feeling, from the point of view as a former coach and someone who has spent many years in the nordic sports, that television is a vital link to promoting this sport to a new generation of athletes and will serve to garner lots of youngsters to give it a try. That's key in the development process from a grassroots point of view.
What can we expect from this weekend's events in Sweden?
I talked yesterday with Vordy (U.S. Head Coach Pete Vordenberg) and he said the snow is not great but they'll certainly be racing. He's planning at the moment to have Kris Freeman, Andy Newell and Chris Cook skiing. It sounds like Torin Koos has a cold right now, so it's unclear whether he will start or not. It's a 10k for women and a 15 km for men, both freestyle, plus relays on Sunday. As always, the U.S. is very selective on traveling to World Cups and the American women won't be in Sweden for the opener.
What have the teams been doing to warm-up for the opener?
There were some really good FIS races in Muonio, Finland last weekend. Actually, Andy Newell led sprint qualifying by over two seconds against a World Cup field before crashing in the semis. The Norwegians were racing in a big way at Beitostolen, where, by all reports, they looked very good. They are always tough, and with real depth, but the results distribution from the recent past shows more nations doing well and having breakthroughs – not just the ones we expect like Finland, Russia, etc. – but also nations like Slovenia, Poland, and others. It's exciting to see the diversity and a way to draw more and more interest in our sport on a global level.
Who will challenge for the World Cup title this year?
To make predictions you must look backwards and forwards. To be certain the reigning World Cup champions from last season are back – fit and highly motivated. Lukas Bauer (Czech Republic) and Finland's Virpi Kuitunen should be among the leaders. They will most certainly win some races. Germany has Tobias Angerer, Axel Teichmann and Rene Sommerfeldt for the men and that's a strong squad. You know the Norwegians are very strong and have a lot of depth. Here, most nordic fans would have to look at Marit Bjorgen for the women and a powerhouse squad for the men. They would include guys like Petter Northug, Eldar Ronning, Jens Arne Svartedal, Tor Arne Hetland and others. You can always look to the Italians, Russians, Swedes and Finn's to make it a real global contest. And I must note both Canada and the U.S. have made some great strides forward that I am sure will pay off.
What about U.S. hopes for the season?
I'm always an optimist and I feel good about what I hear. We have a strong dedicated group on both the men's and women's side of things. Vordy is a great coach and a great leader, and he's really open minded about new ideas, new ways of doing things, which I see as so important. And they have a strong – very strong – staff, one that is cohesive. Frankly they have all worked their tails off this off season, so I expect increasingly strong performances. Look at what Kikkan did last season. This is a sign of great things to come. Former Kentucky basketball coach Adolf Rupp said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” There's truth in those words and the U.S. Ski Team athletes have worked hard.
How will you be covering the events for Universal Sports?
It's a bit of a grind, but I love it! I'll be shuttling from my Vermont home to the Universal Sports studio in LA. We bring in the world TV feed and put the commentary down on tape while we watch the race. I'll be working with Steve Schlanger. Universal Sports puts a lot of energy into putting out a good product and I'm proud to be a part of it. After 30 years of doing this, I still pinch myself when I go to work. I love these sports and the people in them mean a great deal to me. I never had a game plan for this to work out like it has. It's been a true blessing, and so engaging to do something that means so much.
What can nordic fans do to help?
First, simply pass the word. Get your cross country friends watching. Secondly, thank Universal Sports. I know all passionate fans who always want more coverage. Let's thank this network for stepping forward and putting our sport on the Web and on national television. We're pretty fortunate!
Universal Sports Weekend Coverage
NOTES: Times are for TV broadcast on Universal Sports and initial Webcasting; all events remain available online for viewing at any time
Sat. Nov. 22 — Women's 10K FS, Gallivare, Sweden — 12:00 p.m. ET
Sat. Nov. 22 — Men's 15K FS, Gallivare, Sweden — 2:00 p.m. ET
Sun. Nov. 23 — Women's 4x5K Relay, Gallivare, Sweden — 12:00 p.m. ET
Sun. Nov. 23 — Men's 4x10K Relay, Gallivare, Sweden — 2:00 p.m. ET