Four years ago, Fischer had just launched the Jibskate in West Yellowstone. In Norway, a 19-year-old Petter Northug Jr. was being touted as “the next Thomas Alsgaard,” having vanquished the entire national team in a rollerski race in the fall. And somewhere in Finland, the U.S. Ski Team’s Carl Swenson was alone in a car, stuck in a pair of sweaty windbriefs, driving himself 500 miles across northern Europe.
Swenson was on his way back from an early-season World Cup race in Kuusamo, where he had just finished a respectable 11th and 12th place in a pair of distance events. The rest of his teammates had opted to compete in the U.S. during the early part of the season, but Swenson had been training and living in Europe during the summer with his girlfriend. He figured he’d give the races a shot-despite the fact that he didn’t have a coach or support staff.
“It’s not recommended,” Swenson said recently of the long post-race drive. “I ended up getting back at 2 a.m., and then I flew back to Canada for the World Cups that were up in Silver Star…and I got sick.” The Kuusamo races, so early in the winter, were his best results of the whole season.
Swenson’s experience wasn’t exactly the norm for the USST back then-after all, it was just four years ago-but it does seem like a good metaphor. While the team was well-supported and held its own on the international stage, its skill and depth were a definite notch below their current levels. Today, the start of the 2009-2010 season sees the USST poised at the brink of a breakthrough, with no fewer than four of its members ready to contend for wins on the World Cup and at the Olympics.
While the USST will have a presence on the circuit before the Games begin, Vordenberg told FasterSkier in an e-mail that the team has “no major goals outside of the Olympics.” His athletes’ schedules are designed to get them to Whistler in peak condition, and for the first time since 1976, when Bill Koch scored a silver in Innsbruck, America might just see one of its skiers bring home an Olympic medal.
Sprinters: Torin Koos has earned his chops on the World Cup circuit, making the podium in a sprint race in Estonia in 2007. He’s hasn’t been back since then, but Koos has still scored numerous top-ten finishes in both individual and team sprints over the past few years. With another summer of training under his belt-and with a World Cup and the Olympics taking place in his back yard of the Pacific Northwest-look for Koos to be mixing it up in sprint rounds throughout the season.
Last year, Andy Newell proved that he’s one of the fastest men in the world. This year, if everything goes smoothly, he should be contending for the title of the fastest. After struggling in the later rounds of sprint races last year, Newell said he’d be putting an emphasis on longer threshold intervals during the summer. Those longer efforts might hurt his qualification speed a bit, but, as he said in a FasterSkier chat this spring, he’s “tired of qualifying fast and not winning the race.” Given the ease with which Newell was making the rounds last year, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem for him, anyway. This season, Newell should be a podium threat in any sprint race, and represents the USST’s best hope in that event at the Olympics, especially if he can get his tactics dialed in-and stay on his feet. He and Koos should also join forces to contest the team sprint event on the World Cup and at the Games.
Given her strong finish in last weekend’s 5 km race in Norway, Kikkan Randall might be better classified as an all-rounder, but her second place in the sprint at last-year’s World Championships still takes precedence for now. That was her second medal at the international level, having been the first American woman to win a World Cup when she took the victory at a sprint race in Rybinsk, Russia, in 2007. This winter, Randall again should be battling consistently for a spot on the World Cup podium in sprint races, and perhaps shorter distance races as well. The Olympic sprint will be a target, but it is in the classic technique, her weaker discipline.
Distance Racers: Morgan Arritola starts the season on the USST’s A-Team after a breakthrough year. With two top-tens at the U-23 Championships and a top-thirty at World Championships in 2009, Arritola told NBC that she’s ready to compete with “the big guns” this year. Distance races are definitely her forte, and if she’s able to up her game from last year, Arritola can contend for World Cup points every weekend. Podiums are probably still another few seasons away, but she has time: Arritola is only 23.
Two-time Olympian Lars Flora begins the 2010 season traveling with the USST and racing the World Cup circuit in Europe. Flora hung with the best last year on the domestic scene and has plenty of experience against international competition, but it will take a stellar race effort if he wants to break into the top-30.
The USST’s great hope in distance races for the last four years, Kris Freeman begins the 2010 season as a legitimate podium threat in any race 10 km or longer, whether it’s on the World Cup or at the Olympics. While Freeman has struggled to find consistency for a full season over the past few years, he has consistently shown flashes of brilliance: a fourth place at World Championships last year, a fifth place at a World Cup in 2008, a few top-20s sprinkled in. He’s already shown that he has the fitness this winter, with back-to-back fifths against a world-class field in a pair of early-season races in Norway. If he can stay healthy, 2010 should be Freeman’s big year.
Along with Arritola, Liz Stephen represents the second half of an American women’s distance revival. And just like Arritola, Stephen had an outstanding season last year. She took 4th and 7th at the U-23 Championships, then broke into the top twenty for her first time at the international level in two races at World Championships. This is her first season on the A-Team, but if Stephen can carry over her level of skiing from last season, she will have no problem staying competitive on the World Cup circuit. While probably not yet a good hope for podiums, Stephen should score some World Cup points this year, and on a very good day she could crack the top ten.
This year’s World Cup schedule begins much like last year’s, with the first block of races in Scandinavia followed by a second set of events in continental Europe. The season starts with this weekend’s opener in Beitostolen, Norway, which features a distance freestyle race and a relay. All the Americans save Newell and Koos should be competing in the individual race; as for the relay, Stephen wrote on her blog this week that the U.S. is trying to field a mixed team with a Canadian woman. The men will likely not compete.
After Beitostolen, the World Cup moves on to Kuusamo, Finland, for a classic sprint and distance race. The entire team as well plus Flora should be in action that weekend, which will see Koos and Newell making their 2010 debuts. After Kuusamo comes the sprint festival in Dusseldorf, Germany, and then the final two weekends of the first block-in Davos, Switzerland and Rogla, Slovenia-each include a sprint and distance race. Andy Newell will be the first-ever American participant in the Tour de Ski in early January, though he’ll probably drop out after the first four days.
Vordenberg wouldn’t give exact details of the team’s schedule for this early part of the season, but in an e-mail, he said that the USST will have athletes at all the World Cup races through the Tour de Ski.
Following the Tour, the second block of World Cups stops in Otepaa, Estonia, and Rybinsk, Russia-both venues where Americans have made the podium in the past few years. The USST will suit up for those races, but with fewer racers; Torin Koos is the only one whose participation FasterSkier could confirm.
Then, the entire circuit will pack up for the long flight across the pond to Canmore, the site of the final tune-up races before the Olympics begin in Whistler on February 15th. During the next two weeks, six golds will be up for grabs for each gender in an individual sprint, sprint relay, distance relay, and three individual distance events. Assuming the season has gone smoothly for the USST to this point, Newell, Koos, Freeman and Randall should all be in contention for podiums.
When the Games conclude at the end of February, the World Cup circuit heads straight back to Scandinavia-without so much as a week off-for one last block of racing. The schedule includes stops at two Norwegian venues-Drammen and ski-crazed Holmenkollen-before wrapping up with the finals in Stockholm and Falun, Sweden. Like last year, the finals will consist of a four stage mini-tour, with the World Cup overall being decided by the finish of the season’s last race. Expect to see some American participation in this last month of racing, but the exact make-up of the group at this point will depend on the earlier part of the season. If Freeman wins an Olympic medal, as he told SkiTrax earlier this year, he’ll be staying home to work the late-night talk show circuit.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.