NewsOpinionUS NationalsUS Nationals: Half-Full or Half-Empty

Avatar Topher SabotJanuary 15, 201020

Another US Nationals has come and gone – and as usual the week featured big fields, great battles, enthusiastic crowds, and lots of hard work by organizers and volunteers.

It seems that every year that there is a burst of optimism around this event.  Racing is intense, people are going for it, and the competition is high level.  Whomever does well is looked at as the next potential World Cup star or Olympic hopeful.

But Nationals needs to be taken with a grain of salt – it is always about perspective.  Yes, these are the best (with a few notable exceptions) ski racers in the US.  They are training hard and racing fast.  But how fast?  Can we evaluate Nationals from a broader perspective?  Do good results in these races really have anything to do with international success?

With all the variables in ski racing, it isn’t easy to perform objective analysis, but we need to ask the questions.  Here are some important questions the ski community should be asking, along with the “half-full” and “half-empty” response.

A quick disclaimer first:  I have the utmost respect for our athletes, who have committed their lives to being the best in cross-country skiing.  My comments are in no way a personal attack on the efforts or commitment of any of these individuals, or their coaches and support.  The goal here is to raise some important questions as to where we are as a country, and what US Nationals shows in this regard.

What do we make of veteran Justin Freeman’s performance in the 30km classic and that race in general?

Freeman finished 6th, and according to the FIS database, this is his best US Nationals Result ever.

Half-full:

Freeman is an impressive athlete who has done an excellent job maintaining his fitness even as he has moved his focus away from racing and toward family/career.  He is a great classic skier, who had a great day in a stacked field.  The conditions were tough, and historically, you often see strange results in this type of race – long distance in mucky snow.  We shouldn’t read too much into it.

Kris Freeman didn’t win, and was within a reasonable distance of other skiers.  As a top-5 World Cup skier, this shows the field was strong and fast.

Half-empty:

Justin Freeman works fulltime as high school teacher.  He has a family with two young children.  He spent his summer training for 10k running races and did not get on rollerskis until November 3rd.  His first day on snow was December 11th.  His frist race was the 15km at US Nationals.  He is training under 450 total hours, and has been on a reduced plan since his Olympic year in ’06.

It is not a good sign the Justin Freeman is in the top-10 at US Nationals.  Despite his background, he should be struggling to crack the top-30 in the country.

The reality:

One should never read too much into a single race.  Ultimately, Justin Freeman has no business being (by his own admission as well) in the top-10 at US Nationals.  And despite APU’s track record of having very fast coaches, it should be noted the Dylan Watts finished 8th in the race.  A good skier who is obviously spending lots of time on snow, but we shouldn’t be pleased when our coaches are beating our athletes.  But we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

We all know there is a gap between the top distance skiers in the country and the next tier, and we also know that many of them are faster then they skied in this race.  5th place was over three minutes back.  Regardless of conditions, that is too much.

What does it say that a 50-year-old woman was 6th and 8th in the first 2 races?

Beth Reid, a former Olympic speed skater, international caliber cyclist, and All-American collegiate skier has taken the US SuperTour by storm this season.  She had two top-10s in the first two races at Nationals.

Half-full:

A former Olympian, and multi-sport elite, Reid is an athlete of the highest caliber.  There are always exceptions to the limiting factors of age.

Half-empty:

It doesn’t matter what your experience, history, skills, or genetics are.  Elite sport is a young person’s game.  Our Olympic hopefuls are getting beat by a 50-year-old, whose primary sport has not even been skiing.

The reality:

Half-empty again.  The top-10 at US nationals should consist of athletes on the upswing of their career – those with untapped potential, reaching their peak. While veterans just beginning down the slope from that peak will have a place too, a 50-year-old part timer should not be beating the 23-year-old hoping to go to the Olympics.  This is another indication of a weak field, lacking overall talent and most certainly depth.

How does this differ form the question of Justin Freeman in the top-10?  Reid had her best races in a sprint and a 10k, in straightforward conditions.  Neither race featured other “odd” results.

There were no juniors in the first 10 in the distance races.  2 junior girls in the top 20 and they were the only 2 girls in the first 27; 1 junior man in the first 20, 2 in the first 30.

The sprints were obviously different, but the US seems to be having better luck developing sprinters right now.  Should we be concerned about the lack of juniors at the top of the result sheet in distance races?

Half-full:

The senior field is strong right now.  In an Olympic year, we would expect many of our top skiers in their 20’s and early 30’s to be peaking.  It is no shame, and no problem that juniors are not at the top of the result sheet in distance skiing.

Half-empty:

The results are not good enough.  For a junior to perform well at World Juniors, they need to be in the top-10 at Nationals.

The reality:

This is a tough one, and perhaps a toss-up.  But based on the previous questions, the general field strength is not as high as we would like, and thus strong seniors would not be the reason for weak junior distance performances.

The jury will remain out – the proof will be in performances on the international stage at World Juniors.  My guess is that we will have some good results at that event.

Is the current size of the US Olympic Team (8 skiers) sufficient to include everyone who could compete in the top half of the field at the Games?

This obviously raises the question of performance versus participation at the Olympics.  That is not the focus here.  Will fast, competitive skiers be left at home?

Half-full:

Yes.  A team of eight will not be big enough to accommodate all US Skiers who will at least battle for the top-30.  We should hope to gain more spots and use them if we get them.

Half-empty:

A team of eight will include skiers who will be well toward the back of the pack.  The past has shown this to be true, and the present doesn’t look much different.

The reality:

Ultimately hard to say, but it seems like eight is a good number this year in regards to competitiveness. Looking at the current points lists, and those selected to race the World Cups in Canmore, it is unlikely that spots nine and ten would be competitive in Vancouver.  Personally I think ten would be a good number – balancing potential performance with the importance of participation and rewarding athletes who have dedicated their lives to the sport, even if they have not reached the level of medal candidates.

In Summary

Given that the 2010 US Nationals represented the last chance for US skiers to qualify for the Games, you would hope to see the highest level of racing from potential Olympians.  The racing should be as good as it gets in this country.

But the overall picture was definitely mixed.  The top-10 should be packed with the top skiers vying for the last Olympic spots.  This was not the case – in addition to Reid, Freeman, and Watts, we also saw a men’s classic sprint final consisting almost exclusively of skiers who were not even considering the Olympics.  Sprint racing inherently has some random elements, but with the classic sprint an Olympic event, I would have expected more.

I am not one of those who try to find anything and everything wrong with US skiing.  I personally think the staff and coaches with the US Ski Team are doing a great job.  I believe that the top junior and senior programs in this country are also doing their part.  All in all there is a great feeling of the sport moving forward in this country.  I would be happy to argue with anyone that the Nordic sports (cross-country, nordic combined, biathlon and women’s ski jumping) are at a higher level now than at any time in history.

Every weekend there is someone in each of these sports fighting for a spot on the World Cup podium.  By my count, we enter the 2010 Olympics with a minimum of eight potential medalists.  But there is still too big a gap between the World Cup skiers and the rest of the national field.

I believe we are on the right track to close that gap, but have plenty of work left to do.

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Topher Sabot

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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20 comments

  • Avatar
    sailguy

    January 15, 2010 at 11:27 am

    A good article, even if it makes us think about painful realities. A similar article could be written about Canada (my country) and I think I would have more trouble reading it logically, instead of emotionally.

    This topic is important to me, because I don’t think Canada can maintain success without high level racing in North America to push the upcoming skiers.

    I will suggest that junior athletes traditionally struggle at distance. Many skiers start out as sprinters and become distance skiers in their middle twenties. With a few exceptions (Per Elofsson, Petter Northug, Alex Harvey), most skiers hit their distance prime after 25.

    Either way, both Canada and the US have more water in their glasses than in the past. Progress is being made, and this article will hopefully help the ski community continue and accelerate this progress.

  • Avatar
    jiyuztex

    January 15, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Your FIS database search wasn’t very good. Half of my U.S. Nationals podiums (3rd, 1999 50 km, 2nd, 2003 30 km, and 2nd, 2006 50 km) have been in long classic races. That said, I fully agree that I had no business finishing 6th this year.

  • Avatar
    T.Eastman

    January 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Here’s to geezers, grey hairs, and bookish school teachers!

    Sports are not predictable and the underdog chance is what brought all but the race favorites to Anchorage and other big events. A tremendous amount of athletic and mental development occurs after one steps away from full time racing. Other countries are more likely to limit entry to Olympic selection races due to vast numbers of very fast skiers, but sometimes even the great ski nation have a retiree show up and open up a can of whoop-ass.

    Great work to all, I wish I had been there!
    .

  • Avatar
    calskier

    January 15, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    What about David Norris, 4th in the Mens 30K? He was less than 2min off the lead and only 40sec out of 2nd. Was this overlooked?

  • Avatar
    skierout

    January 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Yeah, Norris was overlooked. He was the only junior who raced the 30km, which makes it difficult to compare to other years.

    A good point was made about the difference between Justin’s 6th in a 30k and Beth Reid’s 6th in a sprint and top 10 in a 10km. Maybe it points to the importance of bringing in world class athletic talent into the sport. And also to the importance of having a lot of training in the bank.

  • Avatar
    Reese

    January 15, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    David Norris has a long track record of Nationals 30 and 50k results that are abnormally good for such a youngster. The fact that he was skiing with Freeman and Southam in some of the critical kilometers of the Anchorage 30k and was able to finish 4th as a Junior should be enough to tilt the cup to “half full”.

  • FasterSkier
    FasterSkier

    January 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks for all the comments above!

    I did forget to add David Norris to the accounting of Junior results, but was certainly aware of his fine performance, and his strong history. He is clearly a talent and has worked his butt off to become one of the top skiers in the country.

    That said, this piece is not about any one individual. There are always going to be standout individuals. The goal is to have sustained and consistent success over a period of many years. This requires a constant flow of high level skiers through the development pipeline. No one skier will ever tip the balance one way or the other. Kris Freeman’s excellent World Cup results does not mean that we are successful as a nation at distance skiing. Kris certainly is, but everyone knows that we have not had anyone else who can compete internationally.

    The hope is the David (and other strong young skiers) are part of a trend of a general improvement around the country. We will have to wait and see.

    Also, another main point is that we need to keep the big picture in mind. Top results at US Nationals does not equate with international success. How will David and his peers do at World Juniors and U23’s? That will be a much better indication of where we are as a country.

    Again, none of this is directed at any individual, and David is just an example.

    And to Todd Eastman – usually when other nations have retirees who show up and kick butt, those retirees are former Olympic medalists and World Cup champions in xc skiing. That is a big difference.

    Finally, to Justin – I had a feeling that the US Nats results in the FIS database were not compete, but that is what I got selecting “National Championships” for the race type. My apologies – I certainly didn’t mean to under represent your past success. But as you pointed out, the original point stands.

  • Avatar
    michael@high-alpine.com

    January 15, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Great article! But to support old athletes, Jeannie Longo, age 50 is still killing it in French women’s cycling beating all her national teammates, winning national titles almost every year, world’s team, just last year. And France is a country rich in cycling, one of the deepest pools. Here’s to old athletes! Keep up your great work with Faster Skier!!

  • Avatar
    davord

    January 15, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Great, honest assessment. We mustn’t forget however, that there have been many good and/or great results from American juniors and U23 skiers in the not too distant past. Rob Whitney, Leif Zimmermann, Kristina Trygstad, Morgan Smyth, Laura Valaas, Koos, Newell, Freeman, just to name some, have had top 10 results at World Juniors and/or U23’s. As we have seen with some great results from skiers like Kornfield, Elliott, Hamilton, Norris and Sargent, the talent in this country is definitely there, and has been for a while now. However, and as you say correctly, it is that ability to stay the course for a longer period of time physically and mentally that is the real challenge. Freeman, Newell, and to some extent Koos have found ways to ski up and near their potential for a number of years, but for a country the size of the US, we are still lagging behind as far as bringing more consisten results from more than just 3 or 4 athletes. You hit the nail spot on in your other assessments with the nationals results. For some athletes it has been pure incosistency, for some it has been sickness and injuries, and for some it has been that they have moved on to something different, which is in no way bad.

    Germany is a case which I find very interesting. They don’t necessarily have a ‘huge’ pool of athletes to choose from, but for what they lack in depth and numbers, they don’t lack in consistency. Sommerfeldt, Teichmann, Angerer, and Filbrich have been threats for some 8-10 years, but the Germans haven’t been able to bring many new faces to the world cup scene until recently (which is probably due to the fact that their veterans have been skiing so well for so long). So too their ladies team with Sachenbacher, Kuenzel, Henkel, etc.

    I raced in several OPA cup races couple of years ago and I can tell you that even with the “B” or “C” teams, central European racers are damn good. I remember Matt Whitcomb saying that it was like watching 20 or 30 Kris Freemans lining up for one of the mass start races. Now, granted some of those guys have raced in world cups and one of them was Cologna, but that’s what happens on the European circuits, if you don’t race fast for one or two weekends in a row, you’ll be sent back to the minor leagues, which actually happend to Angerer last year. If we can get the ball rolling a little faster with athlete development and bridging that “tough” but certainly reachable gap that has been our achilles heel, the time period between say older juniors to the mid-twenties, then I think we are in for some good results. That, imo, is the biggest issue.

    Speaking of ‘old’ retirees, how about Thomas Alsgaard? Skiing right up front in the marathon races. I am very interested to see how he does in the upcoming Norwegian championships.

  • Avatar
    Cloxxki

    January 15, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    I can only concur, great article indeed. In racing, one needs to be realistic. Are we having fun, or are we having fun while getting ou kids some Olympic medal chances?

    Ned Overend, in his 50’s, is still killing it in the odd MTB World Cup he rides. He was clearly born for the sport, and is still in the process of making the best of it.

    Face it, XC Skiing is an ultra-closed, elitist, somewhat geeky sport. Commonly associated with old people who don’t dress too fashionable and seem to be in no hurry what-so-ever taking the dullest part of the region as their track.
    XC skiing’s sex-appeal is well-hidden. When you’re 16 and full of athletic talent, you don’t go and look for a sport to exploit that. You end up out-running other socces players, or riding a bike up a mountain. Try not to get in contact with soccer or bike racing, especially if you’re in Europe. USA must have many other temptations, athletic as well as non-athletic.
    Really, despite 300 million Americans, your top talents were lucky finds from a small pool. World Cup podiums, that’s awesome. Lance Armstrong, came from the large pool, couldn’t make a pitch to save his life, but happened to come along the small pool called cycling, which made his career a relative picnic on a national level.
    It’s important to relaize that genetical exceptions such as Lance, are not all racing in their national colors. They don’t find sports, and sports certainly don’t find them. When I was fit, racing nationally, a guy on a city bike and leather jacket overtook me on my fast commute and there was little I could do about it. Likely a talent that didn’t know, or care of it.

    Be happy though that you may send 8 skiers to Vancoucer to fly your colors there. Totally unknown athletes get to go. Smaller countries will have much more stringent internal qualitification requirements. Your 4th skier would probably not even quality for an Olympic ticket in my country, despite being 10% faster than the best my country has got. A country of 16 million, yet we send 20 speed skaters, all of which have realistic chances to score medals, with many golds fully expected. Not many people skate for a sport here actually. Not many can even step-over through turns. Somehow, it’s part of our culture, and we have kids out there making us feel proud of our colors. You make want to investigate such cultures, how they do it. And exceptions such as Shani Davis making the unlikely reality.
    – Skiing Image: among young folks and their parents (make cold cool). Lots of nordic freestyle demo’s mized up with sprints.
    – Culture: cities and villages with snow much embrace the coolness. And : artificial snow exhibitions, ski tunnels, town races+fairs+clinics. If my country would limit it’s talent pool to regions with sure ice every winter…we’d have 20 skaters less in Vancouver.
    – Stealing from other sports. Get lots of rental material available and lure them in. A good quaterback that’s on the skinny side, might see himself as a spint Olympian? Muscly gymnasts? Broad shouldered runners?
    For my country for isntance, I have a plan to steal some speed skaters. Some are built for skis, and are nearly there, just missing the poles. Hey, we are leaving home kids from going to Vancouver with medals at this winter’s world cups!
    – Don’t JUST focus on the kids. What if a coack comes across a great skiing talent, that really wants it, but is already 27? Needs to work hard long hours to scrape a living, no scholarships to be had at that age…bet you know a person like this. “Could have been” an Olympian… Make sure you never have to say that about something, if you could have done something to facilitate such a sports career.
    Embrace talents, of any age. Don’t expect miracles, but enjoy others getting the most from themselves, and having fun doing so. That’s culture too. A fanatic master skier may have a teen daughter that could be intrigued in some snowtime as long as there’s cute boys.
    – Share knowledge. The Germans and Scandinavians sure aren’t doing it. Wax, training techniques, nothing to be found. All in cliquey clubs, and national teams. That’s efficient with a large pool to selected super talents from. Not when the pool can’t find the fisherman.
    Hidden away knowledge scares the heck out of newcomers that are not yet part of the pool. I know.

  • Avatar
    tsk tsk

    January 15, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Alright, hold up. Why do you think throwing out random percentages and numbers will get your point anywhere? Did you do any research on this? Do you know anything about junior racing here in the US, junior racing internationally or ski racing at all?

    America’s juniors are not that far back from the best international juniors. Just look at the J1 Scado trip and world junior trip last year. The J1s raced to a 2nd and 3rd in the relays (which is what most people see as the overall competition in that country) against the best scandinavians (look at FIS, it is true). Also, the world junior girls raced to a 7th. That is pretty big.

    Also, racing in AK is exactly like putting the races in Maine next year. But the fact is, Alaska had 6 out of 8 US champions this year. That says something about the racing scene in Alaska and junior development. It is obvious that having juniors watch major races like US nationals is a key in development and very motivating to see the best in the nation. I think Alaska deserved this championships just as Maine does the next two years.

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  • Avatar
    kmd

    January 16, 2010 at 12:40 am

    There is no money in this sport for USA athletes. So athletes have to work full-time jobs while trying to compete at the highest level. Why is that? Nationals are held in ridiculous locales (Anchorage, AK; Rumford, ME.?) which requires expensive travel and crappy venues. Why is that? Soldier Hollow & Lake Placid are 2 Olympic venues which allow altitude/sea level competition challenges with easy access. Is USSA trying to actively destroy access for fans and media?? How do you expect to grow revenue for a sport that gets no coverage and fans can’t get to? Until the USSA gets beyond its weird parochialism – the future of Cross-Country skiing will be deeply compromised for American athletes. Finally, basing selection of major international teams on one week of racing is stupid. Lots of topnotch athletes got sick again in AK – and barely raced. How about looking at the skiers overall performance? It’s as if the USSA Nordic division is run by a bunch of folks who have never given any serious thought to building a future for this sport in America. I am continually frustrated by their lack of vision.

  • Avatar
    crashtestxc

    January 16, 2010 at 1:17 am

    kmd is exactly right!! WHAT A BUST not holding US Nationals in a more easily accessible location. There were many more racers a few years ago participating in US Nationals. What a crime to host it in these locations for two years in a row!

    Also, it’s time to bring US Nationals and Distance Nationals back together again. It was great to see racers competing in a 30k at Nationals in AK finally.

    ….and Spring Series? What happened to that?! What an excellent group of races at the end of the season, that were quite a hit when they were in Colorado…..

    I don’t know who is making all of the decisions, but I would definitely say that they are completely screwing it up right now!!!

  • Avatar
    edmundah

    January 16, 2010 at 1:53 am

    As usual, Topher supplies us with an interesting read and an excellent perspective on the current state of skiing in our country. The article maybe harsh, but it is realistic. There have been huge strides made in recent years, but it is obvious, as he mentions that we do have a long ways to go.

    What I’m not entirely sure of is the need for an article such as this, particular at this point in the season, just before the Olympics. In the last decade, I have read more or less this same article dozens of times. I understand a need to address a problem, and hopefully motivate people to take action. Instead, articles like these have proven over and over again to be ineffective in this objective. If these articles have been written for the single purpose of motivating our athletes to improve, then they have failed. There are numerous individuals in the U.S. ski community that ruffle feathers simply for the sake of stirring up controversy. This in itself is counterproductive to our overall goals. The articles themselves really are not the primary problem. It is the fact that these articles bring in the diminutive and unproductive comments from the peanut gallery.

    We have one month before the Olympics, shouldn’t we be trying to encourage our athletes right now? Instead, I’m reading through various individuals bashing on our team. Debate is a good thing, but these articles typically do not bring the type of discussion to the table that the U.S. ski community needs this close to the games. As typical of comments on this type of article, I see individuals, within this discussion and many others over the last few years listing problem after problem with our country’s training, coaching, development, media representation, where and how we hold our races, and our whole sport structure. What I don’t see these individuals doing (now or in the past) is providing suggestions to solve these problems (In his defense, one person does this, but respectfully, all of his suggestions are totally unrealistic). Solutions to go along with the problems they present would be a contribution to the discussion worth reading.

    I very well could be delusional, but I suggest we as a country spend the little time we have before Vancouver getting behind our athletes, instead of bringing them down. To those foreigner individuals, your input on many topics is greatly appreciated and it is wonderful that you follow the sport in the U.S. to the extent that you do. However, in this case, please approach your discussion with more respect than you have. As a tight knit community, I have faith that we can do better. I look forward to seeing more constructive discussions in the future. Should any individuals like to discuss my comments with me, provide further insight, or simply insult me in a private setting, I invite them to send me an email. edmundah@mtu.edu

    Erik Mundahl

  • FasterSkier
    FasterSkier

    January 16, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Two quick things – the comment from “tsk tsk” above might seem random. It was in response to another comment that has been removed from the site. It contained numerous ethnic slurs. The user account for the poster has been suspended.

    Just a reminder that all opinions are welcome on the site, BUT any sort of hate speech will NOT be tolerated. Remember that you can make a point and disagree in a respectful manner. Read your comments over before posting.

    Also, one of the issues with comment threads on this site is the common practice of digression from the topic at hand. While you can make the argument that the location of US Nationals has an impact on how fast our skiers are, it is hard to support.

    All of the fastest skiers in the US attended Nationals in Alaska. If you are interested in discussing the location of US Nationals, please do so in the forums, and stay on the top of actual performances at the event and what it means for US skiing. Any future comments that deal with the location issue will be switched to a forum thread.

  • Avatar
    Martin Hall

    January 16, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Topher–if you want to clean up the hate comments and slurs etc then only let people sign in with their real names—that will take care of it.

  • FasterSkier
    FasterSkier

    January 16, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Good point Marty – unfortunately there is no way to enforce that. When you create an account, people can enter in any name they want. I could have a policy of deleting all comments that don’t have a name that “seems” legit, but I think it would kill discussion.

    And how can I even know that you are really Marty Hall?

    This is a big problem on the internet in general, and at this point I see no way around it other than encouraging people to have the courage to put their names on their opinions, and to have a zero-tolerance policy for anything hateful.

  • Avatar
    russell_reid

    January 28, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    I know a lot about the points Topher raised. It would take a while to tell all that I know, and I would have no interested parties by the time I was done. Nevertheless I will venture a few comments about those I am directly involved with, 50-year-olds and juniors.

    First, Topher is basically correct. I happen to know the 50 year old in question, not to mention one of the juniors who was vying for the top spots.

    The underlying questions are: what exactly is happening, why is it happening, and what can be done about it?

    1.) One of the sad truths of our sport nowadays is that waxing ( and skis: grinds, prep work, and structure, as well as flex on classic skis but not skating skis ) matters too much. What appears to be bad days is more often than not bad skis. The biathletes have the right idea, by taking wax right out of the qualifying races. I wax skis, and I sadly promise that I can put a lesser skier in front of a better skier most of the time. The fix? Unclear, especially because waxing expertise is crucial in international competitions also. It would be fascinating to post results for waxers also, with open information, so we can learn what waxes, grinds, and structures are working. When 5 teams wax for a race, every 5th skier skis 1 km on each team’s skis. Times could be added for the skier’s placing, and conversely the times added across every skier on each team’s skis, and that would be the waxing team’s score. Post the scores along with what waxes they used, which would be less secret because there is no advantage to secrecy. With the same skis on different people you could better see how much wax matters, and what waxes worked on a given day.

    2) The points system: it is broken, but it underlies team selection and hence the realization of the dreams of the athletes. I am a mathematician and statistician, and I am likely to get longwinded here, so let me just list some of its undesirable properties: 1.) It is extraordinarily inaccurate. Part of this is due to waxing, as above, but a substantial part is the formula itself. People only vary by a few percent, but their points can vary by more than 50% in a couple of weeks. In any engineering enterprise it would be summarily discarded. 2.) The points system is has a glacial response time. A full year. This is idiotic in a sport that wants to encourage young people, who have a notoriously short attention span. Both young and old skiers would profit from a short, put-it-on-the-line response time. 3.) The points system is regional. You can only get points when other skiers show up. If your region has no skiers with good points, you can’t get them either. This may be OK in small nordic countries with high participation rates, but it is highly undesirable in a large country that has a small racing base and wants to have growing pockets of excellence. 4.) It is discriminatory. Built right into the formula. It is (mostly) not intentional, but nordic skiing discriminates against women more than any sport I know. One cause is the points formula. Two populations (men and women) with different means and standard deviations, but one set of parameters. Assuming skiing speed is normally distributed, which is crudely accurate, calculate the points received by a one-sigma ( one standard deviation faster than the mean ) skier in a race that is won by a two-sigma ( two standard deviations faster than the mean ) racer, for men and women, and you will get very different points. When that’s the measure you use, women will think they are slow and go elsewhere. Which happens, unless they are otherwise grounded. No formula should be used by people who don’t understand it ( I don’t mean understand where to put the numbers in, I mean understand what it is doing internally and why, and what the repercussions are. ) And nobody does. As a final mistake, the points process demands that skiers travel with the circuit ( because it is glacial in response, regional, and fickle due to inaccuracy and waxing. ) That ensures that most skiers get ravaged by travel when they should be training more and resting more.

    3.) Training. Marty Hall is absolutely right about workload, but that’s not the only thing going on. The 50-year-old noted by Topher is extraordinary, but two thirds of her extraordinariness is ordinary: working longer, harder and smarter than anybody else, including outworking all of the juniors I know, including even her daughter. But especially smarter. ( The remaining one third of her talent I cannot explain, despite years of trying to understand it. ) She trains quite differently from what is standard lore in nordic skiing, and so does her daughter. The effect is large enough that an aging Mom and a 17 year old U.C. Berkeley student can still do well in Anchorage. It is not primarily genetics, I guarantee, though it’s easier to suppose it is because then you don’t have to change what you are doing. Amusing note: I started racing myself maybe 5 years ago because it annoyed me that the hard work that was done by my kids was not given proper credit, and therefore encouragement: instead they were fast because of “genetics” from their Mom. I resolved to improve just to show that smart hard work pays off. I improved, but it took me a while because I am older. Nobody but me noticed the improvements, but once my results were pretty good ( about all I can claim! ) folks now just think my daughter does well because both her parents genes are good. Sigh. Not a way to encourage hill bounding intervals in July.

    4.) Technique. All sports suffer from deeply ingrained dumb, sometimes preposterous, ideas, and it is a fascinating parlor game to identify them. Buy me a beer some day in Anchorage and we’ll talk about swimming, for instance, where a lot of elite coaches don’t even understand buoyancy. ( I kid you not! In a sport where triathlons and even 400 IM’s are revolutionized by the details of buoyancy of rubber suits! ) Nordic skiing has plenty of its own foibles. Just as a sample, in every sport I know of except skiing, when speeds go up and facilities ( e.g. grooming or road pavement ) improve, aerodynamics come to the fore. Did anybody but me ( and a certain old coach with a speed skating background ) notice that the 50 year old mentioned by Topher has a carefully honed tuck and stays low and tight all of the time while, in some of my photos, really strong young skiers are standing bolt upright, hands wide, going fast? As they’re taught to do? Duh. And this doesn’t even mention the subtler mechanics of skating and poling.

    5.) Selection ( in the statisical sense, not in the “who do we choose for the team” sense, although that also matters and could be hugely improved. ) Nordic skiing is extrinsically perhaps the most complex and, increasingly, expensive sport I know of. By extrinsically I mean equipment, waxing, travel, etc, not the nuances of technique. Because we use our own savvy to help an older Mom and a young daughter 212 miles from snow being able to compete, I am certain that is the biggest chunk of what allows Kris Freeman to still compete successfully ( which, I have to say, makes me want to stand up and cheer out loud! ) When your sport is complex, expensive, and demands travel ( because it is complex and expensive, so there are not a lot of racers in most areas, so races are sparse ), what do you do? Introduce all sorts of new complexities: skating AND classic, two sets of equipment, with no specialization allowed on most JO teams, so all parents must buy two sets. Not enough? New brands of waxes! Better waxes… $140 dollars a tin waxes! New grinds, that you can’t pronounce or understand, even if you are a coach. Sprints, where you have to re-fluoro between heats, which even I did not know in Anchorage. Two kinds of sprints ( classic requires more than twice the waxing headache and injects more than twice as much inequity. Think about it. ) Duathlons. Kitchen sinks. Ooops, no, that’s what I have to fix tonight.

    What happens? A lot of talented young athletes just don’t stay the course. Especially if they train hard for a year and get waxed becuase they weren’t waxed, so to speak, and never even know why. Who is surprised that they take up something else, leaving the field to the savvy? Not me. That is “selection.” That is an important part of why the old horses are still competitive. ( That and heart, which I hugely admire: three cheers for Holly Brooks, Caitlin Compton, Rebecca Dussault, and the rest, say I! )

    I say, let’s not fault the athletes, who are a marvelous bunch. Let us, all of us who study and admire the sport, look in the mirror. Then let’s consider some changes, changes that will help the athletes.

    Russell Reid
    Palo Alto, CA

  • Avatar
    Mike Trecker

    February 5, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Russell,

    You cite flex on a classic ski as too important but make a point to exclude skate skis in the flex category. This is false.

    The “flex” of a skating ski is the single biggest factor for speed, above grind, above wax. The manner in which the snow surface interacts with the “sliders”, the two sections of the ski that are in contact with the snow, is paramount to performance.

    Fleets of skis should be the biggest cost because there is no way around it. Ball park wax on the perfect ski will be very fast. The #1 winning wax combo won’t do anything on the wrong flexing ski. I know this is complicated, but if more people spent time really learning their skis, there would be less mistakes on race day, and less slow performances. Unfortunately the process to learn one’s fleet involves alot of work. But the work spent on the trails really learning the fleet is more important than endless hours brushing and waxing.

    Spend money in this order:
    1. Skis, lots of them that are different. It would be wiser to buy cheaper skis and have more of them, than to drop full pop on the latest and greatest thinking it was the magic bullet. There is no way around the fact that a ski that performs really well in super cold snow will never go good in wet snow and vice versa.
    2. Grinds, once you know your fleet inside and out, get the appropriate grind for the appropriate ski.
    3. Wax, this is the least important but still necessary (sorry wax companies). I have spoken to many Scandinavians who don’t even worry about powders most of the time, yet, because they know their skis so well, they are always fast.

    Hope this helps, I would love to see your whole family, especially Beth, one of my all time heros, go faster than ever.

    My top five inspirational hero athletes of all time in no particular order;

    Gunde Svan, Brit Petterson, Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond and Beth Heiden(Reid)

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