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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.