US Olympic Qualifying: How it Works

Nathaniel HerzJanuary 14, 201015

When the U.S. National Championships ended on Friday, Pete Vordenberg’s job started getting complicated.

As the head coach of the U.S. Ski Team, it’s his responsibility to pick the group of athletes that will get to compete in February at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler. On January 19th, after four years of hard work by the nation’s top athletes, his announcement will simultaneously crush some dreams and bring others to fruition.

All about the podium...
All about the podium...

In his deliberations, Vordenberg will be guided by an eight-page, fifteen-section U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) document that outlines the procedures used to select the team. It contains a mix of subjective and objective criteria that will steer him, but ultimately, Vordenberg will have to pick most of the team himself.

In an interview with FasterSkier, Vordenberg was clear about what he wants from his team.

“We have one goal—and that’s the podium,” he said. “That’s what we want to do and that’s what this country wants us to do.”

For the Americans with the best chances of grabbing gold, their berths on the Olympic team are assured. But for those who won’t be winning medals, the future is muddier. Below, FasterSkier lays out the selection process.

The Guidelines

For three athletes, spots on the Olympic team are guaranteed by their results from earlier in the year. Those ranked in the top 30 of the World Cup distance or sprint lists, or the top 50 in the overall standings, qualify automatically.

Sidebar: Olympic Qualification

How many people get to go the Olympics?
Right now, the U.S. has eight spots for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, although that number could go up before the team is named on January 19th. According to USSA Nordic Director John Farra, having an equal number of men and women on the team would be ideal, but there is no guarantee of that.

When will we know the final number?

The initial Olympic team will be named on the 19th, but the final makeup will not be known until after a process called reallocation (during which more athletes could be added), on the 29th.

How does USSA decide who to put on the team?
The top three American athletes going to Whistler have already qualified based on their results on the World Cup circuit earlier this winter. The composition of the rest of the team will be primarily determined by a USSA ranking list, although U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Pete Vordenberg can make exceptions if he feels that the ranking list does not fully capture athletes’ potential to have a good result at the Games.

If the team were selected now based solely off the USSA ranking list, who would be on it?
Based on the current U.S. quota of eight, and assuming an equal number of men and women, the team would be Kris Freeman, Andy Newell, Torin Koos, James Southam, Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephen, Caitlin Compton, and Morgan Arritola.

Under those criteria, Kris Freeman, Andy Newell, and Kikkan Randall have already secured their berths. But with the current U.S. quota standing at eight, that leaves at least five more positions to be filled.

Which is where things start to get more complicated. Beyond the U.S. World Cup athletes, the next level of decision-making is discretionary, and the composition of the team will be up to Vordenberg.

But just because he has some flexibility doesn’t mean that the coach can go out and choose his drinking buddies. According to USSA’s nordic director John Farra, Vordenberg will be primarily relying on the most recent National Ranking List (NRL), which ranks the nation’s skiers based on their three best results from the last calendar year.

“The first thing to look at is the points list, because that’s what everybody knows it to be,” Farra said. “The only reason to go to discretionary is if there’s some failure of the written criteria.”

The NRL is separated into three different divisions: an overall, a sprint, and a distance list. But Farra said that the overall is the sole version that matters as an objective measure—the other two can only be used to help Vordenberg if he decides to make a discretionary selection.


The points list is actually prioritized below coach’s discretion in the USSA document, but Farra said that this is only to ensure that Vordenberg has flexibility, in case someone has a strong series of races that aren’t captured in the NRL— “when people start having standout performances.”

The men’s freestyle sprint at U.S. Nationals in Anchorage was a good example of how this could happen. Simi Hamilton and Garrott Kuzzy both had fast times in the qualifying round (from which points are calculated), but their results may not end up being reflected as strongly in the NRL due to the absence of U.S. Ski Team sprinters Andy Newell and Torin Koos, which may have skewed the points from the race upwards.

Those types of results—where a “standout performance” might not be captured in the rankings—become especially important in the period leading up to the Olympics (like at last week’s U.S. Nationals), because one aspect of the discretionary criteria is to consider the “recent trend or direction” of an athlete’s races.

Technically, Vordenberg can also consider skiers whose results on their own might not merit selection to the team, but whose potential for future Olympics could be elevated by participation in the 2010 Games. But he told FasterSkier that he didn’t think that discretion is designed “to look towards the future with.”

“The Olympics is its own thing,” Vordenberg said. Discretion, he said, “is largely so that you don’t miss taking somebody that you think can help you achieve your goals at those Games.”

As to whether Vordenberg would use his discretionary powers to ensure that the U.S. field a starter in each Olympic event, Farra said that this would only happen if the athlete in question had proven that they would be able to turn in a strong performance. The USSA guidelines, he said, dictate that a discretionary selection should be “ready to have a level of success that is worth going through that process.”

With this year’s small quota allowing for scant wiggle room, Farra said that the U.S. may be forced to bring a team that is “heavy in one gender towards distance, and then the other gender, it might be heavy towards sprint.”

Capturing the trend

The system seems a little convoluted, since coach’s discretion technically carries more weight than the NRL in the USSA guidelines. But Farra said that this is merely to ensure that his organization doesn’t get locked into making specific choices for the team based solely on the numbers.

At the same time, though, Farra acknowledged that using a one-year points list as the primary qualifying criteria might not be the best way of doing things. Under the current system, results from a full year before the Olympics can still end up being the basis for qualifying.

“Generally speaking, we try to capture the trend [of an athlete’s performance],” said Farra. “It’s a little against that notion to have it be a one-year list.”

“I want to analyze [the system] carefully, and moving forward make sure it’s the right model for us,” he said.

The low quota numbers this year have made Farra to take an especially hard look at the qualifying process.

“With a potential team of only eight, it seems so much more intense,” he said. “Maybe if it was 16, you start reaching back eight and eight [for each gender], and you don’t feel quite as stuck.”

Making the picks

James Southam (APU)
James Southam (APU) is currently a frontrunner to make the team.

Currently, the U.S. quota stands at eight spots for the Games. With Randall, Freeman, and Newell pre-qualified, that leaves five berths remaining. Assuming that Vordenberg will bring an equal number of each gender, he will have to pick an additional two men and three women for the initial team named on the 19th.

In a follow-up e-mail, Farra wrote that “a balanced team is ideal” in terms of gender, but that until the U.S. gets its final quota on the 18th, it is hard to say “where [the] holes are.”

While Vordenberg does not have to stick to the overall NRL, if he does, the five additional team members would be Torin Koos, James Southam, Liz Stephen, Caitlin Compton, and Morgan Arritola.

But for those with Olympic dreams, the initial selection on the 19th is not their last chance. Some countries will end up with more quota places at the Games than they want to fill, and their unused spots will go back into a pool that could potentially trickle down to the U.S. through a process called reallocation.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many extra places the U.S. could gain from reallocation, but it could be at least one or two. In October, Farra wrote in a press release that the number would have been at least three had the process occurred then.

The U.S. will not know its full reallocation until January 28th—just 18 days before the 10/15k freestyle in Whistler. Not until the day after that, the 29th, will Vordenberg be able to nominate the rest of the team.

Despite the fact that his choices will probably not win him unanimous support, Vordenberg said that he still relishes the period leading up to the Games.

“My favorite part of the job is working with athletes and helping people get better,” he said. “But in a way this is a part of that too, because at some point, the preparation is over, and it’s time to see people perform. And here we see some performance.”

More Info and Other Predictions

The current USSA points lists are available for download here

Pat Cote, NENSA Executive Director, also outlined the selection process and made predictions on the final composition of the team.  Pat has served for several years as a member of the USSA Points Working Group and has calculated both USSA and NENSA points for races in New England for the past eight years, so has a broad resume of experience calculating and watching the points.

Here are his predicted teams, excerpted from his article on

Men: Newell, Freeman, Koos, and Kuzzy with Southam Southam with Kuzzy as the first alternate. (This could be a tough choice since Kuzzy is a threat in both distance and sprints, while Southam is a distance specialist.  But, I am going to predict that they will go with the points on this one.)

Women: Randall, Stephen, Compton, Brooks with Ida Sargent added to the list as a discetionary based on her classic sprinting prowess and future medal potential with Arritola as the first alternate.

You can read his full article on here

Vancouver 2010 - USST Logo

Nathaniel Herz

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • skierout

    January 14, 2010 at 11:01 am

    I will be shocked if Ida is picked ahead of Morgan for a couple of reasons. Ida has to leap frog a lot of skiers on that list and Morgan is on the US Ski Team. If they eliminate one of the top 4 women, it will be Compton and the discretionary pick won’t be Ida. Maybe Valaas, Brooks, or Dussault.

    I predict they’ll go straight off the list. Top 4 men and Top 4 women. On Jan. 29, they’ll add Kuzzy and one of the three females mentioned above.

  • freeheels

    January 14, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Southam would be way more valuable than Kuzzy. Kuzzy qualifying in the Sprint is not likely. 9 out 10 times Southam will beat Kuzzy in anything over 10 k’s. We need a fast 10K skater for the relay, assuming Koos and Freeman classic.

    As for the women; Brooks, Dussault, and Compton are probably not going to crack the top 50. With that being said, erring on the side of some younger girls would aide in development.

  • Cloxxki

    January 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Why not put freeman as final skater in the relay? Best he would do in the classic, is bridge a gap a teammate had to accept, or stay with the pack. Staying with the pack, Newell can do pretty well as he’s shown this season. Freeman took a high finish in the tough Davos skate race, I seem to recall.
    I’m not a coach, but I’d put a relatively weak classic specialist first. If he stays within reach of the front, that’s awesome. Freeman should not lose more than a couple second as a final skater, over anyone. The few seconds Northug has more. He can do that alone, without a pack to draft. Him staying with the pack, even leading it, is a waste of his capacity. There are no point for tagging in first place, and any first skier getting 10s off the front…won’t happen.

  • Mike Trecker

    January 14, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    I wouldn’t concern yourselves with the relay. It is the stated goals of the team to chase podiums and a podium in the relay is un-realistic. Therefore, maximum focus will shift to those individual events that have a reasonable chance of medaling. I believe that Kris Freeman will not do the relay, instead giving everything in the individual races. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the U.S. does not enter a team in one or both of the relays.

    Kuzzy, who has shown some remarkable ability at classic sprints, is probably the leading candidate on the men’s side. I too would be shocked if Ida is named. Holly Brooks leads the way in recent trend performances and could pop a really good race for the women. The current points list is pretty good in lining out the potential medal contenders in order. My prediction is Pete will go straight down the list; Newell, Freeman, Koos, Southam, Kuzzy for the men, Randall, Stephen, Compton, Arritola, Brooks for the women.

  • flakenordic

    January 14, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    The relay should be a big concern for the USST. Their performance at Liberec was embarrassing given Freeman classiced faster than the skaters. I would put Southham first, Freeman second, Kuzzy or Leif Zimmerman third, and Newell last. Newell has showed he can ski distance fairly well and he has the turn of speed that might be necessary for the end. The US should be able to post at least a top 7 finish!

  • benji_uffenbeck

    January 14, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    If you had to pick the 4 fastest men in the US for the 4x10km relay, would Tim Burke make the list? He consistently finishes very close to Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, a proven WC competitor. How many other US men could claim this?

    I agree with the previous comment that the relay will not be top priority, especially given the small team size. If we can field relay teams at all, it will likely require the full quota of skiers present, regardless of their specialty.

    Given the small quotas, a skier could make the team based on sprinting strength and then end up starting the 50km as well. Kind of like an 800m runner getting a free start in the marathon. With 4 start spots per race and potentially 4 women/men on the team, every skier could theoretically ski in every race. I imagine the reality is we won’t even have 4 skiers in each race.

    It would be interesting to see a breakdown of the best US skiers in each scheduled Olympic race based on past results. For example, who are the top 4 30/50km classic skiers for men and women? Same for classic sprint etc. Hopefully this aggregate list is not too much larger than the quota, otherwise some well qualified skiers will be left behind.

  • OldManWinter

    January 14, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Full disclosure – I’m fully supportive of the US, and would like nothing more than to see them bring home hardware. That said, I have to agree with MT…I don’t see it in the relay, no matter how you stack them. BU – Interesting insight re: Tim Burke. Whoda thunk? I like the idea. What is it about these biathlon athletes? They lose the rifle and just rocket…go figure. Also, I have to think that Pete probably has the breakdown you suggest. Your comparison to track is valid. Like it or not, this sport is moving towards specialization like bike racing (sprinters, climbers, time trialers, etc.), and our limited team size, I believe, is going to make it harder for us to succeed as a national entity.

  • lhumbert

    January 14, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    I agree with you Mike T….but, I would also add Caitlin Compton to that list of recent great performances.

    Freeheels’ comment above notes: “As for the women; Brooks, Dussault, and Compton are probably not going to crack the top 50. With that being said, erring on the side of some younger girls would aide in development”.

    I disagree. I think that any one of the those women can break the top 50…they are NOT too old. The Olympics is about top performances not development….just my thoughts.

    Tim Burke would be a great pick…..biathletes are even faster when they take the 8 lbs off their back.

    94 Olympic Biathlete….was 28 at the time and not too old!

    BTW: We were 6th in the Olympic relay and we ended our World Cup Season that year with a silver medal in the Canmore World Cup.

  • Lars

    January 15, 2010 at 1:39 am

    “What is it about these biathlon athletes? They lose the rifle and just rocket…go figure”

    Well in terms of skiing they are very specialist they only do freestyle distance races. Wile a xc skier have 2 different styles and a larger variety of distances.

    I realiz that biathlete also have to train marksmanship but i bet biathletes spend more time training and racing freestyle distance then most xc skiers.

  • Ben Arians

    January 15, 2010 at 2:33 am

    What’s with the crossed out names on the list at the end of the article? And if he wasn’t a prequalifier (according to the article only Newell, Randall and Freeman are), why wasn’t Koos up here proving himself? And also, naming an Olympic team isn’t about who’s going to better in the years ahead, it’s who’s going to be best for these games. Holly Brooks is higher up in the points now than Arritola, and has proven to be apart from Kikkan the best dual talent (sprint and distance) in the US right now. Make the selections for National team on futures, and make selections for the Olympic team based on results.

  • Tim Kelley

    January 15, 2010 at 3:03 am

    In theory, the lower a skier’s FIS points – the higher the probability of that skier popping a good race at the Olympics. Freeman has low FIS points. Freeman has a high probability of popping a good race, or winning, at the Olympics.

    The top 11 skiers in the US all have overall FIS points under 40. Of those 11: 9 are men, 2 are women. Pete states that the goal of the Oly team is great results. All of the above discussions have assumed a gender balanced Oly team. But if 9 out of the top 11 best overall FIS pointed US skiers are male, then how does a gender balanced team maximize the chances for success for the US at the Olympics? It seems if one was objective (and didn’t get caught up in the emotions of this process), then skiers with significantly lower FIS points would be picked first, no matter what their gender. Because low FIS pointed skeirs are the ones that theoretically have the best chance for high placings at the Olympics.

  • philsgood

    January 15, 2010 at 6:58 am

    TK- I generally agree about FIS points. But it’s also worth checking out what place 40 points gets you in the mens field vs the womens field. That is, some of the women outside of that 40 point line you mention might be getting better results (place) than some of those men who are under 40 points. Olympics are about places, not points. IF a US woman has 45 points but regularly places in the 40s and IF a US man has 35 points but regularly places in the 50s, you’d want to take the woman. (Though you’d probably take neither, in that example). Complete conjecture on my end, but you see where I’m going…

    I have neither the time nor the internet to research actual facts, but I do recall an early season race a couple years ago where Bird got something like 15th, it was an 18-point race, and 18 points would have been fourth in the women’s field that day.

  • lhumbert

    January 15, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Hi Lars,
    Just wanted to note some historical data on how Biathletes can ski in both the skate and classic disciplines………many biathletes grew up (myself included) skiing just classic….and yes, we can still classic ski and wax with klister. 🙂

    What US biathlete made the 1988 Olympic Ski Team????

  • Lars

    January 15, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I`m sorry i misjudged biathletes 🙂 I just know that some biathletes in Norway have said that focusing on xc skiing is not very interesting since here would be very few races for them to participate in with them been freestyle distance specialists.

    As for your trivia question i guess i could try to googel cheat but that would not be fair. The 88 Olympics are a little early for me as i was only 4 years old at the time. ‘
    My first Olympic memory is of Vegard Ulvang in Alberville 92

  • T.Eastman

    January 15, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Laurie, I will help out Lars and identify the ever tough Jon Engen as that 88 Olympian.

    What biathlete qualified for XC in 92 but chose to compete only in biathlon?

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