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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 NENSA.net
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.
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.