Canmore, Alberta – Yet another North American World Cup has come and gone, and as has been the case in recent years, it was a mixed bag for the United States. There were some obvious high points – Caitlin Compton’s 14th in the 10km freestyle and Torin Koos qualifying 2nd in the men’s classic sprint – before being eliminated in the semifinal.
And one should not overlook Holly Brooks’ 24th in her first World Cup start, Matt Liebsch cracking the top-30 (29th) and Mike Hinckley, a late addition to the start list, finishing 39th.
“There were some surprises – some happy surprises, and definitely some disappointments – some people we thought would do a little bit better,” said US Ski Team coach Chris Grover.
Overall it is hard to term the weekend a success – at least from the results standpoint. Over the last three years, the US team has struggled to post top results in the Canadian World Cups – a reason for concern given A) the field is significantly weaker than a European World Cup, and B) the US has put quite a bit of emphasis on these events.
It is important to realize that this weekend’s races are most definitely not a priority for any country – the Olympics are just days away, and many athletes were coming off a high training load and were looking at the Canmore World Cup as an opportunity to “find the rhythm,” as German coach Jochen Behle put it.
And US Ski Team Head Coach Pete Vordenberg notes that, “athletes that win World Cups leading into a major championship don’t usually do well.
“My confidence is not shaken…we have been preparing for the Olympics.”
Torin Koos finishing 2nd in the sprint qualifier and advancing to the semifinals was the single best performance for the US. Koos has struggled to qualify for the heats this year, and overall his results have not been indicative of a skier ready to challenge for a top spot at the Olympics.
But on Saturday, he blazed through the 1.7km course in qualifying, finishing just 1 second behind Emil Joensson (SWE), the eventual winner and the odds-on favorite for the Gold in this event in Whistler. Koos looked strong and relaxed throughout the day, and was clearly skiing at his highest level of the year.
His qualifying round was legit in any field, and if you can’t make the top-30 in a sprint, nothing else really matters.
After the race he noted that, “if you had asked me all year what the plan is, it is to ski fast when it really counts. I think it is coming on at the right time.”
Said Grover “For Torin to be 2nd, and so close [to Joensson], that was awesome.”
Caitlin Compton’s 14th was the second-best race of the weekend. Compton had been putting significant emphasis on this event (the 10km freestyle) for several weeks, and the preparation showed. Her 42 FIS points would have placed her 19th in the 10km freestyle in Davos, Switzerland in November – a legit World Cup result, and the best of her cross-country career.
“It was great to see her have a really good race in a big event right before the Olympics,” said CXC Coach Bryan Fish. “That is a great milestone first of all [Compton’s result], and very optimistic leading into the Olympics.”
There are two classifications of results – those that reflect on US skiing as a whole, and those that are personal in nature. Koos’ and Compton’s races fall under the former – positive results for US skiing.
On the personal side, there were several other noteworthy performances. Holly Brooks finished 24th in her first World Cup race. In a full field – one in which the Norwegians and Finns were present in force, Brooks would likely have been hovering just outside the top-30. Impressive for a rookie. Brooks also qualified for the heats in 21st, and while she looked overmatched in the quarterfinals, she had slippery skis, and couldn’t maintain the pace on the climbs.
“It was good, I can’t complain too much” said Brooks of her 10km. “People would pass me from the A-seed and theoretically I wanted to hang on longer than I did.”
And on her first time skiing with top European World Cup athletes– “They are great skiers, but they are not untouchable, so that is pretty cool. I feel like I was pretty calm throughout the whole thing, which may be a little surprising since this was my first World Cup…It wasn’t my best race, but it was solid.”
Matt Liebsch took 29th – a good result for the veteran from the Midwest. Liebsch has not had a very good season to date, so it was nice to see him in the World Cup points as the 2nd American. But in a “normal” World Cup, as US Ski Team coach Chris Grover referred to full-field events, Liebsch would have been much further back.
Continuing down the list, Mike Hinckley’s 39th makes the list of strong personal results. Hinckley came to Canada planning on racing just the sprint, but when Chris Cook was a late scratch, Hinckley got a place in the 15km freestyle. He skied well, and was only 17 seconds behind Olympian James Southam. He even got to sit in the leader’s chair for a bit as one of the early finishers.
But many of the top skiers in the world were not present in both races. Norway had a small B-team, the top French men and Finnish women were all absent and Russia did not race all of their best sprinters.
In a full-field, only Koos and Andy Newell would have qualified for the sprint heats in the men’s race, and Brooks and Kikkan Randall would have been on the bubble.
Simi Hamilton, Garrott Kuzzy and Chris Cook made it through in the top-30, but were off the back in their quarterfinals and never looked to be in the race to advance. Hamilton is young and has shown very impressive qualifying speed, but Kuzzy and Cook have now been on the circuit for some years, and from a national perspective, you would hope to see them mixing it up in the heats.
Randall did not ski well at all in the 10km, and despite qualifying in the sprint and advancing in the heats, she did not show her usual pop. But while she struggled a bit, her preparations were not focused on these events. “Not having raced for about a month, it will take a little bit to ease back into it, but today was a good hard workout,” she said following the 10km.
Kris Freeman also had a subpar performance in 20th.
Of course there is a big silver lining. As noted above, many athletes are focusing on the Olympics. Freeman writes on his blog that his coach, Zach Caldwell, predicted a “flat” performance in Canmore due to Kris’ decision to remain in New Hampshire as long as he did. Freeman is unconcerned and feels he will be ready for the Olympic 15k in a week.
Added US Ski Team coach Matt Whitcomb, “Freeman didn’t have it when he tried to put the hammer down, but the good thing was he didn’t die on the last lap.” In fact it was the opposite. Freeman was 30th at 5k, and 24th at 10k.
It was similar for Morgan Arritola. Her 23rd would have been excellent in Europe, but in this field it was not what we have come to expect from her. But again, the good news is that she did not have her best day. Whitcomb said she was definitely flat, and like Freeman, she skied faster relative to the field over the last part of the race.
Same goes for her teammate Liz Stephen, coming off a three-week training block. “Liz is tired,” said Whitcomb. “It was not so good for me today,” Stephen told FasterSkier after her race, “but that’s ok…I’m starting to taper.”
And Grover notes that many of the US skiers have not been preparing for altitude – Whistler is considered to be a low venue at around 3000 feet. “We have been preparing for low-level ski racing.”
The only thing that really worries Vordenberg is athletes getting worn down. “What makes me most nervous is when people seem worn down. Olympics is very taxing because of all the rigamarole, so it is nice to go into rested.” Vordenberg went on to say that some athletes were resting more during the days between the Canmore races and the trip to Whistler.
James Southam also wasn’t pleased with his 15km race. “I tried to build into it and just never picked it up, so I was just a little conservative and never quite got going.” But again, like many of his US teammates, he is keeping his sights focused on the Olympics. “My training has been geared toward the second half of the Games…so on to Whistler.”
Southam is arguably the second-best distance skier in the country behind Kris Freeman, and would look to be inside the top-30 in a Canadian World Cup – not the 35th he ended up with.
So ultimately the results were not good, but there does not seem to be much cause for concern in regards to the Olympics. The top US skiers have all structured their training for the Games, and while it would have been nice to see some stronger results, the big show starts next week.
Said Whitcomb, “Building confidence here [in Canmore] would be good, but what really matters is Vancouver.”
“Sure it would have been more fun and built a little more confidence to be on the podium [in Canmore], but confidence comes from preparing specifically for the Olympics. I feel good about the preparation that we have done,” adds Vordenberg.
What was clear was that the second tier of US skiers is still a good step away from the World Cup level. This is hardly news, but it is cast in sharp relief at a World Cup event. The US does not have a large crop of skiers knocking on the door of World Cup success, and that is perhaps the biggest challenge that US skiing faces – to increase the pool of skiers approaching that level.
But on the positive side, the gap appears to be closing – slowly but surely. FIS points are improving (a function of time back), and Grover notes that in the past, the US Nations group skiers made up the bottom of the barrel – this was not exclusively the case this weekend.
“I thought it was great,” said Grover of the Nations Group performances. “This is the first time I have seen a lot of these guys race all year.”
Last year in Whistler, and two years ago in Canmore, the US performed poorly. The US Ski Team focused on these events – investing time, energy, and money to achieve good results. That did not happen, and was disappointing for all involved. And though the results from Friday and Saturday were not a lot better, the setup is very different.
“In terms of the whole group, we didn’t really have our sights set on being successful here, we had them set on being successful in a couple of weeks,” concluded Grover.
And as Whitcomb said, “It is all about Vancouver.”
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.