Dig Deeper and Push Harder: A Mid-Games Check-In With the U.S. Ski Team

Nathaniel HerzFebruary 23, 201012

With four events down and two to go, FasterSkier caught up with U.S. Ski Team Sprint Coach Chris Grover on Monday night for a quick check-in about the American performance at the Games thus far. Grover talked results, expectations, and the pressures on the team over the last couple of weeks.

FasterSkier: So, can you start by just giving me kind of a sense of how the team and coaches are feeling about the Games so far?

Chris Grover: I think overall as a team, we’re definitely disappointed about our performance at the Games. We had some key athletes who for one reason or another weren’t able to put it together here—who may have been putting it together earlier this or last year at World Championships—and have not been able to get everything together in terms of the fitness and the luck.

At the same time, there’s been a few highlights. I think Kikkan’s performance in both the sprint and the team sprint, for example. Caitlin’s been having a great Games as a first-time Olympian. And I thought she was awesome out there [on Monday]. That was her first time racing a team sprint at that level, and so I thought she did a fantastic job. Morgan’s been pretty close to her top level, and so that’s been very cool, and of course Simi really stepped up and had a good day for him in the individual sprint. But overall, I think we were expecting to do a little bit better, and that’s been hard for us. You know what the situation is when you’re in that place—there’s only one thing you can do, which is dig deeper and push harder. We’re giving it everything we’ve got, every day we go out there.

FS: Have you had time to start thinking about what has been off? Do you think it’s a systemic thing, or just certain people having off days?

CG: I definitely don’t think it’s systemic. We have a small handful of really experienced athletes at this level—I’m talking about Kikkan [Randall] and Torin [Koos] and Andy [Newell] and Kris [Freeman], in particular—and when those guys aren’t on, then all of a sudden we’re having a bad day. A team like Germany, for example on Monday, who has a big team of athletes with a ton of Olympic experience, and many, many medals to their name—when they have athletes who are doing okay, they go with different athletes in the team sprint. They go with athletes they think are coming on, and it gives them that one or two percent boost.

We don’t have those reserves. We have our key athletes, and then we have a group of less experienced athletes. But I don’t think it’s been systemic. Kris Freeman has struggled here, but he’s also had a hard time, especially recently, managing his blood sugar, so that’s an issue that’s real specific to his case. And of course Andy Newell, who was probably our best hope in the individual sprint, fell down. And it’s worth noting that it was his first fall his whole season, in terms of individual sprints. But falling is part of sprint racing. The individual sprint is like racing a slalom race. If you’re going for it, there’s times that you’re going to push it slightly over the edge, and that’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s systemic—I think it’s more individual that we’ve had those kinds of mishaps.

FS: Have you guys been feeling a lot of pressure? As Pete Vordenberg was saying the other day, there are two types of pressure—the kind that you get from outside the team, and the kind that you put on yourselves.

CG: I think the main pressure we feel is the pressure we put on ourselves, as a staff and as athletes. I don’t feel so much pressure from the outside community. What instead I really feel from our U.S. skiing community is support. I’ve had a lot of really nice e-mails and texts and phone calls from people saying, just, ‘hey man, keep plugging away—we know you guys are doing everything you can, we know you guys are working hard, we know that the athletes are out there giving everything they have.’

I think the pressure has definitely come from within, and that we as a group wanted to ski better than we’ve skied this week, as a country for sure. It’s always a fine line in terms of what kinds of expectations are realistic from us and from the community. Coming in here, we felt like a medal was within our realm of possibility, and at the same time, we haven’t had a World Cup podium all year. So it’s not like we were coming in here going,  ‘we’re a shoo-in to take a medal,’ by any means. We felt like it was within the realm of possibility, if things went really well, but so far we haven’t been able to put everything together on the same day, for whatever reason.

But I think, in terms of the big picture, what the country can be super-psyched about is is the fact that we’ve come in here with a chance or two to take a medal. And we’ve been in that situation for quite a few years, and that’s been a full-on U.S. cross country community effort to put us in a place like that. It’s not something that the U.S. Ski Team alone has done. It’s something that the Stratton Mountain Schools and the Sun Valleys and CXCs and APUs and all these different entities and clubs and programs have contributed to, and that’s very cool. And you know, it’s the kind of thing where I wouldn’t be surprised if two weeks from now, in Oslo, we have an unbelievable result or two, or next year at the start of the season. It may not end up coming together during this Olympics, when we hoped it would, but it probably will show up in other places.

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

    February 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    There’s a lack of accountability and a contradiction of expectations here. It sounds like the USST is trying to go back and lower the expectations they had prior to these games. They were entering these games not “hoping” for results, but instead “knowing” they would get results. Now they’re back to hoping. Torino was all about gaining experience and learning and now they’re back to relying on inexperienced skiers at the Olympics. These results aren’t better than Torino and they are certainly worse than SLC.

    Look back at John Caldwell’s piece and see how he nailed the prediction of these games. I thought he was dead wrong at the time.

  • xcskier007

    February 23, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I’m sorry but can’t agree with Grover’s comments regarding Kikkan. Kikkan had a silver medal at World Championships in the sprint last year, how is 8th in these Olympics a highlight? Do you think Northug or the Norweigian fans would consider an 8th place finish a highlight in an event he medaled in the previous year? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

  • advpneumatics.st

    February 23, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    I think the US skiers are at a disadvantage because they don’t race with their competition very often. I’m not saying that their program is wrong, it’s just not anything like what I would expect to do if I was going to try to ski with the competition. I would ski with them every weekend.

    Maybe that’s a simplistic view from an outsider, but that’s how the US became the dominant force in motocross. Back in the early 70’s riders went to Europe and learned from the best by racing with them. Manufacturers and promoters also brought the best riders over to race here in th States. It promoted the sport, sold lots of bikes, and it helped make our riders equal, and then better than their competitors. The same could be done with cross country skiing. We have some of the best places to ski.

    While the competition battled it out in the Tour De Ski, the US skiers went to the nationals. That’s fine as long as you’re only worried about who is the best in the US, just don’t expect anything but getting your ass handed to you when you line up with skiers who have a couple of those tours behind them. It will only get worse as the competition gets more experience in that sort of format.

  • skierout

    February 23, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    They’ve had a good amount of international experience. Four of them have been in the red group of the World Cup at some point in their careers.

  • whinenomore

    February 23, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Speaking of getting more international experience and benefitting from racing as often as possible against world class skiers, why did the US ski team only enter two racers in the men’s pursuit race? What a slap in the face to all the skiers who trained hard and raced their hearts out in an effort to qualify and who would have give anything to race at the Olympics. Unbelievable!

  • sluggingsammy

    February 23, 2010 at 11:45 pm


    Kikkan Randall’s World Championship silver medal was in the SKATE sprint. Look at her past results and you will see that a top 10 in a CLASSIC sprint at this level is a huge step forward.

  • birkieturkey

    February 24, 2010 at 1:11 am

    slugging – i disagree. getting your butt whooped by a lady with 4 broken ribs and a collapsed lung is nothing to brag about. it’s a sad day if the usst claims their best result is down the result sheet from a person that is on the way to the hospital.

    the usst plays the opportunist game. they don’t play the same game as the euros. they wait until the euros are tired after the tour de ski then go over there, have some decent races and hype it up. well, the euros weren’t tired coming into the olympics. the usst was stale from not racing for a month since nationals. bad move.

  • ski907

    February 24, 2010 at 3:03 am

    Please consider your recent statement. By insinuating that because Kikkan’s result was down the sheet from Majdic’s it is a failure you step on a number of toes. First off Majdic pulled off an amazing race. She is an incredibly tough woman and she certainly proved that. Second, you are essentially giving a big middle finger to every skier out there that day aside from
    Bjoergen and Kowalczyk. I find that unacceptable and rude. Basically every skier who has even earned a slot to compete in these olympics, and certainly everyone who was racing in heats on that day, have dedicated there entire lives to the sport of skiing. Maybe they had an off day, maybe there wax wasn’t quite right, maybe they got cut off going into a corner… whatever the reason for them not topping an injured Majdic in the results does not make them a failure.

  • Lars

    February 24, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Personally i don`t think the US have been that bad. I mean the US team had 3 main medal contenders Freeman Newell and Randall.
    Randall had her best results in freestyle and the Olympic sprint was in classic. So it would be unfair expect her to medal and she did have her best classic sprint ever.
    Freeman have had his best result in the 15k classic unfortunately the Olympic competition was 15k freestyle. And he had difficulties with his skis. That is disappointing but it does happen to everybody.
    Newell have been a top sprinter in both styles all year and i my opnion he was the US teams beast shot at a medal. He fell and well that was kinda it. The men`s team is so tight that falling down there is kinda noway to come back from it. But he was hardly the only one who did so the conditions in the sprint prologue were difficult.
    So i`d say the US have had more bad luck then bad performances.

    Now i realize i don`T know the US athletes as well as US fan`s do but this atleast is how i see it and unlike US fans i do have the advantage of not been as emotionally involved and can view the results from a more neutral stand point.

  • birkieturkey

    February 24, 2010 at 11:13 am

    ski907, judging by your name you must be a rabid ak fan that lives in a world far removed from major pro sports. in pro footbal if a qb with a broken wrist beats the vikings, the vikings are ridiculed and remembered forever for losing a game to a guy with a broken wrist. xc skiing at the olympics is a pro sport. randall lost to a woman with broken ribs and one lung, that’s what will be remembered. not that she got 9th, 7th – gee i already forgot what place she was.

    got to give grover credit to speaking to fs. he’s got sacs. have not seen that the hype-meister vordenberg has talked to fs. no babbling of him about best in the world, all in, all out, team today, team tomorrow and his other hip and inane dribble.

    with olympics about over the usst needs a new slogan. any ideas from people? here is my new proposed usst slogan:

    shut up and win

  • stevephillips

    February 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    For those who get kicks out of spewing rage on the comment section, what exactly are you trying to accomplish? It’s not wrong for constructive criticism or to express disappointment, but too many of these posts come across as just angry and arrogant. Apparently some think a curmudgeonly gripe-fest is going to make U.S. skiers ski faster, especially by anonymous posters who don’t even have the cojones to use their real names or back their statements up with logic and reason. If you think you can do things better as an athlete/coach/wax tech then do it, get it done and show everyone how to win rather than just hate on those who are out there giving it all. It’s absurd that some in the XC ski community act like football fans. The average football fan’s closest connection to the sport is sitting on the couch stuffing their face and yelling at the TV, or at best an Uncle Rico-type reminiscing of times of yore: “back in 82’ I would’ve taken state” type crap. There’s not much more pathetic than a couple of people standing around a water cooler talking on an on about how much their favorite QB sucks and the plays they would’ve called. I don’t think this attitude contributes to anything and that’s the same attitude I see here. One of the great things about the ski community is that there is open communication and open participation at a variety of levels, and it takes financial and volunteer support to even have ski racing in this country. If you aren’t happy with the way things are, there are opportunities to improve things at various levels of skiing that can contribute to the overall goal of winning medals.

    It’s clear the U.S. athletes haven’t had the best games but it’s clear the athletes and coaches are holding themselves personally accountable and continuing their push. I don’t think they really are trying to impress some random screen name posting anonymously on a website. What’s the harm in positivity? There’s no point dwelling on disappointment. The silver lining is important; for any skier to improve they need to identify both what is going well and what is going poorly. If something goes wrong the action is simple- figure out what went wrong, stop doing it and move on. For aspects that are improving these are the things that need the attention: how to improve what’s working and how to build on these positive aspects. And this isn’t motivational speaker/self-esteem crap, these are just common sense attitudes that lead to success. I think what people are calling “spin” from the USST is actually a commitment to working towards success rather than focusing on failure.

  • Marjot

    February 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    The US needs to send the twenty best athletes (Measure VO2 max etc) it can find and race them on the World Cup all winter, year after year. With so few entering the US XC pool due to the cost of participating as a youth (except maybe for Alaska) the pool is limited to those with parents with money to play. USA Running can produce because the best can compete against the best in open events for far les money and be discovered. Development programs need to cast a very wide net. Not just the $50,000 per year schools and residents from ski towns. Some of the current athletes are capable but prevented from the European Level weekly head to head competition that would step them up. Even the “top” USA XC skiers are allowed to pick and choose, come and go from Europe, and baby themselves rather that harden themselves with relentless competition. You don’t get to the top without competing at the top day in and day out. The top competitive events currently are not in the USA. Why don’t the parents sending thier skiers to expensive schools send them to live, train and breathe on the European circut for far less per year? College can wait. Many of the Medalists have been young so the idea that the best comes older just means they will be that much better next time! Seems to me an Olympic Medal opens far more doors in life than graduating from college on time. Focusing all the resouces on a very few is totally counter productive. Most of the best talent never gets a chance to develop head to head with the BIG Guns in Europe. If USSA cant do it scientifically, then the skiiers ought to do it and show the USSA how to develop a large stable of winners.

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