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 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.