Whistler, British Columbia – Over the last several years, expectations of American skiers in international competitions have consistently increased. Each year the bar has been raised, and the US ski community is no longer satisfied to settle for top-30 performances. But with high expectations comes the potential for great disappointment.
With years of specific preparation and focus, these Olympics were supposed to be different, but bad days still happen, and this was one of them.
The biggest disappointment was obviously Kris Freeman’s disastrous result. Freeman was the American medal hopeful in this event, and with two 4th place World Championship finishes, and several other top-5 World Cup results, this was supposed to be his race.
US skis were fine according to Head Coach Pete Vordenberg, and Caitlin Compton, who posted the best US result of the day, finishing 30th in the women’s 10km was particularly enthusiastic about her skis.
“Awesome, awesome boards…my skis were just as good as anyone else’s out there,” she said after the finish.
Zach Caldwell, Kris’ coach told FasterSkier that Kris did not have issues with his blood sugar. “Blood sugar was really good,” said Caldwell. “We can say that at least he finished with a pretty ideal sugar reading.
“We’ll have to wait a little bit for the lesson to emerge – I think things will come into focus in the next day or two.”
This was easily Freeman’s worst result of his season. He finished in 59th, over three minutes out, and was never in the race. He was clearly laboring right out of the start, but unlike his Norwegian counterparts, who also had a tough day, he continued to push, suffering all the while.
“It was not a good day,” said Vordenberg. I have no reasons or excuses – it just didn’t go well.”
US Coach Chris Grover seconded that. “We just didn’t have it today, and it isn’t completely clear why.” He did point out that the US has all their eggs in one basket when it comes to the10/15km distances.
“Freeman is really our only guy when it comes to the 15k, at least in terms of results. So if he has a bad one, we have no one else right now.”
To make matters worse, Freeman followed Swede Johan Olsson (who was also finishing) back into the lap lane instead of heading for the finish straight. The move didn’t have any real bearing on Freeman’s day, though there was a sense of adding insult to injury.
And that is an important point. If Freeman had medaled – or even finished in the top-10, things would look very different – even if all the other skiers had their same races.
And as mentioned above, he wasn’t the only one to struggle. Norway, the strongest ski nation in the world, did not have a skier in the top-20. In fact, their top finisher was Tord Asle Gjerdalen in 28th. Petter Northug and Ronny Hafsas finished 41st and 42nd respectively – though both clearly threw in the towel early, saving their energy for another day.
James Southam led the US men in 48th. Grover described his race as “solid, but not where he wants to be.” Added Vordenberg, “James skied smooth and strong – an even race – but he was never able to dial it up.”
“It just wasn’t a great one for me today,” said Southam, who also confirmed that his skis were “as good or better than those around me.”
Southam finished 33rd at the World Championships last year, and at this point, 48th is not a good result. Garrott Kuzzy was next for the US in 58th, just .1 seconds ahead of Freeman.
While Kuzzy has had his best international results in sprinting, and he seemed relatively pleased with his day, this was also a poor result. The FIS points were bad, and given that there is no Nations Group at the Olympics, the place no better.
“Happy with how it went, I felt really strong out there,” said Kuzzy.
Simi Hamilton rounded out the US quartet in 64th. Hamilton, just 22, and a stronger sprinter, is the one athlete who can be given a pass. A high place was not expected in this event.
“It went pretty well – my goal was to ski the first 10k controlled and relaxed. I think I achieved that. I’m definitely focusing on the sprint here, so hopefully Wednesday will be another good day.”
These last few comments from the athletes cast the issue of expectations into sharp relief. Both Kuzzy and Hamilton were pleased with their races, and four years ago, seeing young inexperienced athletes having a positive experience, if not a result, may have been enough.
But one reader posted on FasterSkier “Today had to be the most depressing day in US nordic ski history.” Strong words? Perhaps, but with all the buildup, the status quo is just not sufficient.
These expectations are most likely unreasonable. Freeman has never been on the World Cup podium, and for a variety of reasons, health among them, he has struggled to ski in the top-15 race after race. But there has been a sense that he would win a medal.
Expectations aside, it is important not to get too worked up about a single day. Grover noted that the US did not perform well in the 10/15km event at the World Championships last year, but went on to have a historic ten days.
Said Vordenberg “Today is behind us, we need to learn from this, but start looking ahead and getting ready for the next one. Yes it is concerning, any time you have a bad day it is cause for worry, but none of us can afford to let this shake our confidence.”
And of the eight US skiers in today’s races, six are Olympic rookies. While Vordenberg didn’t see any sign of excessive nerves, he wouldn’t count that out as a potential factor.
Southam was not one of those, with plenty of big race experience. “Having raced in five Championships [Olympics and World Championships], I know the vibe, I know how it feels on race day.”
So nerves was not an issue for him, but he has been more focused on the second half of the Games and the 30km pursuit and 50km classic. “The individual 15km is probably my weakest event right now. This was a good opportunity to get the body jump started and back into race mode – just get warmed up for the rest of the week.”
And like Hamilton, Kuzzy is looking ahead to the sprint.
Ultimately the day was defined by Kris Freeman, and with all hopes resting on one man, there was no room for error.
The women’s race was similarly disappointing, but again mainly as a result of raised expectations. Compton’s 30th was solid, a good race according to Vordenberg, but not her best.
And Grover was pleased with Morgan Arritola’s performance – 34th, just over two minutes back.
This was not the most disastrous day in US Ski cross-country skiing history. It was a very bad day for Kris Freeman, and then a mixture of solid, if unspectacular performances, poor races, and good developmental experience. The standard is higher, and with explicit goals of medals, it is much harder to get excited about anything less.
Are these expectations unreasonable? Most likely. But that is a discussion for after the Games. For now, it is important to remember that today marked the first two races of twelve. There is plenty of time to turn things around.
There was quite a bit of talk, from both athletes and coaches today, about “getting the first one out of the way,” and of “ this being a good “warm-up for the rest of the week.” Hopefully that is the case, and if 30th is the best result on the board in two weeks, then we can talk about true disasters.
—Nathaniel Herz contributed reporting
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.