US Cross-Country Struggles in Olympic Opener

Topher SabotFebruary 15, 201019
The look says it all....
The look says it all....

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 - top American finisher
James Southam - top American finisher

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.”

Simi Hamilton heading for the final turn.

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.

Holly Brooks

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.

Caitlin Compton skating to 30th.

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.

Morgan Arritola out of the start.

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

Compton brings it home.

Topher Sabot

Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.

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  • clairepolfus

    February 16, 2010 at 10:12 am

    I was a lot more disappointed in the media coverage, including this article, than in the racers’ finishes. Congratulations to everyone who stays positive and thinks ahead.

    Good luck in the sprint, the pursuit, the distance and the relays!

  • sailguy

    February 16, 2010 at 10:47 am

    I think the US team has the right to be disappointed, but there are other countries who had worse days. This venue is known for wild weather, but the last few days have had very unusual conditions even for here.

    I watched in person, but haven’t seen the tv coverage yet, or even all the results, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.

    Petter Northug went by with a ‘what is happening’ look, and later looked like he was just finishing the course so he could go home.

    Axel Teichmann looked like someone had shot his favourite puppy.

    Kris Freeman looked like he was having an off day, but he just doesn’t seem to know how to back down. He was clearly pushing, but probably would have finished higher if he had bagged the race like some of the favourites. His biggest virtue on good days also seems to be a big handicap on bad days. Expect him to bounce back.

    Southam looked smooth and together always. Simi(?) had a bit of ‘look at all the cameras, this is the Olympics’ going but was smooth from the neck down.

    For the Canadians, only Ivan really looked ‘on’.

  • freeheels

    February 16, 2010 at 10:51 am

    No two ways about. USA got their collective asses kicked yesterday and it was massively disappointing for many ski fans out there.
    Thank you very much for you coverage so far during the games. This is the first time American’s have had in depth, objective and at times critical reporting from the Olympics. Honest journalism is important as to not candy coat the hard realities of competitive athletics.
    We fumbled the ball on day one. You called it.
    Keep up the good work and let’s hope for some better results in the sprint.

  • 2PACmosDEF

    February 16, 2010 at 11:18 am

    How could you possibly be dissappointed with the media coverage? NBC has made nordic big time, Al Trautwig commentated for the race and the guy from the Visa commercials even made a personal commercial for Johnny Spillane. Never complain when NBC puts both ENTIRE races on national television. This combined with Fasterskier’s amazing coverage have made possibly the best American nordic coverage ever. Keep up the good work!

  • Mike Trecker

    February 16, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Massively dissapointing? Not at all. Bit of a bummer? Sure. This is the toughest sport in the world with the toughest athletes in the world all together giving their best. Someone has to win and someone has to lose. Piling on and saying USA got their collective asses kicked isn’t going to help.

    Fumbled the ball? I get the analogy, but that’s the thing, there is no ball, there is no team. These people strapped it on by themselves and went out and challenged the best in the world, in a very solitary way, them against the world. It is amazing that these skiers do what they do and sometimes have a chance to win. Too bad you can’t just appreciate the effort and enjoy the races rather than feel your national pride dampened. I guarantee you that every athlete in these games is giving their all, the best that they could every day out there. Who the hell are you anyway and why should Kris or anyone else do anything FOR YOU? Fumble? Not! Ski fan? Not! Nationalistic flag waving idiot? Perhaps.

  • eturner

    February 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Due to the soft conditions I think weight played a role. No one in the top ten (of the men’s race) weighed more than 165, and only two people weighed more than 160, Cologna and Marcus Hellner. Heavier skiers like Northug, Axel Teichmann, and Kris Freeman did not do well.

  • skierout

    February 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    That’s a good point. Watching on TV, it looked we had some of the biggest skiers out there. Freeman and Simi look more like rugby players than cross country skiers.

    Simi “getting a pass” and talk about using this as a “warm-up” or one “to get out of the way.” Sorry, but this is the Olympics. That kind of talk is B.S.

  • freeheels

    February 16, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Thanks Mike and your Headskifanness. Chillax.
    I was there. Were you?
    Thanks FS for calling a fumble a fumble.
    Massively dissapointed? Yup. Not the only one? For sure.
    Let’s get in to it in the sprint.

  • wantabe

    February 16, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    I think we all need to realize that “bit of a bummer” is not going to cut it in an era when the team has been massively reorganized to accommodate Nordic skiing.
    Any, you are right. There is no ball to fumble.
    It is nice to hear your kind words, but I have a feeling they are more for to comfort the “losers” than to compliment the “winners.”

  • nordicmatt

    February 16, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Hooray for federal holidays. I had the 47″ Vizio hooked up just in time for the women’s 10 k and then the men’s 15 k. I purposefully avoided on-line results to get then on the delayed broadcast. NBC did a good, albeit with the “Americanization” (“two football fields to go”). I suppose as Americans we could start scribbling words of encouragement on the Star and Stripes and be like everyone else (I hope not). Harkens back to Torino during the pursuit when I saw a French family using the Tri-color as a seating surface. Hmmm. Enough of the rambling. The greatest disappointment is felt by the racers themselves. Every racer with high expectations hates that feeling. However, seeing Dario power away from the field, that was inspiring.

  • Mike Trecker

    February 16, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    “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.” – Chris Grover, USST

    So, Kris is our only chance and he has a bad day, so what? Of course it’s dissapointing, no duh. So you “fans” were there and I wasn’t, what does that have to do with anything. Are you bummed because you spent all that money and devoted all that time to go watch and now you’re dissapointed. Too frickin bad, get over it. This ain’t about you.

    Where are you the rest of the 4 year cycle, are you supportive, or are you just waiting for “your” medal. Were you at Liberec last year when Kris got 4th at World’s? Were you supportive or were you pissed he didn’t win? I’m not going to chillax when jerks like you come out of the woodwork once every four years to bitch about how we suck.

    Let’s get into it in the sprint? What are you gonna do, cheer hard? Blow a horn? Ring a bell? Awesome. I sincerely hope the team does great, but not for you or for me. For themselves.

  • freeheels

    February 16, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Coors Light. Drink one.

  • Mike Trecker

    February 16, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Rocky Mtn cow piss? You drink one, I can’t, I’m too massively dissapointed. Surprised I even got up today.

  • skierout

    February 16, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    If the US ski team has a vision of ever becoming remotely relevant in this country outside of it’s own community, they better be ready for some heat. This is mild in comparison to any other sport with relevance. If this was college football, there would be 1000 posts demanding the whole staff be fired.

    I’m not suggesting this is a goal of the ski team, but if they’re looking for funding, they better get results (Olympic Medals). And if they don’t get results, they need to answer to people who are paying. Everyone who pays absurd fees for USSA memberships and events should expect more for their money. Not to mention sponsors or donors.

  • lsiebert

    February 16, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    I have never seen comments this negative on fasterskier before. The level of hate here is incredible. There are still five races left at these Olympic games. Lets save the anger for AFTER the games. Or get mad at the Biathlon officials.

  • wantabe

    February 17, 2010 at 1:33 am

    Usually these comments are written by self-serving leaches who are out to knock athletes accomplishing feats of courage beyond the grips of your average couch-potato American redneck.
    I agree with Mike that this is about the racers, not the national pride. But, then, where does that leave the USSA?
    Isn’t it obvious that this has been a weird Olympics for Nordic?
    The wildly different results for the European teams compared to previous Olympics and the fact that the Americans still suck (albeit in a proud, honorable sort of way>;)) implies to me the obvious.
    We all know that doping is out there, in so many different forms it boggles the mind. IMHO this Olympics so far has raised a lot of troubling questions about Nordic racing, and a specific problem for the USSA. (Make no mistake, they ARE aggressively looking for ways out of the box on this issue.)
    Among the troubling questions, though, is that if the U.S. were to medal now in ANY of the events, a cloud of suspicion will inevitably hang over their heads.
    So who is doping? Impossible to tell-I would guess that the Frenchman who won the Nordic Combined is doping. He looked like he was skiing WAY too easy.
    Tor, you said that no doping has occurred so far. Use some research and use some logic. No.1 they have got this BUSINESS down to a science, as well as a conspiracy: it’s the story that won’t go away, but that no one wants to discuss, frankly.
    Tor, if an earthquake kills 250,000 people in Haiti and you are not there to see it-did it actually occur?

  • wantabe

    February 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

    …and I think Ulvang and Salvador Dhalie were in the 90’s…
    oh my f—-ing christ;hang me in the public square now))>

  • PixelPaul

    February 17, 2010 at 9:42 am

    “So who is doping? Impossible to tell-I would guess that the Frenchman who won the Nordic Combined is doping. He looked like he was skiing WAY too easy.”

    It’s probably best to wait until the games are over to start with the doping conspiracy theories, but that was exactly my thought as I watched the Nordic Combined race. It seems to me that the French athletes are far over-performing in the nordic events, especially biathlon. It will be interesting to see what happens the rest of the way.

  • genegold

    February 17, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    While I don’t know how Caitlin Compton feels, I don’t see any reason for disappointment with her performance. What’s perhaps even more noteworthy is that though she’s not been included in the main (or any?) USST cross-country training group, in her two WC level races this year she’s posted the top US women’s results. Looks like the biathlon experience really paid off. Good going, Caitlin!

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