With Thursday’s announcement of team nominations, seven skiers are in line for spots on the 2011 US Cross-Country Ski Team.
This number is down from the 11 last year, and 18 in 2009. One rookie was nominated, and five athletes were not invited back, accounting for the decline.
According to USSA Nordic Director John Farra, the decrease in team size was not due to budget cuts. While the there was belt-tightening across the board when the stock market collapsed nearly two years ago, there have been no additional cuts since the winter of 2008.
“The reduction in team size over the last three years is more a product of us tightening our criteria and having more faith in the clubs and club coaches on their own,” Farra said.
In the past, Farra continued, B-Team athletes were not getting much support.
“We were naming people to the national team, and they weren’t getting any more from us than uniforming and invitations to camps,” he said. “We are more in line to offer a higher level of support to those who are named to a National team now than ever. In the past it was just a big number, and there wasn’t a lot of meat behind it.”
Farra points out that it is unreasonable to name someone to the team, and require them to be at every training camp, but not offer the funds to cover those expenses.
“[I am] much more satisfied about saying, when I am investing in someone for a whole year, [that] there is actual money, actual support,” he said.
The qualification criteria for the U.S. Ski Team can be simplified to two major points. If an established veteran is competing among the top skiers in the world, and can contend for podium finishes, he or she is on the team. If a young skier is on track to reach that level and is willing to commit fully to the sport, he or she is on the team.
Funding is primarily dedicated to top athletes – in this case the World Cup skiers with the best chance for success.
Only two nominees achieved the objective standards to qualify for the team that are set by USSA. Kikkan Randall and Andy Newell both attained top-50 rankings in the final World Cup overall standings, automatically securing spots.
Kris Freeman, at 51st on the most recent FIS distance points list, just missed joining Randall and Newell in avoiding discretionary selection (top-50 is the standard), but is an obvious choice under the additional subjective criteria.
The US Ski Team has been clear in its stated goal: to win medals at the major championship events—the Olympics and World Ski Championships.
“Every athlete that is nominated to the US Ski Team is someone that we believe realistically, or mapped against a history of successful athletes, could actually reach the podium at some point in their career,” said Chris Grover, who was recently appointed as the team’s head coach.
Evaluating medal potential of established athletes is straightforward, according to Farra. If an athlete has not reached a certain level by a certain age, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to contend for the podium. Farra referred to a simple graph plotting performance against age for each athlete.
The athletes not re-nominated this year had all flat-lined in terms of international performance, showing no significant improvement over the last several years.
Garrott Kuzzy finished 9th in the Canmore World Cup in 2008, but has not been able to come close to that level again – and he will be 28 this fall.
Tazlina Mannix, while near the top of the domestic circuit, has not been able to step up to the next level and compete internationally. Lindsay Williams was unable to bounce back from two injury-marred seasons.
Morgan Smyth had a brutal year, undergoing surgery for compartment syndrome and battling mononucleosis. She may have been a candidate for a dispensation due to the health issues, but Grover points out that even when healthy two years ago, she was placing 14-15 seconds out in international sprint qualifiers – not a positive indicator.
“I don’t think that the unwritten policy of two years is going to fly when dollars are so tight and so many people are pushing from behind,” explained Farra, with regard to the precedent of guaranteeing an athlete two years on the team, regardless of performance, in part to account for potential injury or other mishap.
Veteran sprinter Torin Koos was the only athlete dropped from the A-Team, and the most notable omission from the 2011 squad.
While Koos has stood on the World Cup podium once before, his skiing over the past three years has been inconsistent. Since breaking through with a third-place in Estonia in 2007, he has not qualified for an A-final on the World Cup. Last winter, he struggled with illness during the middle of the season and only made it into the top-30 one time in five World Cup starts.
Koos just missed automatically qualifying for the team. He ended the 2010 season ranked 36th on the FIS sprint points list, 2.07 points out of the top-30, and a spot on the team. This could amount to just a single strong performance.
Koos was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.
In an e-mail to FasterSkier, Farra said that Koos simply did not meet the criteria to be nominated to the team. In addition, Farra said, USSA has a higher standard for athletes who have been supported and racing internationally for an extended period. (Koos’s first World Cup was in 2001.)
“We need them winning,” he said. “We expect our seasoned World Cup athletes to be scoring World Cup points…I think Koos is a super talented skier who has much more to show, but something has not been clicking for him.”
Koos’ inability to score World Cup points regularly meant that he his status as a Red Group skier is not guaranteed. Red Group skiers have all travel and lodging expenses paid for by race organizers – a major benefit to cash-strapped programs like the US.
And while Koos has shown flashes of brilliance since his 2007 podium, including qualifying 2nd to Emil Joensson (SWE) in Canmore this season, and placing 8th in the skate sprint in Italy last season, he will turn 30 this year, and may be running out of time.
Historically the US has lagged behind the curve in regards to age.
“We are looking for where we can get the best bang for our buck,” said Farra. “And investing in athletes who are pushing 30 years old and are not close to winning medals—that is tough.”
Farra went on to say that he would rather take a risk on a younger athlete with a higher upside then support older athletes who no longer project out to podium finishes.
“I think that is the real challenge for our country, that we do tend to have quality athletes, but they tend to develop slower.”
He notes that even the top skiers in the US—who do have legitimate chances to win medals—will most likely be doing so in their last Olympic Games. Ultimately, Farra said, he would like to see skiers competing for medals in their early 20s, and then be able to do so again and again.
Assistant University of Vermont ski coach, Olympian, and former USSA Athlete Representative Patrick Weaver recognizes the issue is complicated.
“I see it both ways…the smaller the teams, the more you can focus on your quality. But then again, putting all your eggs in one basket sometimes is not the way to become a dominant sport,” he said.
Championships vs USST
Being named to the US Ski Team does not guarantee spots in the world’s biggest races.
“I want the best team at World Championships and the Olympics. And I think our criteria has been pretty damn awesome at choosing people who are performing right here and now, and choosing them to the biggest events of the season,” said Farra. “If you are talking about fielding a team for a specific event, you take the best athletes that you have, and you race them in their best events at those Championships. And it doesn’t matter what their age is.”
The US Ski Team is another story, he said—and again, it is all about medals, and a year-long commitment.
In addition to podium potential, the other big component to team selection is a full commitment. The US Ski Team made waves a year ago when they announced that they would encourage top young skiers to postpone college and fully focus on racing.
This was seen by many as a rejection of college’s role in the development pipeline, but Farra says that was never the idea. The criteria simply states that those athletes that want to be on the U.S. Ski team must be 100 percent committed to the sport of cross-country ski racing—“all in.”
Athletes must “take part in the complete US Ski Team coaching and camp program”—a stretch for a full-time college student.
Two U.S. Ski Team prospects Tad Elliot and Ida Sargent, fall into this category.
Sargent, who will be a senior at Dartmouth College, clearly is the second-best sprinter in the country behind Randall, and Farra said he would love to see her on the team.
“A wicked talent. We would love to see her commit herself 100 percent, and be at every camp that Kikkan is,” he said.
Farra reiterated that Sargent’s exclusion is not because she is enrolled in college, but because she would not be able to commit to attending all the team’s camps.
“And if she [could be], she not only helps herself, but we need her to help Kikkan [Randall], too,” he said. “Being on the team is about challenging Kikkan to the first turn, and Kikkan gets better.”
Elliott is not a college student, and he races for the CXC Elite Team. He had several strong races this season, including a second place in the 15 k freestyle at US Nationals. But Elliott has yet to have a standout international result, and while 22 is relatively young, his lack of international success puts him in danger of falling behind the curve.
Most importantly, however, Elliott is an excellent mountain bike racer, and spends his summer competing at a high level. This appears to preclude him from being named to the team, as he would not be able to meet the requirements.
“We can’t afford to be investing very precious resources in to someone who is a multi-sport athlete,” Farra said, pointing out that Elliott would not be able to attend a US Ski Team camp until at least August.
Farra said he is constantly gathering and maintaining data on all the top up-and-coming skiers in the country. He made it clear: if someone is not on the Team, it is not because they were overlooked.
There are plenty of fast skiers out there, Grover added, but right now, most don’t fit into the U.S. Ski Team program.
“We have a lot of talented athletes, but a lot of those athletes are in college,” he said. “They’re student athletes. In order to be on the Continental Cup team, you have to be an athlete-student. You have to be all in—you have to be putting your ski racing development before your studies. And you have to be able to take advantage of all camp opportunities, and all appropriate competition opportunities.”
Just because the B-team is small, he added, “doesn’t mean that we don’t have talented athletes out there who deserve to be on it—because we do. It’s just not the right situation for them right now.”
Clubs Take a Bigger Role
The final element of the selection process is USSA’s larger vision for the cross-country program. According to Farra and Grover, the club system has grown substantially in the US over the last few years, and it now offers a very high level of support and coaching for top athletes.
The ascension of the clubs, they said, means that the U.S. Ski Team can focus its direct efforts on top-level athletes, while supporting the efforts of clubs on the development front.
Stratton Mountain School coach Sverre Caldwell, supports a model that integrates a strong club system, noting the growth of clubs in recent years.
“I have no problem with a smaller US Team. I think it makes total sense. The way to go is to encourage the development of more clubs,” Caldwell told FasterSkier. “We are on the right path, but we need to keep improving that.”
Grover said that he views collaboration with the clubs as a critical aspect of the development pipeline. This year there will be a new elite J2 national camp, as well as the introduction of an NTG (National Training Group) camp.
In addition, Grover said, some of the money saved by reducing the team size will be rededicated towards supporting up-and-coming athletes on trips to Europe during the race season.
“If there’s been any criticism of the way we’ve operated our teams in the past few years, one of those…has been that we are giving people a little bit too much of a chance to stay on the team—that we’re not fluid enough with our resources. And I think there’s definitely some legitimacy to that criticism,” he said. “And so that’s what we’re trying to do now, is to have the flexibility to be able to take somebody on a trip, and support them if they’re skiing fast at a given time.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.