Athletically, Tad Elliott and Torin Koos don’t have much in common. At 21, Elliott is a distance specialist, and still developing. Koos is a sprinter, and at 29, he’s in the latter half of his career.
The two things they do share? Both had hopes of making the 2010-2011 U.S. Ski Team—and both were left off the roster.
As part of a shift in strategy under new Head Coach Chris Grover, the team announced last week that it would nominate just seven athletes for 2010-2011—down from 11 this winter.
Grover said that his organization would still be doing “more than ever” to support developing skiers through new programs and enhanced partnerships with local clubs—and Elliott and Koos will likely be beneficiaries, to some extent. But with details of Grover’s new strategy still falling into place, those two—and other hopefuls—have had to move forward with their own plans for the next season.
After more than half a decade racing for the USST, Koos is going back to his roots in Washington. He’ll race next year for the Methow Olympic Development Team, a small, elite club coached by Scott Johnston.
Koos struggled this season after an infected hair follicle last spring turned into a potentially life-threatening skin infection; he had to have surgery and take a heavy dose of antibiotics. The drugs, he said, left him susceptible to sickness, and he picked up two sinus infections this winter—one right before Christmas, and one after the Olympics.
Though Koos had one stellar result—second place in the Canmore sprint qualifier, and 10th in the rounds—he only saw one tour in Europe this year, in the early part of the season. At the Olympics, his focus for the year, he bombed out in the individual sprint, missing the top-30.
After wrapping things up with a win over Andy Newell in a sprint at the SuperTour Finals in Fort Kent, Koos ended up just missing the USST’s qualifying standards by two FIS points–which he said equated to a mere .3 seconds per race.
“I knew that it hasn’t been the season that I’d dreamed about,” he said. “I think there were some bright spots, considering. I came pretty close, looking at it, to making the objective criteria, and just missed by the minutest of margins.”
In late March, Koos said he got a three-paragraph e-mail from Grover letting him know that he was dropped from the team. That was followed a day later with a phone conversation with John Farra, who oversees the cross-country program in his job with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.
Grover said that the USST generally tries to make phone calls when first notifying athletes that they’ve been dropped, but he didn’t want to comment on the particulars of Koos’s case, which he said was unique.
Next season, Koos said that he’s trying to figure out a way to race in Europe— either on the domestic circuit there, or by paying his own way to the World Cup.
He’s facing an uphill battle, though—since domestic European races typically aren’t scored on the USSA points list, they won’t help him qualify for the 2011 World Championships.
And Grover said that since Koos didn’t meet the objective criteria for the fall World Cup races, he couldn’t guarantee start rights for those races, either.
That leaves the SuperTour, which Koos said is probably not the best place for his development.
“I’m just looking for the opportunity to prove…that I’m a top level racer—that I can race at the major leagues of skiing,” he said.
Elliott, Kuzzy, and the Rest
Elliott spoke with USST staff at the SuperTour Finals in Fort Kent, and he left there feeling optimistic. He’d had a strong season, with podium finishes in two U.S. championship races, and at the American Birkebeiner.
A few weeks later, Elliott said he received an e-mail telling him to be prepared for a phone call the following day to discuss his future with the team. But that call never came, and he learned of the team’s roster when a friend sent him a text message last week.
Grover said that his staff has been scrambling this spring, with the departure of Justin Wadsworth and some shuffling of roles and responsibilities.
“Matt [Whitcomb] talked to Tad about potentially making the Continental Cup team format work for him, and he didn’t seem to be able to make the camp opportunities because of his mountain bike racing schedule,” Grover said. “If some communications fell through the cracks, which is certainly possible, then it’s definitely our fault, and we need to do a better job there…That’s why it’s important that people pick up the phone and call us, once in a while.”
After riding his mountain bike professionally this summer, Elliott said that he’ll ski for CXC’s elite team again next winter. He is already pre-qualified for the U-23 World Championships, and said that he’d be thrilled to make the senior World Championships team for Oslo.
“It’s not a big deal at all—I’m not disappointed….I see the ski team as something to strive for,” he said, but “I think I can be successful with the sponsors and the people surrounding me who support me. I’ve been improving every year taking this path, and this is what has worked for me. I’m happy to stay doing that.”
Also returning to CXC is Garrott Kuzzy, who was dropped from the USST after a two-year stint. He said he was prepared for the news.
“I set out some criteria and goals with [USST staff] last spring for what I needed to accomplish in order to continue being on the team, so it wasn’t a shock to me,” said Kuzzy. “I definitely was given the opportunity to do what I needed to do, [in order] to take it to the next level. Had some good races for sure, but I still need to figure out how to put it together when I want to put it together.”
Not much will be changing, Kuzzy said—most of his support over the past few seasons already came from CXC. The USST helped him get to a few camps, but not much more than that.
Grover’s vision—a smaller domestic presence for the USST, and more money towards international racing for younger athletes—is “the right way to do it,” Kuzzy said.
Lindsay Williams and Morgan Smyth, two of the women dropped from the team, had been hampered by illness and injury.
After unknowingly training and then racing with a broken thumb for multiple months this winter, Williams faces surgery to fuse the bone—and that’s on
top of lingering circulation problems in her legs. Her future is uncertain, she said, until she gets healthy.
Smyth had surgery for compartment syndrome in August, then battled a recurring case of mononucleosis this winter. In an e-mail to FasterSkier, she said she’d be relying on a club for support next year.
“Being a member of the USST is an honor,” she said, “But it is training that makes you a good skier, and I will definitely continue to do my best every single day.”
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.