American ski fans can draw a few lessons from last weekend’s season-opening races in Muonio, Finland. Kris Freeman looks to be on-form. Kikkan Randall also looks fit. Ida Sargent is the next big thing.
But for two members of the U.S. Ski Team (USST), Morgan Arritola and Liz Stephen, the season still appears uncertain. Each skied to lackluster results in Saturday’s 5 k classic race, while Sunday’s 10 k skate brought results that were stronger, though not quite enough to quash some lingering doubts about their form.
This weekend’s World Cup opener, with another 10 k skate race Saturday, will be the first big test in a crucial season for the two women after a tough Olympic year.
Both small in stature, with similar levels of international experience and physical strengths and weaknesses, the identities of Stephen and Arritola have practically merged in the consciousness of the American cross-country skiing community over the past four years.
“I think a lot of people…tend to look at them almost as the same person,” said Chris Grover, the USST’s head coach. “I think it’s our job to treat them as individuals.”
But in the last two seasons, Arritola and Stephen haven’t done much to dispel the comparison. They both raced to career results at the 2009 World Championships in the Czech Republic, then struggled through a rough rookie season on the World Cup last winter—Stephen with injury and overtraining, and Arritola with insufficient recovery. And at the races in Muonio this weekend, the cumulative time gap between the two was a grand total of 18 seconds.
With funding always tight, Stephen and Arritola are doubtlessly under pressure to perform this year—their second on the USST’s World Cup squad. While Grover didn’t get specific, he said that every skier on the team “is held to results.”
“Each athlete, whether they’re on the Continental Cup Team or the World Cup Team—they need to have results every year to keep them in that position,” he said. “There’s a lot of athletes out there that we can’t support…and we owe it to those athletes to keep those resources fluid.”
In an interview in Lake Placid earlier this fall, Stephen told FasterSkier that her training had been going smoothly. After being plagued by plantar fasciitis last season, which forced her to rely on rollerskiing as her primary training method, Stephen has been able to get back out on foot again—which she said has made a big difference, for both her head and her body.
“You’re always putting on rollerskis every day, it gets old really fast,” she said. “Mentally, I’m recovered from a tough season, and definitely looking forward to going into this winter—which I think is a really good sign.”
Meanwhile, Arritola smashed records on hill climb courses in Idaho, where she trains under the supervision of Grover. He said that there were few changes in Arritola’s training program after last season—just more of an emphasis on rest.
“Last year, all the fitness was there, but the recovery wasn’t. She wasn’t able to access her true potential in most starts,” Grover said. “It’s a hard thing to learn for athletes—they can get so caught up in the hours game of training…They have a hard time differentiating between the sensation of not being in
great shape, and the sensation of being slightly too tired.”
But, he added, “you can’t really train 700 hours in a year and be in bad shape.”
After beginning their season last week in Muonio, Arritola and Stephen are now in Sweden for the opening weekend of the World Cup circuit. Both will remain in Europe through the last World Cup races in December, in France, before returning home to prepare for the U.S. National Championships in Rumford, Maine.
According to Grover, the two will then travel back to Europe after a training block, with a “tentative plan” for some domestic-level racing, then the tune-up World Cups in Drammen, Norway before World Championships in Oslo.
Stephen said that she’s shooting for a top-20 there, which she achieved in two World Championship races in the Czech Republic in 2009. But any pressure she feels to perform, Stephen added, is coming from within—not from others, or out of any concern for her future on the team.
“I think it doesn’t help to add weight that way, to yourself,” she said. “Certainly, after a season that didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, I think you always add a little bit of pressure [to] yourself—just wanting it the way to feel the way it has when you’ve had a good season. That’s a feeling, as an endurance athlete, that you long for.”
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.