Much to the chagrin of certain US ski fans, the US Ski Team has not put much focus on relay events over the past eight years. Not since the 2002 Olympics have the Americans posted a top result, and more often than not, have been well to the back of the field.
That is not going to change overnight, but with a both a men’s and women’s quartet hitting the trails on Sunday, and a mixture of new blood and a new running order, there is something to be excited about.
The men will run Andy Newell in the classic scramble leg, followed by Kris Freeman, Noah Hoffman and Chris Cook.
“We have a chance of a pretty respectable showing if everything goes right,” Freeman told FasterSkier after his 9th place finish in Saturday’s 15km freestyle. “We’re obviously not racing for a podium tomorrow, but I think we’re going to try to hang with the group for as long as we can.”
The key for the US will be whether or not Newell can stay close over the first 10km. If he passes off to Freeman within striking distance, the team will be in good position for the respectability that Freeman mentioned.
Newell should perform better in the 10km classic than the 15km freestyle, which he describes as “my worst event.”
Hoffman is a stronger skater and and his result Saturday demonstrates he can ski at a World Cup pace.
The weak link is Chris Cook who arrived in Europe recently, and is still looking to find his competition form. Cook did not have the luxury of FIS tune-up races a week ago, so he has had to hit the ground running, and struggled in the 15k.
On the women’s side, World Cup rookie Ida Sargent will scramble. While her most impressive results have come in sprinting, Sargent has some distance chops as well, and the 5km classic should suit her well.
Kikkan Randall, who usually skis the first leg takes over from Sargent. The inexperienced Sargent will just have to hang on to the pack, while Randall has the confidence and experience to chase after anyone who gets away.
Randall is followed by Morgan Arritola and Liz Stephen for the skate legs.
If everyone skis well, the women likely have a better chance of a strong final result than the men. Stephen and Randall both had excellent races in today’s 10km freestyle, but Arritola has struggled since delaying her departure for Europe due to illness.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Randall. “We are going to try something different by sending Ida out first – she is a sprinter and scrappy.”
Relays are the ultimate challenge as a good result relies on four individuals all having a good race on the same day. To move up the ranks, the US needs better than good from each skier, and the odds are against them. But look for the teams to hang tough and continue the positive trend of the past few weeks.
“We are off to a good start and are psyched up for tomorrow,” wrote US Ski Team Coach Pete Vordenberg following the 10/15km freestyle.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.
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Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.