As the season gets fully under way, FasterSkier will be featuring previews of teams and athletes at different levels. We published our piece on US Biathlon earlier this week, and today, we present U.S. World Cup cross-country. For another look at the US World Cup athletes, check out our 24 Teams in 24 Days series.
With eight athletes headed to Gallivare, Sweden for the World Cup opener, the U.S. Ski Team (USST) will have the numbers to field both a men’s and women’s relay team for the first time in many years. The increased numbers, coupled with strong results a week ago at tune-up races in Muonio, Finland, are good reason to be optimistic about American chances on the 2011 World Cup.
Experienced Trio Leads the Way
The U.S. brings a mixture of seasoned veterans and young hopefuls to the first World Cup period, led by stalwarts Kris Freeman, Andy Newell and Kikkan Randall.
Both Randall and Freeman skied very well in Muonio, both winning races, while Newell demonstrated his usual speed in sprint qualification.
“It’s really exciting to see someone like Kikkan Randall in great shape early. It’s really exciting to see some like Kris Freeman in great shape early,” U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier in an interview this week. “Those guys got us all excited, but at the same time it is just early…World Championships are still three months away.”
The “Big Three” will race the entire first World Cup period, and then stay in Europe through Christmas to prepare for the Tour de Ski, a first for Randall and Freeman.
As usual, they will not start every race. Freeman will skip the city sprint weekend in Dusseldorf, while at this point, Randall will not have a partner for the team sprint there. Newell will pick and choose his distance races around the sprint schedule and even Randall, who has become competitive in World Cup distance events, most likely will balance starts with the need for training and recovery.
In addition to the three podium threats, Liz Stephen and Morgan Arritola will be following the fall World Cup circuit for the second year. Assuming good health, the two will race through the final pre-Christmas weekend in La Clusaz, France, skipping Dusseldorf to train in Davos, Switzerland, ahead of the races there.
Arritola is not a sprinter, but she will get at least one high-speed start at the mini-tour in Kuusamo. Stephen, on the other hand, while not a pure sprinter, has had good results in the team event, pairing with Randall at the pre-Olympic World Cups in Whistler in 2009 to finish fourth.
With the exception of Randall, the veterans on the USST have something to prove. Despite numerous strong performances, Freeman has yet to stand on a World Cup podium. Newell has reached that level, but has been unable to make the leap from brilliant qualifier to consistent threat in the finals. And both Arritola and Stephen are looking to jump from potential to results.
Grover expects those two women to be building throughout the first World Cup period, and “really come into their own in Davos and La Clusaz, where the altitude suits them and the courses are more to their liking.”
But early season results are not the focus of the team, as eyes are set firmly on the World Championships in Oslo.
Randall looks to defend her silver medal from the 2009 Championships in Liberec, and with the sprint in her preferred skate technique, and a second place in the pre-championship World Cup in Oslo last season, she will be one of the favorites.
Freeman has two fourths at Worlds, and would likely trade any number of World Cup podiums for a medal. Newell has unfinished business after crashing out of the Olympic sprint qualifier in Vancouver.
The USST has not shied from the fact that their goal is to win medals, even at the expense of season-long World Cup performance, so the team will be shooting for a big peak in late February.
“What would really define success for me,” said Grover, “is success at the World Championships.”
“Beyond that,” he continued, “of course, we are looking for a World Cup podium for Andy Newell. Of course, we are looking for one from Kikkan Randall. And we definitely think one is possible for Kris Freeman.”
Newcomers Look to Make a Mark
Simi Hamilton is a rookie on the US Ski Team, but he has already had some promising results in sprint races, including a 34th in Oslo at the end of last year, and a 29th at the Olympics.
He has the speed to be competitive in sprints, and should see some appearances in the heats – if he gets some starts.
Hamilton injured his knee recently, and was unable to start in Muonio, missing the opportunity to earn a berth on the World Cup. He will race this weekend in Rovaniemi, Finland, and will need strong performances to move up.
While not guaranteed a spot, he is a frontrunner for the World Championship team, after the usual suspects.
Three more athletes are making the trip to Sweden, including US Ski Team member Noah Hoffman and Dartmouth College/Green Racing Project star Ida Sargent.
Sargent will get her first taste of World Cup racing after impressive sprint results in Muonio, including qualifying fifth in a tough field last weekend. She will stay on the circuit through Kuusamo in order to get a sprint start.
Hoffman will only race in Gallivare, contesting the 15 k freestyle and likely the relay, as well. Both Hoffman and Sargent are still in the early stages their career, meaning that experience is as important as results. According to Grover, there are no expectations for those two athletes – the Gallivare races are just a chance to get their feet yet, even if an appearance in the sprint heats is not out of the question for Sargent.
The opportunities for experience, and performances at lower levels by developing athletes, are a big part of the picture for Grover.
Freeman, Newell and Randall, Grover said, “are just three athletes from the United States.”
“I am a little bit more interested in what we do at World Juniors, and what we do at U-23s, and how we ski on Europa Cup and how we ski at Scandinavian Cup,” he said. “Because three athletes are not a development program. It is not a system.”
SuperTour Leaders to Add Depth
The leaders of any Continental Cup series at various points in the season are awarded start spots on the World Cup. As winner of last year’s SuperTour, former US Ski Team veteran Chris Cook qualified to race the first World Cup period.
With 36 World Cup starts under his belt, Cook does not lack experience. He has seven finishes in the top-30, including two top-15 results.
Cook spent all of last season racing domestically, and was not at the races in Muonio last week, so he is somewhat of an unknown. He will be a candidate to ski a classic leg of the relay on Sunday, and he will shoot for his best results in sprint races.
Cook and Hamilton will both be options to team with Newell in the Dusseldorf team sprint, as will former USST member Torin Koos, who is racing in Finland this weekend.
SuperTour leaders in the middle of the season will also have the opportunity to travel to the World Cup, though with World Championships looming and no U.S. Ski Team presence planned in late January and early February, eligible athletes may decline the opportunity to race three events in Eastern Europe.
The World Cup Finals are now limited to the top 50 athletes in the world, plus Continental Cup leaders, so USST members like Hamilton and Stephen could be out, while the man and woman on the top of the SuperTour leaderboard will be present.
Brian Gregg (CXC) was the beneficiary on the men’s side last season.
Koos Out…For Now
A mainstay on the USST for years, Torin Koos was not re-nominated for the 2011 season. He failed to impress coaches with his results at FIS races and earn a World Cup spot in Beitostolen, but he remains in Europe, and could still get the call-up if he takes his skiing up a notch.
Regardless of whether he gets World Cup starts, Koos should be considered a favorite to make the World Championship team.
More Athletes Mean More Options
With a new USST strategy of maintaining a two-tiered European race schedule, aided by the National Cross-Country Ski Education Foundation and elite clubs like the Craftsbury Green Racing Project and Maine Winter Sports Center, there are more options for skiers to get called up to the big show.
Top performances in lower-level races could result in a World Cup start and lead to a stronger U.S. presence there, with more turnover from weekend to weekend.
What to Expect
Predictions are always dangerous, especially at this time of the year, but there is much to be optimistic about.
The top U.S. athletes appear to be healthy, fit and skiing fast. The U.S. will have a podium threat in every race, with the exception of women’s distance, where Kikkan Randall should be competing for top-20’s.
And with a number of promising young skiers getting starts every weekend, the team have plenty of suspense and the potential for surprise.
The success for the top tier of the U.S. program will hinge on results in Oslo, and that is no small task. Over the past years, the U.S. Team has had trouble performing at specific major events (Olympics, North American World Cups). There have been notable individual exceptions, of course, and the 2009 World Championships in Liberec went well. But, as Grover is quick to point out, Oslo is not the only metric – “success needs to show up at a lot of different levels.”
“That is when we know what we are doing is working,” he said.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.