Just before the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) named its team traveling to the 2011 World Championships in Oslo, Brian Gregg got a voicemail from U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover.
Gregg, a strong domestic skier on CXC’s Team Vertical Limit, was ranked eighth nationally, and had a shot—albeit a small one—at being selected to the group heading to Worlds. But the news from Grover was disappointing: Gregg’s results had been good, but not outstanding, and he wouldn’t be going.
Fourteen athletes got the nod for Norway, but a “handful” of others who didn’t still got calls from USSA to inform them of their plight, Grover said. And at least three of them—Gregg, his teammate Caitlin Compton, and Leif Zimmermann (Bridger Ski Foundation)—said that they didn’t take issue with the decisions.
“I think the process they have is good and fair,” Gregg said in an interview. “I knew, going into [last week’s] U.S. Nationals, that I needed to be on the podium, and doing very well in those races. And so, not having done so, I’m not necessarily surprised.”
Before the call from Grover, though, Gregg couldn’t be sure of his fate, thanks to the intricacies of the selection system.
That system is laid out in a USSA document containing three tiers of guidelines. At the top are objective criteria, which give athletes ranked high up in the World Cup standings an automatic spot on the American worlds team; that’s how Kris Freeman, Andy Newell, Liz Stephen, and Kikkan Randall qualified.
The next criteria is discretion—meaning that outside those first few skiers, Grover and other USSA staff had a free hand to choose the rest of the athletes they felt would be racing fastest in Oslo.
The third tier of guidelines called for selections to be based on skiers’ national rankings. But according to USSA Nordic Director John Farra, those rankings are primarily used as a “tool,” to aid in discretionary picks—especially since the list used by USSA, the “NRL,” includes results from up to 12 months ago.
“The NRL can be a good tool, but it also has some weaknesses, because it is over a year,” he said.
The prime example of those weaknesses were embodied in the case of Compton, who was ranked third in the country—ahead of World Championships team nominees Ida Sargent (Craftsbury), Liz Stephen (USST), Morgan Arritola (USST), and others. Compton had good points races in the second half of last season, at the Canmore World Cup and at SuperTour Finals in Maine, but she didn’t match those results this fall.
In an interview, Compton said that she knew that there was still a possibility she could be named to the team, but at the same time, she recognized that her training this year had not quite been “world-class caliber.”
“Obviously, I really want to go, but there’s a part of me that realizes there are other athletes, right now, that are more qualified, and could potentially have better results,” Compton said. “The girls that were named were completely deserving—there’s no doubt in my mind that they made a really good decision.”
How It Plays Out
The NRL was a hot topic last season, when it was one of the criteria involved in the selection of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.
It was clear that athletes were still eyeing it closely—Compton, for example, noted that she had “really good points.”
While most of the top athletes on the men’s and women’s lists were indeed selected, Grover said that he and his staff weren’t relying on the NRL as a baseline. Given that fact, Grover said that the criteria may need to be revisited next spring by USSA’s cross-country committee.
“The selection criteria that we have had for a while, in its current form…it’s been working quite well,” he said. “However, I would say this is the first time that, perhaps, it’s not working 100 percent as well as it should, and people are carrying over points from the previous year that aren’t performing perhaps to the same standard.”
For this season, Grover said, he and his staff started with a list of the events at the Oslo championships, and filled it in with the athletes they felt are most qualified—beginning with the ones who made the team based on their World Cup results.
“That’s what we’re looking at first. The next thing that we’re looking at is, ‘what are the events? And, who are the key athletes we want to start in those events,” Grover said. “We’re not going to a national ranking list in order to fill spots.”
In Compton’s case, despite her third place standing on the NRL, Farra said that there was a chance that the U.S. team might not have been able to find her an event to compete in—especially since each country only gets four starts per race.
“You look at the depth of this women’s group, and their ability to go between sprint and distance,” Farra said, “all of a sudden, she’s realizing, ‘I might be going to Norway for two weeks and just being a cheerleader.’ And that’s not something she wants to do.”
On the other hand, there was 19-year-old Jessie Diggins, who was ranked ninth on the list, but who on Sunday won a national championship in the skate sprint in Rumford—complete with a two-second victory in the qualifier.
For Diggins, Grover said, the Oslo trip offers a good chance for her to get some experience at a championship environment—which applies to some of the other younger athletes on the trip, as well. But Grover maintained that none of the skiers on the team had been named without results to back them up.
“It’s great to bring athletes there in order to get experience for the future, but at the same time, they have to be skiing fast,” he said. “If they’re not skiing fast, then there’s much better development avenues for them…Yes, we went down, and we got some younger skiers that we want to give that experience to, but those younger skiers were beating the guys that were ahead of them on the points list.”
One of those athletes was Gregg, 26, who was passed over despite being ranked higher than 21-year-old Noah Hoffman (USST).
Going into last week’s national championships, Gregg said that he knew he would have to be in a strong position relative to
Hoffman after the four events in Maine, since “it’s easy to see that the national team sees a lot of potential in Noah.”
In the end, though, Hoffman came out ahead of Gregg in both distance races. And while Gregg maintained that results over the last year could be parsed many different ways, he said that ultimately, “they’re bringing the fastest guys.”
Zimmermann said he didn’t take issue with USSA’s selections, either. In fact, he said, “that’s the team I would probably pick, too.”
Zimmermann did, however, note that big events can be challenging for younger athletes, citing his own experience at the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, when he was 23 years old.
“It’s a great experience, and you do learn a lot. It’s just tough to try to go there and perform,” he said. “With all those other distractions, sometimes it is hard to race to the top of your ability…but that’s not a bad thing if you go into it with the mindset of getting experience.”
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.