They may not be getting much more than a black shirt and a pair of tights, but two young sprinters have secured one of cross-country skiing’s most coveted prizes: a nomination to the U.S. Ski Team (USST).
On Thursday, the USST announced that Erik Bjornsen and Skyler Davis, both 19, had been offered spots as the first-ever members of its “D-team.” According to Head Coach Chris Grover, the D-team is a new development squad intended to reach farther down into the ranks of young American athletes, and to facilitate—if not pay for—high-level racing experience in Europe.
“It is a long ways for an athlete to be at a regional elite camp, and look up to the Olympic level and visualize or understand how they are going to get there,” Grover said. “We need to create a stronger pathway for an athlete who’s starting out in cross-country skiing to get all the way to the top.”
The selection of just Bjornsen and Davis might have had some people scratching their heads—especially since there were no explicit criteria published, before the D-team was named.
But in an interview, Grover said that the two were picked based on loose, internal criteria..
“One of the criteria,” Grover said, “was a podium as U.S. Nationals as a junior. We looked back at the athletes who were on the A-team last year, and they had all done that.”
Davis finished third in the classic sprint in Rumford this season, earning his first national medal. Bjornsen placed fourth in that race, but did meet the other standard the US Ski Team considered – top-15 at a World Junior Championships event.
Bjornsen skied to 14th in the classic sprint at World Juniors in Otepaa in January setting himself apart, along with Davis, as a candidate for the D-team.
Grover did note that Jessie Diggins also hit the top-15 benchmark, but had been selected for the B-team.
While Davis and Bjornsen were the only two skiers to meet the informal criteria who had not already named to a more advanced team, Grover said that a number of other athletes were also considered.
The problem, however, was that USST staff had trouble differentiating between the candidates.
“We just don’t have strong enough performance band data, with strong enough markers along the way, to really be able to say definitively that this person is on the path, and this person is not,” Grover said.
Like all USST athletes, D-team members must meet certain requirements – in this case, attending a specific number of training camps, both off and on snow, as well as committing to a certain amount of European racing.
“The demands and requirements are not quite as comprehensive as the B-team,” Grover said, “but they are a step in that direction.”
Grover was clear that a team of two is hardly overwhelming in size, and he was frank in saying that “we have almost no money to spend on the D-team.”
But the USST brain trust wanted to take the first step this season, he said.
“We still felt like building the structure was important,” Grover said, adding that the plan was to get a team in place, and fill it out in coming years.
In addition to the notoriety of being on the USST, and the benefits that can accrue when trying to fundraise, Grover noted a few other perks, including free classes at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, in-state tuition at the University of Utah, on-line language classes and a laptop program.
A High-Powered Pair
As Grover mentioned, there are few funds available to support the D-team, so for both Bjornsen and Davis, who got to know each other well at this year’s World Junior Championships, the real benefits of their nominations are the chances for the two to train together—and alongside the nation’s very best.
Both athletes will attend a handful of the USST’s training camps. But they will also maintain their connections with club teams—which offer an added layer of support, both for summer training, and for racing during the winter, since they won’t be getting much funding from the USST.
Davis will continue skiing for the Stratton Mountain School (SMS) in Vermont, while Bjornsen will move from the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA) to the program at Alaska Pacific University (APU).
Their nominations to the team are actually still just that—nominations, contingent on the two athletes accepting them. But Davis said that he was taking his spot, while Bjornsen, who is in the depths of final exams in Anchorage, said that he was all but certain he’d accept as well.
In an interview Thursday, Davis, who was a post-grad at Stratton last season, said that he will stay in Vermont for another season, rather than attend Middlebury College, where he had been accepted. He’ll do a big chunk of his training with Andy Newell—which, Davis said, would be “awesome.”
In the past, Davis said, “those would usually be my best training sessions—whenever [Newell] was around.”
“This year, we’ll be on the same schedule,” he said.
Outside of his regular training in Vermont, Davis said he would most likely be attending USST camps in Bend, OR, and in New Zealand. Come winter, he’ll be racing in Europe with the USST if things are going well; if not, he can head back to the U.S. to race domestically.
“I think it’s a perfect case…for Skyler, because he can stay here, where he’s successful, and have that comfort level,” said Sverre Caldwell, Davis’s coach at Stratton. “And then, he can get that experience by going on these trips—and I don’t have to go on these trips. He can seamlessly go back and forth, and we’re all on the same page.”
While Davis didn’t know the details yet, he said he wasn’t expecting to get much money from the USST for his trips. But, he added, wasn’t that worried about it.
“I think at my age, I’m okay with the self-funding right now. It gives more incentive to race faster,” he said.
Bjornsen was less sure of his plans for the coming year. He said he had only learned of his nomination in the last few days, and was currently more focused on his textbooks than his training.
He’ll sort things out in an upcoming meeting with Erik Flora, the APU head coach, before making a final decision on the nomination by the end of the month.
Assuming he takes it, Bjornsen said that like Davis, he would probably attend a couple of USST camps—the one in Bend, and another in Park City, UT. His winter schedule would likely consist of North American racing with APU in the early-season; then he’d hit the European circuit.
Bjornsen said he had made the switch to APU when his coach at UAA, Trond Flagstad, stepped down. But since both programs are in Anchorage, he won’t have to make too much of a shift in the coming season—and, like Davis, Bjornsen will be able to rely on the structure offered by his club team, while using his USST affiliation to drum up sponsorship.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.