Preview: With Several Athletes Knocking on the Door, USST Faces Usual Dilemma for 2012

Nathaniel HerzApril 20, 2011

The U.S. Cross-Country Ski Team (USST) for the 2011-2012 season is expected to be announced in a few hours, according to John Farra, the program’s director.

The nominations haven’t been made public yet, but in making them, Farra and Chris Grover, the USST head coach, have faced a familiar dilemma: add a number of athletes to the squad, and dilute an always-tight budget, or preserve the higher levels of support that come with a smaller team size.

“When we add people, we’ve got to slice up the pie more ways, and that’s the hard thing,” said Grover, in an interview in Sun Valley, ID, earlier this month. “Do you want to support a few athletes at a decent level? Or do you want to support a lot more athletes, at a pretty low level. We’ve got to figure that out.”

A half-dozen athletes made cases to be named to next year’s team with their skiing during the 2011 season, including Jessie Diggins, Tad Elliott, Skyler Davis, Ida Sargent, Sadie Bjornsen, and Kate Fitzgerald.

Grover declined to discuss individual nominations. But he did say that he was looking to add a few skiers to the team.

For the 2010-2011 season, seven athletes made the cut: Kris Freeman, Andy Newell, Kikkan Randall, Liz Stephen, Morgan Arritola, Simi Hamilton, and Noah Hoffman.

Of those seven, only Arritola is likely to lose her spot, after her second consecutive sub-par season. The rest will almost certainly stay.

In 2011, those first five athletes on the list were all members of the USST A-team, which competes on the World Cup; if they’re re-nominated, they should maintain their positions. And according to Grover, those A-team skiers receive the lion’s share of the funding.

“For the very best athletes, who potentially have a chance to win a medal in Sochi, our directive is to support them, and to get them there,” he said. “And that means taking care of everything, 100 percent. So, once we have that done, we’re slicing the pie pretty thin, for a lot of other people.”

Last season, with just Hamilton and Hoffman on the B-team, the two were also able to enjoy a relatively high level of support from the USST, with the squad paying the costs for at least some of their trips to camps.

Whether they’ll maintain that funding depends, in part, on the number of new athletes that join them on the team. And in Idaho, Grover did say that he was considering, preliminarily, roughly a dozen names.

Diggins, who raced for CXC last year, is all but a lock to be named to the 2012 squad. She placed seventh in one of her races at the World Junior Championships, and won her first national title in Rumford in the skate sprint, in January.

Perhaps most importantly, Diggins turned heads with a series of excellent races at the World Championships in Oslo, Norway. She cracked the top-30 in both individual starts, placing 25th in the skate sprint and 28th in the 15km pursuit. She was the youngest skier to start the pursuit, and the youngest to crack the top-30 in the sprint.

At just 19 years old, Diggins fits the profile of a potential US Ski Team member perfectly—young, with legitimate international results that project out favorably. In a phone call Wednesday, she declined to confirm that she had been named to the USST, but she was observed in Sun Valley meeting with the team’s staff.

After Diggins, the waters muddy a bit. While the depth of the U.S. talent pool has increased dramatically in recent years, there are only a handful of athletes who have shown promise internationally, and are still short in the tooth.

At the top of the list are Bjornsen (APU), Sargent (CGRP), and Elliott (CXC).

Last December, Sargent would have been considered a front-runner for a spot. Strong results in races in Muonio, Finland, in November, coupled with a 33rd in the subsequent Kuusamo World Cup classic sprint, proved that the speed she demonstrated at the end of the 2010 season was no fluke.

But Sargent suffered an injury as a passenger in a car accident in early December, and never fully recovered. She worked her way back slowly, and did earn a berth on the World Championship team. However, it was apparent that she was missing her top gear.

Last spring, she was the only U.S. woman with any hope of challenging Randall in a sprint, but she was not at that level as the 2011 season came to a close.

Sargent is not out of the running for a spot on the team by any means, but the lack of stellar results over the last four months will make her a tougher choice. She could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Bjornsen, on the other hand, stepped up her game from the start of the season, and just kept turning in impressive result after impressive result, culminating with two top-30s at World Championships.

With Randall crashing out in the quarters, the 21-year-old native of Washington took over the mantle of fastest American woman at in the freestyle sprint in Oslo, finishing 24th.

She followed that up with a 29th in the 10km classic, and an extended stay in the leader’s chair at the finish.

Domestically, Bjornsen claimed her first national title, winning the 10k classic in Rumford, Maine.

Good results at the U-23 World Championships, and in several other European races, put Bjornsen in a good spot to earn a berth on the USST. While there are a host of other factors, based on performance, Bjornsen likely ranks ahead of Sargent right now; she could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, either.

The final obvious contender is also the only male athlete on the short list. Elliott turned heads in 2010 when he placed second to Ivan Babikov in the U.S. National Championship 50 k, a performance that was good for the national title—as Babikov is Canadian.

Elliott also took second in the 2010 American Birkebeiner. A significantly better skater, he continued to impress when he won the 15 k freestyle SuperTour in West Yellowstone this fall.

The big knock on Elliott, however, is that he has yet to have a truly standout international result. He has had solid, yet unspectacular performances at the U-23 Championships over the past two years, while a 15th in a domestic European race, just prior to this year’s World Championships, was arguably his best overseas result.

A standout international-caliber mountain biker, Elliot’s recent shift towards an exclusive focus on skiing could be the deciding factor for the U.S. squad. And at the SuperTour Finals in Sun Valley, he confirmed that he was in talks with the USST.

Just approaching his 23rd birthday, there is still time for Elliott to progress to the highest level. And with the U.S. team still looking for the heir apparent to Kris Freeman, there aren’t many better choices on the distance side.

While the preceding four athletes are clearly the front-runners, several other skiers are likely being considered.

The 19-year-old Davis (SMS) has quickly risen through the ranks of the best sprinters on the domestic circuit. He finished third in the classic sprint at the 2011 U.S. National Championships, and followed up with an eighth at the SuperTour Finals in the same event.

But Davis has yet to break out internationally. He contested a number of European domestic races this season, with some good finishes, but his results were hardly Diggins-esque.

In an e-mail on Wednesday, Davis declined to discuss his future with the USST.

Back to the women, Fitzgerald impressed all season, winning one of the early SuperTours in West Yellowstone, and taking two second places later in the season, in Lake Placid.

She is currently ranked ahead of both Bjornsen and Sargent on the USSA ranking list, and is sixth overall, just behind Stephen. But points rarely play into team selection decisions, and Fitzgerald has minimal international racing experience.

Her first significant overseas trip came in the latter part of the 2011 season. She skied well in Austrian and Slovenian domestic-level races, but she is still a step behind the other women in the running.

As for the rest of the U.S. domestic field? There are clearly some big names missing from this list, but that’s because older athletes, even those international success, are unlikely to be considered—no matter how fast they race within this country’s borders.

Regardless of who gets tapped for the squad, Grover said that the USST would leave its doors open to elite skiers who aren’t nominated.

“Even for athletes that we end up not being able to name, we’re for sure going to invite a lot of people to our camps, even if we can’t pay for it,” he said. “If they want to come, and they want to train alongside the other national team athletes…we’re going to be sending out some invitations, for sure.”


Nathaniel Herz

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.

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