While the Red Group, a collection of the top 30 World Cup athletes in sprint and distance racing who receive accommodation and travel funding from race organizers, is recalculated four times a year, ski teams only have one shot at gaining more quota positions on the World Cup circuit. At the end of each season, the International Ski Federation doles out quota spots based on the previous year’s performance.
For the U.S., a look at season standings reveals that there will be both gains and losses for 2013. More athletes on the men’s distance and women’s sprint squads will be able to see World Cup action, while fewer men will be able to start in sprint races.
Canada will hold steady at four spots in men’s distance and all sprint races, and move from two to three starting positions in women’s distance races.
All this came without any World Cup racing in North America, where it is often easier for U.S. and Canadian athletes to have the top-30 finishes that count towards calculating quotas; not every international team brings their top racers, and North Americans also receive additional start rights as part of the Nations Group quota, giving more athletes the opportunity to score points.
According to U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover, the inclusion of World Cup competitions in Canada in 2013 will give the North American teams a chance to dole out more starting spots than they would in an all-European season – and in turn, perhaps expand their quota numbers even further.
“I imagine this year with having the Canadian World Cups, we’ll get that number back up for the following year,” he said of the U.S. men’s sprint quota. “We’ve got three sprints in North America, or I should say two individual sprints plus a team sprint, and we have five additional spots for men in those races. That’s going to be a great place for people to be able to demonstrate that they belong at that level.”
Big Gains for American Women, Men’s Distance Team
Start rights are allocated based on merit: each country receives two starts in every race as a baseline, with additional opportunities provided depending on how many athletes were ranked in the World Cup standings the previous season. Countries with one or two ranked athletes receive an extra starting position in that discipline, for three total. Three to five ranked athletes net a four-skier quota, six to eight athletes means five racers, and nations with nine or more athletes ranked in a discipline receive nine starting positions.
(Results from World Championships and Olympic Games do not count in World Cup standings, but there are also additional, automatic spots for top racers from the regional Continental Cups, such as the SuperTour and NorAm leaders.)
The U.S. will see its biggest gain for the women’s sprint team. In 2011, Kikkan Randall was the only woman to score World Cup points in sprints, so last season, the U.S. had a quota of three athletes.
But out of those three spots – plus a fourth for the SuperTour leader, which was Holly Brooks for the first period of racing and Jessie Diggins for the other three – the Americans exhibited much-improved depth. A total of five different women (Randall, Brooks, Diggins, Ida Sargent, and Sadie Bjornsen) scored points, so their 2013 quota will move up to four.
“It’s really exciting,” Randall said of the change. “Especially having had periods of being the only one over there for a while, and then slowly adding spot after spot, now having a full team is really exciting.”
But the four-woman quota isn’t the end of the U.S. gains; an extra spot comes thanks to Randall herself. Overall Sprint and Distance Cup winners from the previous season also receive automatic starting spots, which are not subtracted from their country’s quota. Randall will start every sprint as a fifth racer for the U.S.
It’s a huge step. In 2012, the five women who showed that they could make sprint heats were fighting for the three spots (four, counting Brooks’ and Diggins’ automatic rights). In 2013, none will be forced to sit out a sprint, and counting the SuperTour leader position, which will again be filled by Diggins in the first period of racing, there will even be room for a sixth racer – like U.S. Ski Team A-Teamer Liz Stephen, who has said several times that she believes she can crack the heats.
“It’s an interesting change from where we’ve been in the past, because before we couldn’t fill our spots and now all of a sudden we had people who didn’t get a chance to race, because everybody was skiing so well,” Randall said. “That made us more motivated to try to get more spots and have as many people racing as possible. It’s just cool to see the change.”
Other gains for the U.S. team come in men’s distance racing. In 2011, only Kris Freeman and Andy Newell had scored points, giving the U.S. three starts. In the past year, however, Tad Elliott and Noah Hoffman joined the pair in notching top-30 finishes. That brings the number up to four, matching the women’s distance quota, which will remain steady (Randall, Brooks, Liz Stephen, Diggins, and Sargent all scored in distance races in 2012, while Randall, Stephen, and Morgan Arritola had been ranked in 2011).
“I’d say our start rights right now are historically greater as a total, men and women, than they’ve been probably since the inception of this particular system for starting athletes on the World Cup,” Grover told FasterSkier. “The good news is it’s moving in the right direction.”
“We’ve created so much momentum over the last two years, and hopefully we can just keep that momentum growing,” she said. “I think what’s really cool is that when we’re on the World Cup now, we’re respected.”
Men’s Sprint Team Loses One
The bad news? The U.S. men will see a decline in sprint starts. While Newell and Simi Hamilton again ranked in the Sprint Cup standings, Freeman was unable to qualify for sprint heats as he did in 2011, dropping the number of scoring athletes from three to two, and the corresponding quota from four to three.
Grover, however, was unconcerned.
“Given where the sprint depth is for the U.S. men right now, I don’t see those three start spots being a limitation, especially since we always get a Continental Cup leader as well, so we’ll be starting the fall with Sylvan [Ellefson] in that position,” he said. “There’s often a weekend on the World Cup [when] we can’t start everybody that we want to, but it hasn’t happened so much in sprints. We put some of the distance guys in there simply because we don’t have that much depth on the sprint side.”
The coach believed that he wouldn’t have to turn away qualified sprinters from their shot to compete on the World Cup, because competition at the top level of international racing is so fierce that most U.S. men aren’t ready to make their debuts.
“We need to see young sprinters – who have enough talent – to actually go to U23 Championships, World Juniors, and Europa Cups and take those next steps, because a lot of our young talented men’s sprinters, they’re not leaving the country,” he said.
“They’re racing in college, maybe they’re racing a couple sprints domestically, U.S. Nationals, SuperTour Finals perhaps, maybe a SuperTour. They’re not taking opportunities to go to World Juniors or U23 Championships and they’re certainly not taking an opportunity to go, say, on the Europa Cup trip, and that’s where the development happens and that’s where the talent is – that’s the next step.”
Finishing at the top of the heap in domestic racing isn’t enough for the men, Grover said. This year’s results by SuperTour leaders seem to back him up. Ellefson (Team Homegrown) had a top finish of 43rd when he raced World Cups this season, in a relatively lightly-attended 15 k mass start in Rybinsk, Russia; his top sprint result was 53rd in Moscow. Mikey Sinnott of the Sun Valley Gold Team finished 37th in the Moscow sprint, but otherwise failed to crack the top 50. According to Grover, racers like Ellefson and Sinnott need more European experience.
“Athletes don’t necessarily go from making the A-final at U.S. National Championships to stepping onto the World Cup,” he explained. “When they do that, they don’t have any sort of success. They’re typically in the 60s or something like that. It’s important to… demonstrate that you belong skiing at a certain level before you step up to the next level.”
But despite the problems with depth in men’s sprinting, Grover was confident that the team would soon gain back their fourth quota spot.
“I imagine we will do better than two athletes this year,” he said.
-Alex Matthews contributed reporting.