In contrast to last year’s official silence from both athletes and coaches before the U.S. Ski Team announced their national team nominations, details had trickled out in advance of Monday’s press release by the team. Kris Freeman announced last Monday that he had not been renamed to the 2013-2014 squad after 10 years on the roster. It took another week for the nominations to be approved by the higher-ups at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and be formally released to the public, by which time it became clear that Skyler Davis and Tad Elliott had not been renominated to the team, either.
In all there were seven women and four men named to the team. The nominations include is a sizeable A-team, five out of six of whom are women. World Champions Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins headlined the roster along with the fifth-ranked sprinter on last year’s World Cup, Andy Newell. Red Group athletes Holly Brooks, Ida Sargent and Liz Stephen were also named to the top tier.
The B-team saw two major additions: Erik Bjornsen, who moved up from the development squad, and rookie Sophie Caldwell. They joined Sadie Bjornsen and Noah Hoffman, whose statuses remained constant from last season, and Simi Hamilton, who dropped down from the A-team after a season plagued by frequent illness. None of the nominations were entirely unexpected; the noticeable changes were the elimination of the D-team and the non-renomination of three men that had been on last season’s squad.
Missing from the news so far had been the team’s reasoning behind the decisions. USST head coach Chris Grover initially declined to discuss specifics last week, as nominations were not official at the time and he wanted to give individuals that were left off the team time to adjust to their new situations. In the meantime, however, information came out anyway, leaving room for plenty of speculation in the absence of explanation from the coaches.
“In broad terms, it’s obviously a really exciting time in U.S. skiing,” Grover said last week, before nominations were public. “We have lots of young men and women that are progressing really rapidly, and unfortunately with the national team we can only provide support for a very select few.”
On Thursday, three days after the team was named, Grover agreed to answer more specific questions. The major point he made was that he and fellow national team coaches Matt Whitcomb and Jason Cork made all decisions based on athlete performance, just as they always do.
“This is a performance organization and at the end of the day the athletes have to be judged on their performances,” Grover said.
At the center of the team selection process are the objective criteria published on the USST website that specify what performance level grants automatic nomination the following season:
1. A top-50 in the final World Cup Overall rankings,
2. A top-30 in either sprint or distance World Cup rankings, or in the FIS points lists,
3. A podium at Junior or U23 World Championships.
Additional athletes can be selected to the team “using coaches’ discretion based upon factors other than the objective criteria.”
Of the eleven athletes nominated for 2013-2014, seven meet the objective standards. More than anything else in the selection process, Grover said, those criteria were at the heart of the coaches’ decisions this spring. The cross-country program’s operating budget — which he would not reveal — played no role in who was named to the top two tiers.
“The budgetary challenges have a lot to do with how we can fund the team, but nothing for A- and B-team,” Grover said.
“I feel like we’re getting more and more from U.S. Skiing every year, and I really feel like we have the support of Luke [Bodensteiner] and Bill [Marolt] behind us. They absolutely believe in what we’re doing. They’re trying to send as much our way as they can.”
The budgetary challenges within the national governing body, Grover continued, ultimately stem from the addition of more sports under its umbrella in recent years, and the fact that many if its athletes have been so successful and need further high-level funding. Women’s ski jumping was added as an Olympic sport for 2014, for example, and this winter Sarah Hendrickson became World Champion. Athletes like her across the USSA’s athletic spectrum require continued support per its stated vision: “to make the United States of America the best in the world in Olympic skiing and snowboarding.”
“Slopestyle, halfpipe skiing — all these new sports need to be funded and all these traditional sports that have been around the last couple of Olympic cycles are having success,” Grover said. “We have to go into the same pool of funding… So I understand the hard position that my bosses are in, trying to figure it out.”
Targeting a specific team size was also not a factor in the nomination process. If four men on the team seems like a small number, that’s because four is how many athletes Grover feels are performing at a level befitting of the national team.
“It has nothing to do with the size of the men’s or women’s team. The makeup of our team is 100% having to do with performance,” he said. “We don’t ever want to be in a situation where the goal is to name a certain number of men or women, because that doesn’t take into account ability or performance at the time. It has everything to do with who’s on track right now, and that just happens to be seven women and four men, from our perspective.”
Freeman, Davis nor Elliott reached the objective criteria thresholds last season. On the final distance list Freeman was 52nd and Elliott was 102nd, while Davis ranked 92nd on the final sprint list. All three athletes didn’t reach those markers for the last two seasons, in fact, but were renominated in 2012-2013 based on discretion.
The national team didn’t grant the same leeway two years in a row. Grover says age and experience are taken into account when he determines whether the USST will continue to support an athlete outside the objective criteria for another year, and Freeman, Elliott and Davis did not meet those expectations this time around.
“The standard, therefore, that someone like Kris needed to accomplish is different from what a younger athlete needs to have in terms of results,” Grover said.
This sliding standard is partly how 25-year-old Hamilton, who had an off year with recurring illness and did not make the objective criteria either, is still on the team, albeit back at the B-level.
“Kris, he’s a veteran athlete,” Grover said. “He’s been on the team for a long time and with our veterans, we need veteran results. And unfortunately, Kris was not able to make the objective criteria the past two years. In Kris’s case, he’s got a tougher road than every other athlete out there in terms of managing his diabetes, so we for sure really respect how hard it is for Kris. But at the end of the day we just needed more.”
As younger athletes than Freeman, Elliott and Davis faced slightly different expectations. Grover noted they each took steps forward in certain ways in 2013, but ultimately their results just weren’t there.
“If an athlete has an off year we try to take that into account, so unfortunately — and Tad also made a step forward this year — but it hasn’t shown really in his results,” Grover said. “I think eventually it will, but right now it’s not possible to show his results are where they need to be.”
Davis’ situation was more unique still. As a D-team athlete the team’s expectations for him were more progress-related, and Grover said the 21-year-old’s gains this season, while present, were not significant enough.
“Skyler also made a nice step forward this year, but when you look at his results, he did great in Canmore, but unfortunately was not able to put together other top results,” Grover said. “He just hasn’t been able to demonstrate that he’s rapidly progressing. I think if he sticks with it the results will show, because he’s an extremely talented young athlete.”
Freeman, Elliott and Davis will no longer have the USST’s year-round support, but they each plan to continue training with their respective clubs. If summer training goes well, they may still get World Cup starts throughout the season where it seems appropriate; Grover has discussed the possibility with each of them.
“We talked about that [with Freeman] right from our first conversation,” Grover said. “We talked about the fact that if he has a great summer and fall of training we probably would start him, because he’s one of our best distance skiers. So I can see wanting to start him in quite a few races if it works for him. We had similar conversations with Tad and Skyler… We’ll be keeping an eye on everybody and when opportunities arise at the right time, we’ll take advantage of those opportunities.”
Grover noted that he believes Freeman, especially, could easily still qualify for the Olympics if he sustains his current level of skiing. At the end of the season Freeman was the second-ranked distance skier in the U.S. by FIS points, behind Noah Hoffman.
“If you look at the selection criteria for the Games, if he is able to maintain his performance level he’ll make that standard,” Grover said. “He easily made it for World Championships and it’s a similar selection criteria for the Games.”
D-Team Shelved, For Now
While Grover says finances did not restrict the size of the A- and B-teams, money did factor into the existence of the D-team this year, which in turn played a role in Davis’ situation. Davis and Bjornsen were the first participants in the development tier on the national team for the past two seasons. Bjornsen was moved up to the B-team this year, and for 2013-2014 the development level was shelved indeterminately in the absence of enough resources to support it the way Grover would like to.
“I’ve gone back and forth,” Grover said. “The hard thing about the D-team is that, in my mind, the D-team should be either zero or 20 athletes, because there are 20 young men and women that are on the path for future success in the U.S. for sure, if not more. And the problem is being able to identify who they really are at that age and for us, with limited resources, being able to support them in a way that makes sense.”
Grover and his staff decided that since the USST doesn’t have the funding to support every athlete it would like to on a development team, it was better not to have a D-team at all and to let the clubs and programs throughout the country continue doing the work of developing up-and-coming skiers.
“The real development work with younger athletes is not being done at the national level, it’s being done at the club level,” Grover said. “So to have a D-team has been a little problematic for us in making sure we have the right athletes on there. I think it’s too soon to tell. We don’t have enough money to support a large group the way it should be supported to make a difference, so that’s where we’ll rely on our club partners.”
The elimination of the D-team is not necessarily permanent, Grover continued, “I’d say for right now it’s just a practical place for us to be.”
Though the national team looks more bare bones than it has in the past, the concentration of talent within its eleven nominated athletes is undeniably high. Two World Champions, a two-time World Cup sprint champion and five Americans total in the Red Group.
“We’re getting better and better,” Grover said. “Four years ago our rank in the Nation’s Cup was 15, three years ago it was twelve, two years ago it was eight, and this year it was sixth — which is a broad measure of how all your athletes are doing in terms of World Cup competition.”
In some ways, the team’s broad international success only makes it harder to get on it. For the athletes left off in the coming year, Grover was hopeful they would make the most of the situation.
“Sometimes you fall off the path a little bit and that’s just part of sport,” Grover said. “What you do to get back on it and how is part of the process, and I hope to see any athlete we’re not able to renominate turn it around and step back up.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.