Earlier this week, the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team nominated 16 athletes to its 2016/2017 squad. That’s exactly the same number as last year, yet two new emerging juniors (Ian Torchia and Hannah Halvorsen) have made it onto this year’s list, while two athletes (Caitlin Gregg and Ben Saxton) were not renominated. We asked U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover about the rationale behind the most recent nominations, fielding 10 (OK, 11) questions via email.
1. Why aren’t there more men on the A-team?
Chris Grover: Over the past few years, we have determined A-Team status by those athletes that finish the season in the top-30 in either sprint, distance or both. We are using the World Ranking Lists, or Red Group lists, and traditionally funding via the different race organizers is tied to the appearance of these specific athletes at a race venue, although the rules that govern these Red Group lists will most likely change this coming season. Also, top-30 in the world in a discipline is one of the standards we have set as the objective criteria for making the U.S. Ski Team. So the 8 athletes on the A-Team are all ranked in the top-30 in the world, and that happens to currently be 6 women and 2 men.
2. Is Andy Newell planning to race a full World Cup season?
Not the full World Cup, but probably close to it. He will target primarily classic sprints, some skate sprints, and some classic distance events. His plans are still evolving. Luckily for the USA, he is reinvigorated to pursue training and racing full-time.
3. What criteria did Kikkan Randall make to be renominated to the A-team despite not competing last season?
Because Kikkan’s FIS points and World Ranking List status were effectively frozen during her pregnancy year, she is actually returning to the Team in the Red Group and ranked in the top-15 in the world in sprint. However, even if she wasn’t ranked so high, we would still name her to the Team via discretion given her incredible history of performance.
4. Why wasn’t Caitlin Gregg renominated?
This past season Caitlin was not able to demonstrate that she is on a path to winning a medal. Her results were solid at times but not indicative of future podium performances for an athlete her age. Caitlin is a great athlete and is very determined to continue to chase her dreams and we have encouraged her to let nothing stand in her way. We are looking forward to supporting Caitlin however we can and providing her with start opportunities when appropriate.
5. Why wasn’t Ben Saxton renominated?
Ben had a tough year that was riddled with injury and illness, and his results reflected those struggles. It would be unfair to name Ben to the Team this coming season without naming a host of other athletes, many of whom are not skiing fast enough yet to merit Team status. We still very much believe in Ben’s ability and we know we’ll be seeing him back on the U.S. Ski Team in the future.
6. What kind of criteria or outstanding results did Ian Torchia and Hannah Halvorsen achieve that merited their nominations?
None of the current B or D Team athletes made the objective criteria for the Team so all of these athletes have been named via discretion. At the development level, it’s very challenging to compare results from all the various levels of racing (i.e. World Cup, World Juniors, U23s, SuperTour, Europa Cup, etc) so it’s incredibly hard to construct a selection criteria that doesn’t fall short somewhere and overreach somewhere else. At this level, discretion is the easiest way to identify future podium potential. Although we look at an athletes complete body of racing over the past season, in general we are looking for athletes who can deliver big results in Europe against tough fields. Ian was the standout USA male once again at World Juniors and posted his second consecutive top-15 result there. Hannah has been the standout USA athlete at the U18 Scandinavian Championships for the past two seasons, including a podium there two seasons ago.
7. Besides being invited to national-team training camps, what perks come with being part of the D-team?
The primary benefits are the support of U.S. Ski Team coaches, sports scientists, the sports medicine team, strength coaches, and various other providers.
8. What can you say about this entire group on the whole and the team focus for the next World Championship season?
With Kikkan Randall rejoining the Team this winter, we’ll have the strongest women’s team in the history of USA skiing. On the men’s side we don’t have nearly the depth that we have in the women’s team but we have some very talented individuals. Simi led the men’s squad last season with two podiums and he managed to find a level of fitness that could have produced even more incredible results with a bit of better luck. This Team will make even more history for USA cross country skiing over the next two seasons.
9. What about the focus for two years out at the 2018 Olympics?
The big focus is on developing the skills necessary to win medals in the team events. Norway has been incredibly strong for quite a few years now and they took yet another step forward this past season. Norway earned more World Cup points than the next 4 countries in the Nation’s Cup (Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Germany) combined. And they did this without the help of Marit Bjørgen who returns to World Cup competition this next fall. Norway has the potential to sweep the podium in all of the individual events at the major championships. Our clearest path to medals in Lahti and Pyeongchang is by targeting the team events where Norway can only take one medal. Unfortunately the rest of the world will be focused on this same task as well, so we have to train harder and smarter in order to reach the podium.
10. Compared to last season and recent years, what’s the team budget like this year?
We’ll be at about the same place we were entering last season.
11. We heard the team might be the proud owners of a new wax truck?
We don’t have the truck yet but it is coming. Thanks to the generosity of some key supporters, it will happen. Over the past year, we’ve been meeting with Scania and SKAB, the two Swedish companies that build trucks for the Norwegians, the Russians, the Canadians, and others. These other nations have been super helpful in helping us design our truck given what they’ve learned constructing and working in their trucks over the past seasons. We’re on our third round of plan revisions right now but we are very close to having the truck we need to support USA athletes for the next several decades. We don’t currently have enough available construction time for such a specialized project to have the truck by next season but it will be rolling by the fall of 2017. The Team is really excited by the project and once it is delivered, it will be yet another source of pride for the US skiing community.