U.S. Nationals Open This Weekend at SoHo; World Champs Starts on the Line

Gavin KentchJanuary 5, 2017
The last time U.S. Nationals were held at SoHo: Start of the women's 20 k freestyle mass start at 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. Caitlin Gregg went on to win going away.
The last time U.S. nationals were held at SoHo: Start of the women’s 20 k freestyle mass start at 2014 U.S. Cross Country Championships at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah.

The domestic trials for the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships team begin at Soldier Hollow on Saturday morning. Not officially, but in practice that’s pretty much the case. That’s one implication of the numbers and points system used to help determine who competes for the U.S. at next month’s races in Lahti, Finland. Here, FasterSkier previews the races and considers the subtle math behind U.S. championship-team selection.

The races

The women race a 10-kilometer freestyle individual start at 10 a.m. local time on Saturday, followed by the men in a 15 k freestyle at noon. Sunday brings a full classic sprint (men’s qualifying starting at 10 a.m., women’s qualifying at 11 a.m., and sprint heats starting at 12:30 p.m.). Then Tuesday, Jan. 10, brings classic mass starts, 20 k for women and 30 k for men, starting at 10 a.m.

A qualification-only, freestyle-sprint type event rounds out the week on Thursday, Jan. 12. (Why no heats? Because of overall demands on local volunteers and an elementary school housed at the venue. The national championship skate sprint will be held at U.S. SuperTour Finals, a.k.a. Spring Series, in March in Fairbanks, Alaska.)

Social media shows several inches of fresh snow currently on top of a manmade base at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah.

FasterSkier will be on site throughout the week, providing live updates and reports on the races. 

What’s at stake

Bragging rights, for one. All racers like to win, and the week’s first three events are all national championships. Also money: $1,200, $600, and $300 for podium spots in each of the distance races and sprint. It’s no Qaniq Challenge money, but it’s no small sum, either.

Paddy Caldwell (Dartmouth/SMS/USST) racing to 21st in the men's 15 k freestyle at U23 World Championships in Rasnov, Romania. (Photo: Logan Hanneman)
Paddy Caldwell (Dartmouth/SMS/USST) racing to 21st in the men’s 15 k freestyle at 2016 U23 World Championships in Rasnov, Romania. (Photo: Logan Hanneman)

But beyond who takes home the medals and the money this week, the races are also important for determining who gets to compete in higher-level races later this season. Skiers under 18 are competing for spots on the Scandinavian Cup Team. Skiers slightly older are competing for spots on the U.S. team for U23/Junior World Championships, which will also be held at Soldier Hollow Jan. 30-Feb. 5. And at the highest level, there are spots up for grabs on the World Championships team for Lahti next month. Probably.

As FasterSkier previously explained, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) looks first to athletes’ performance on the World Cup in light of objective standards, and then potentially applies discretionary picks. After objective and discretionary selection, then “any remaining positions” for the Lahti team “may be filled by considering the athlete ranking highest on the 2017 Championship Selection List.” (As FasterSkier previously parsed, technically speaking the document says that remaining positions may be filled rather than will or shall be filled, meaning that USSA would not be strictly required to name a leading domestic skier to the team if it did not want to.)

Filling out the team: Objective and discretionary selections

So who’s already in from the U.S. Ski Team (USST)? One woman for sure, five more women basically guaranteed, one man basically guaranteed, then one woman and two men on the bubble.

On the women’s side, Jessie Diggins has automatically qualified for Lahti twice over with her fifth- and sixth-place sprint finishes in Davos and Val Müstair.

Behind her, five more skiers were well within the top 50 in either the sprint or distance World Cup standings following Wednesday’s pursuit race in Oberstdorf: Sophie Caldwell (12th in sprint standings), Sadie Bjornsen (15th in distance standings and 16th in sprint), Ida Sargent (33rd in sprint), Kikkan Randall (32nd in distance and 38th in sprint), and Liz Stephen (42nd in distance).

Jessie Diggins celebrates finishing fifth in the Davos skate sprint. (Photo: Salomon/NordicFocus)
Jessie Diggins celebrates finishing fifth in the Davos skate sprint. (Photo: Salomon/NordicFocus)

(In the most strictly technical sense, everyone after Diggins cannot officially qualify this way until they are in the top 50 in those discipline standings that are released on Jan. 16. But – barring some extremely statistically improbable races by all eight women immediately below Stephen in the distance rankings – they should all qualify then with ease.)

Rosie Brennan was 56th in the distance standings Wednesday, five points – one solid race – away from the top 50. She got that race in Toblach on Friday, moving up to 47th in the distance standings after finishing 23rd in the 5 k skate.

For the men, Simi Hamilton is currently 41st in the sprint standings, and should be well within the top 50 on Jan. 16.

As of Wednesday, Erik Bjornsen ranked 53rd for distance, four points out of 50th, and 55th for sprinting. Noah Hoffman was 67th in the distance standings. Hoffman moved up to 60th following his 25th-place finish in the 10 k skate in Toblach on Friday. 

USST Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb told FasterSkier in July that athletes who were on the bubble for World Championships selection “going into the Tour de Ski” would “need to make a pretty important decision. And that is whether or not to go back to U.S. championships and qualify domestically, or to take a chance and go with what they know and qualify in the Tour de Ski, and the sprint weekend after the Tour de Ski in Toblach.” Whitcomb added, “And so there are a great number of options both domestically and internationally on the World Cup, that I think we feel is as fair as can be.”

But in practice, all USST athletes discussed above have remained in Europe rather than race at U.S. nationals. Diggins, both Bjornsens, Stephen, Caldwell, Randall, Hamilton, and Hoffman raced at least the first two stages of the Tour de Ski. Sargent and Andy Newell, joined by Hamilton and Caldwell, will compete in OPA Cup races in Planica, Slovenia, this weekend, USST Head Coach Chris Grover told FasterSkier by email last week.

APU skier Scott Patterson made roughly the inverse decision in deciding to start the 2016/2017 season in this country (he had hoped for World Cup starts as last year’s SuperTour distance leader, but was not offered them for the first period of racing). Describing conversations between himself, Grover, and APU Coach Erik Flora, Patterson wrote to FasterSkier in November, “One of the most important points brought up was regarding qualification for world championships in Lahti. The selection criteria favors domestic racing for men due to the difficult objective criteria and weaker World Cup performances relative to the women. In accordance with the criteria I will be looking for some extremely strong early season results so that I can hopefully head to Europe in January and not return until after World Cup finals.”

Regardless of who qualifies off the World Cup via objective standards, USSA may then make discretionary selections. FasterSkier previously surveyed the guidelines for the exercise of this discretion.

Briefly put, USSA has almost unlimited discretion under the listed criteria. And if those criteria give USSA insufficient discretion, a catch-all provision lets USSA make discretionary selections for nearly any other reason if it feels like the objective criteria won’t work: “Other unanticipated failure of objective criteria to select an athlete likely to achieve competition results consistent with USSA program goals for World Championships.”

Filling out the team: SuperTour leaders and bonuses for nationals podiums

After objective and discretionary selections, that leaves this country’s top domestic racers skiing against each other for (probably) one remaining spot per gender.

Before the season began, FasterSkier wrote in a preview article that “American cross-country skiing does not have a trials system.” Kris Freeman (Team Freebird), a man who has been selected to 12 U.S. Olympic or World Championship teams (up to 15 if you include World Juniors teams) since 1998, politely begged to differ, writing in a comment to the FasterSkier Facebook site after the article was posted (see final two sentences in particular):

Kris Freeman comment on FasterSkier Facebook page, Sept. 4, 2016. (photo: screenshot)
Kris Freeman comment on FasterSkier Facebook page, Sept. 4, 2016. (photo: screenshot)

Both FasterSkier and Freeman are technically correct. Given the numbers involved, Freeman is probably more correct. That is, there is no official trials system, but U.S. Nationals this year is getting pretty close to one.

The World Championships Selection List is based on an athlete’s best two finishes in a single discipline, distance or sprint (qualification round only), across the 2016/2017 SuperTour to date, including the four races at U.S. Nationals. But first through third at the December SuperTour races were worth 30, 25, and 21 points, respectively. Because of the additional Nationals-only bonus points that will be awarded this week, first through third in the next four races count for 45, 35, and 26 points, respectively. Best two races, from the entire season to date, wins.

So Freeman is correct that the “normal” SuperTour events were, if not meaningless, maybe less meaningful in light of the potentially dispositive points available for nationals podium finishes. (There are of course other advantages to being the season-long SuperTour leader, and the December races still count toward that.)

In practice, two firsts at nationals would be unsurpassable by any combination of other races. Same for a first and second at nationals. Indeed, two seconds at nationals is a better result than two firsts in December. Two thirds at nationals beats two seconds from last month. The bonus points for nationals podiums are certainly significant digits.

Matt Gelso (SVSEF) racing to his second-straight victory at the West Yellowstone SuperTour on Sunday in the men’s 15 k classic.
Matt Gelso (SVSEF) racing to his second-straight victory at the West Yellowstone SuperTour in the men’s 15 k classic in December 2016.

Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Gold Team) and Liz Guiney (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) come into nationals as the SuperTour leaders to date, Gelso by a profound margin. Although both have World Cup start rights in Europe later this month by virtue of that status, both athletes will compete in at least the first three races in Soldier Hollow, Gelso and Guiney told FasterSkier earlier this week.

The current SuperTour discipline leaders are Gelso for men’s distance, with 55 points, and Ben Saxton (SMST2) for men’s sprint, with 50 points. Jennie Bender (Bridger Ski Foundation) leads the women’s sprint standings with 55 points, while Katharine Ogden (Stratton Mountain School/USST D-Team) has 50 points to lead the women’s distance standings. These are not unimpressive point totals, which may become relevant if no single athlete puts together two podiums at nationals.

The first race at Soldier Hollow begins at 10 a.m. Saturday morning. The U.S. team for Lahti is tentatively scheduled to be announced on Jan. 23.

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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