U.S. Olympic XC Team Selection: An Initial Look

Jason AlbertFebruary 7, 2018
Sadie Bjornsen (U.S. Ski Team) during the classic leg of the women’s Olympic 15 k skiathlon at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. She placed 31st in her Olympic debut.

If you read FasterSkier, two aspects of our coverage generates the most reader comments: doping violations and their adjudication, and team-selection criteria. Although here we are, two days away from the PyeongChang Olympics’ Opening Ceremony with Sochi doping still plaguing the news, as the title suggest, this piece is about team selection.

On Jan. 26, U.S. Ski & Snowboard revealed its 2018 U.S. Olympic Team — a list 20 skiers deep comprised of nine men and 11 women. The U.S. Ski & Snowboard press release announcing those selections used this statement to describe the roster: “The team includes 20 athletes who qualified for the team through World Cup results as well as domestic racing results at the L.L.Bean U.S. Cross Country Championship.”

The buzz following Olympic team selection followed two major threads, one focused on team size, the other on the selection of non-U.S. Ski Team (USST) women sprinters.

In considering why team size remains a concern, let’s zip back to 2014 when the USST was allocated a quota of 17 athletes for Sochi. The team that headed to Russia was 14-athletes deep; seven men and seven women. The remaining three U.S. spots were were reallocated to other nations. At the time, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach told FasterSkier that the small team was by design.

U.S. teammates Sadie Bjornsen (l), Kikkan Randall (c) and Jessie Diggins at the finish of the women’s 2014 Sochi Olympic relay, in which they placed ninth with Liz Stephen.

“With seven women and seven men, we have our start positions filled,” Grover said in 2014. “Seven and seven was the magic number for us.”

One line of reasoning is that a smaller team is more easily managed and the potential for medals are higher.

An Olympic cycle later, the current iteration of the U.S. Cross-Country Olympic team is six skiers larger. That’s partly a function of the depth of the U.S. women’s team on the World Cup and partly a function of how the Olympic selection criteria was interpreted during the team nomination process.

In explaining how the team was named, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Chief of Sport Luke Bodensteiner said that U.S. Ski & Snowboard (formerly USSA) was not mandated to use all of its quota spots for the 2018 Olympics.

“That is a decision we made,” Bodensteiner said on the phone. “We received, across all of sports at U.S. Ski & Snowboard, 110 quota spots, and we accepted all 110. However, we have 109 athletes; one athlete is participating in two different disciplines.”

Bodensteiner clarified that the uneven split of nine men and 11 women on the cross-country team was a result of the women’s depth both domestically and on the World Cup. He explained that the selection criteria does not specify how the spots are distributed between men and women.

“It is really based on results achieved on World Cup ranking and then the Olympic selection list points,” Bodensteiner said. “As it worked out, more women scored more points, actually scored more rankings in the World Cup than the men, and then more selection points than the men on the women’s side. So we just applied down the sort of next-best points in most cases, and that is why [we] have two more women than men and that is just a function of the women scoring more substantial points in the tryout events.”

Practically speaking, a larger team means more variables to manage but clear upsides for the broader cross-country community.

“Filling quotas presents clear positive possibilities and also some challenges to both mitigate and maximize…,” Bodensteiner said. “We try to take everything into account like utilizing start positions in the Olympics and how large a team quota we get. There are challenges for a bigger team, in particular, when you exceed the start possibilities. In cross-country, we have a number of athletes that probably won’t compete. That creates challenges like issues with health, waxing skis, and maintaining a positive team spirit. On the other side, there’s the positive: we have a lot of cross-country athletes going to the Olympics. It is a great experience generally, and something the community appreciates, that the athletes have that opportunity.”

Bodensteiner communicated that several athletes are not expecting to start races in PyeongChang are onboard in terms of fulfilling U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s performance outcomes in PyeongChang.

“We have also had quality discussion with athletes that we have no place to start,” Bodensteiner said. “We have been able to share our concerns that with a large team, we’d like dynamics that do not distract from winning medals. We spoken about how we mitigate those concerns and we have oriented those athletes in terms of how to help mitigate and work together to establish the way to go about doing business. They have been good, highly productive discussions.”

Team Selection: Nominations from the World Cup Qualifying Criteria

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit, the athletes who met the following objective criteria: “Any eligible athlete that posts a top-8 individual final World Cup result during the selection period [Nov. 23, 2017, through Jan. 15, 2018] in the following events will be selected to the Team: Sprint C, individual start 10/15 km F, and 15/30 km Skiathlon.”

Sophie Caldwell (U.S. Ski Team) racing to sixth in the individual freestyle sprint at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

U.S. Ski Team members Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell and Jessie Diggins automatically qualified for the Olympic team by meeting the top eight in an Olympic event threshold. Bjornsen qualified on Nov. 24 in Kuusamo, Finland, with a second place in a classic sprint. Caldwell qualified in the same race in eighth place. Diggins made the Olympic team on Dec. 12 in Lillehammer, Norway, when she placed sixth in a classic sprint. (Regarding both Bjornsen and Diggins, each scored multiple top-eight results in Olympic events during the selection period; we’ve simply specified the first instance each skier automatically qualified.)

Three skiers down, 17 to go.

The second-tier of the objective criteria reads as follows: “Athletes ranking in the top-50 in the distance World Cup standings or the top-50 in the Sprint World Cup standings as of January 15, 2018 shall be selected to the team.”

Rosie Brennan, Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, Erik Bjornsen, Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell jumped the top-50 hurdle.

Let’s run through the men first. On Jan. 15, Hamilton was ranked 15th, Newell 36th and Bjornsen 49th on the World Cup sprint list. Bjornsen was also ranked 41st on the distance list.

For the women, Sargent was ranked 13th on the World Cup Sprint list and Randall 19th. We’ll get back to this in a moment, but Brennan was ranked 43rd on the sprint list and 34th on the distance list. Liz Stephen ranked 35th overall on the distance list.

Some of the chatter heard after the Olympic team selection had to do with a portion of the criteria stating that no more than five athletes per gender would be selected based on sprint results, including all of World Cup sprint results, World Cup sprint rankings, and the domestic OWG points list.

This much is true: the U.S. Ski Team’s women’s team is loaded. In fact, on Jan. 15, the U.S. women had five skiers ranked in the top-20 on the World Cup sprint list. Brennan has had a breakout year and was chosen off her overall distance standing.

So far we’ve discussed six more skiers, bringing us to nine athletes, all current members of the U.S. Ski Team (USST) and all qualified from their World Cup results.

U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover wrote in an email that he believed the World Cup-based criteria served the purpose of fielding the most competitive team.

“From my perspective, the objective World Cup criteria worked well,” Grover wrote. “The fastest athletes were selected to the PyeongChang team.”

He also acknowledged that the inclusion of overall results from the Tour de Ski’s (TdS) final hill climb as part of major championship qualification criteria would be revisited.

“One bit of criticism/feedback that we received was that the Final Climb from the Tour de Ski should not be included in the selection period, because it is a special event that is not representative of the races at a major Championships,” Grover wrote. “I think this is a valid point. The Final Climb has been in our criteria for years, and nobody has complained until this season. Although we believe this race has been effectively useful in identifying our aerobically fit skaters, we are very open to removing it from future criteria and closing the World Cup distance selection period one day earlier. This is something we can discuss with the Cross Country Committee this spring.”

Non-World-Cup-Based Nominations

Filling out a team large enough to fill the four-starters-per-nation race quota allowed the coaches and selection committee to refer to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games (OWG) points list (click “2017/2018 SuperTour Points” under “Resources” on right side of page). That points lists kept a running total for the season’s first two SuperTour weekends and weighted results at 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Anchorage. (For sprinters, points were allocated only for qualification results, not the final results.) The rankings were then further organized by an athlete’s two best sprint results and two best distance results in separate columns on the spreadsheet (note: those columns were blank on Monday morning.)

For the men, team selection appears to have been rather straightforward. The top-three ranked distance skiers were selected off the OWG points list. In order, those athletes were USST member Scott Patterson, Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) Tyler Kornfield and former USST member Noah Hoffman.

Patterson, who is in his first season as a USST member, did not score World Cup points in Period 1 and declined an offer to race the TdS as his path to Olympic qualification. Patterson contested U.S. nationals as his potential qualifying route to the Games. Patterson won the 15 k skate and placed sixth in the 30 k classic mass start.

APU’s Tyler Kornfield (126) celebrates as he crosses the line first in the men’s 30-kilometer classic mass start on Jan. 7 at 2018 U.S. Cross Country Championships in Anchorage, Alaska. Eric Packer (118) finished second and Denver University’s Eivind Romberg Kvaale (124) placed third. Kornfield reached the podium in three out of four races at 2018 U.S. nationals.

Second on the OWG list was Kornfield, who won the 30 k classic mass start, placed 13th in the 15 k skate, qualified sixth in the skate sprint and third in the classic sprint. He also placed third overall in both the classic and skate sprints at nationals. Kornfield’s all-around point scoring catapulted him into the team selection conversation.

Third on the list was Hoffman, who placed second in the 15 k skate at nationals and fifth in the 30 k classic mass start. Hoffman also scored World Cup points in 28th in the Lillehammer 30 k skiathlon, a race loaded with home-field Norwegian talent.  

Paddy Caldwell, also in his first season as a full-fledged USST member, played his qualifying hand by remaining in Europe and racing the TdS. In his first winter racing full time on the World Cup, Caldwell has popped solid results. His nascent 2017/2018 World Cup resume is highlighted by the 19th-fastest time of day in Kuusamo’s 15 k skate pursuit and the 19th-fastest time of day on the TdS’s final climb 9 k skate pursuit. However, Caldwell landed outside the top-50 bubble on the World Cup distance list.

Patterson was selected as the highest-ranking athlete on the 2018 OWG selection list. As specified in U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Olympic team press release, Patterson’s selection, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard, was not a discretionary pick.

However, Hoffman, Kornfield, and Caldwell were all selected to the Olympic team by discretion. Bodensteiner, himself a former U.S. cross-country Olympian, explained over the phone that Hoffman, Kornfield, and Caldwell were nominated to the team by head coach Grover. Those nominations were then reviewed and approved by a three-person committee composed of Bodensteiner, U.S. Ski & Snowboard President Tiger Shaw, and former USST member Holly Brooks as the athlete representative.

Bodensteiner provided firsthand insight into Caldwell’s nomination and approval process.

“Chris Grover presented to the committee whether Paddy was qualified to be part of roster,” Bodensteiner said. “From an athlete-management standpoint, Paddy is somebody we have all agreed has got high potential for the future and the coaches were very interested in getting him into this environment [on the World Cup] and let him race a lot and developing him that way. We could have declined to accept Chris’s nomination of discretion. When I think of developing Paddy, for him it is not necessarily about performance in this Olympics but about future Olympics. Also, in thinking of his development, you don’t want to pull a guy like that out of racing for a month. We agree from an athlete management standpoint we want to make sure he has that experience. On our phone call about Paddy, Chris Grover does get into specifics about [Paddy’s] recent results. Paddy will get a start and maybe more in PyeongChang.”

It should be noted that in an interview about team selection this past summer, Grover stated that development occurs at many lower levels, like Europa Cups, World Juniors, etc., but “It does not and should not come at the World Championships or the Olympics. … It’s not a development trip; it’s a competition trip at the very highest level.”

At the same time, the criteria allows use of discretion for “Indication of medal potential in future Olympic or World Championship competition (such as international age group results and rankings) that would be materially enhanced by selection to the team.”

In the past, that “future medal potential” option for discretionary selection has rarely been used.

“We haven’t used it that way,” Grover said this summer. “Obviously the language is there if we were to choose to use it, but in the past we really have not used it that way, and I don’t anticipate using it going forward into this season. … We want … the fastest skiers on the start line in Korea, and those are the ones that we’re gonna be selecting.”

In PyeongChang, it’s likely that Patterson, Hoffman, Bjornsen and Paddy Caldwell will form the core of the U.S. Olympic men’s distance starts, with Kornfield getting several warranted race opportunities. Hamilton also skied himself into the Olympic distance race start mix by placing 12th in the 15 k skate mass start in the final pre-Olympic World Cup weekend in Seefeld, Austria. The 15 k skate at the Olympics is an individual start.

Factored into the men’s Olympic sprint-start equation are brothers Logan and Reese Hanneman. The Alaskan brothers (both members of APU) were the two highest ranking sprinters on the OWG list. Logan, the younger of the two, placed first and second in the U.S. nationals classic and skate sprint qualifiers. Reese placed third and first, respectively. Older brother Reese also doubled up by winning both the skate and classic sprint crowns. According to the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Olympic team press release, neither Hanneman was considered a discretionary pick.

Depending on Erik Bjornsen’s race schedule, the U.S. coaches will have a core of Newell, Hamilton, the Hannemans, and Bjornsen for the classic sprint. In case of illness, Kornfield has sprinting chops as well. He’s a former two-time classic sprint national champion who reinforced his sprint cred with his double-podium performance in the sprints at the 2018 nationals.

Time to bring the discussion back to the women’s Olympic team selections. To restate, Diggins, Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell, Sargent, Randall, Brennan, and Stephen all qualified objectively with their World Cup results. That’s seven female athletes, which leaves four spots remaining on the 11-athlete women’s Olympic cross-country team.

“We acted on the principle that we wanted to maximize start rights in each race,” Bodensteiner explained. “There was an interesting dynamic to women’s team. We have a generous quota and the need to fill spots. Our top women are going to race quite a bit and they ultimately exhaust start options for other skiers.”

In other words, this team is in PyeongChang to medal. Yet even with that caveat, “slam dunk” could be used to describe the nomination of Caitlin Patterson, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP). She was the top American in all four races contested at nationals. She won the 10 k skate, and both the skate and classic sprints, and was the first American in the 20 k mass start classic (and second overall). Patterson was selected off the OWG point list as the highest ranking female athlete.

Caitlin Patterson (Craftsbury Green Racing Project) racing to 52nd in the freestyle sprint qualifier at the last World Cup on Jan. 27 in Seefeld, Austria. The next day, she placed 23rd in the 10 k freestyle mass start. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

With the exception of Caitlin Patterson, Scott’s older sister, who again reinforced her Olympic readiness with a 20th place in Planica’s 10 k classic, start spots remain scarce for non-USST women skiers at the Games. That said, three more domestic-circuit-based female skiers were nominated to the Olympic team: Annie Hart (Stratton Mountain School T2 Team), Kaitlynn Miller (CGRP) and Rosie Frankowski (APU).

Frankowski was second on the distance OWG points list after placing fourth and second*, respectively, in the 10 k skate and 20 k mass start classic at Nationals (*she was the second American, third overall in the mass start). According to Grover in an email, Frankowski remains an “alternate” for the distance events.

If we don’t include Hart and Miller yet, we’re at 18 athletes total, nine men and nine women.

According to Bodensteiner, initially the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) relayed that U.S. Ski & Snowboard had a quota of 18 cross-country athletes.

“Once we get that quota, we are required to make an entry,” Bodensteiner explained. “So we do the selection, in this case on 18 athletes. We do the entry, and then it is a couple days later when you start with this reallocation. It is really hard to determine what is going to happen there. Because you don’t know if Norway is going to give back a spot, or Germany or even a Macedonian. You just don’t really know what is going to happen.”

According to Bodensteiner, the U.S. was reallocated a 19th team spot. Soon after the additional reallocated spot, the USOC informed U.S. Ski & Snowboard that a 20th quota spot was added.  

“That creates some interesting dynamics for selection because then you select your team, and couple days later, in this case, a 19th quota drops,” Bodensteiner said of the team-naming process. “And the coaches had done all their nominations about coach discretion that they wanted to do. And when we hit 19, and then eventually 20, and made a subsequent selection, that is a fairly dynamic process as well.”

For both the 19th and 20th spots, which Bodensteiner confirmed were Hart and Miller respectively, the selection committee in consult with the USOC, decided to go strictly off the point hierarchy from the women’s domestic list.

“Ultimately we decided to accept [the 19th and 20th spots], and at that point did not elect to use anymore coach’s discretion and just re-apply the procedure, with the athlete on objective criteria that had the next-best selection points,” Bodensteiner said.

Hart topped the OWG sprint list. Yet, as mentioned earlier, the criteria is written in a way to seemingly cap the number of sprinters at five in either gender. Last year, as a result of the the strict interpretation of those guidelines used to select the U.S. team for the Lahti World Championships, no domestic sprinter was selected to the World Championship roster. (Sophie Caldwell, Diggins and Randall all advanced to the final in that event. Diggins earned silver, Randall bronze.) The requisite lack of sprint opportunities for U.S. based women skiers at cross-country events like World Championships or the Olympics may be the cost of fielding perhaps the strongest women’s sprint team in the world. Sophie Caldwell, Diggins, Bjornsen, Randall and Sargent are internationally recognized sprinters. Even in a best-case Olympic scenario, one of these podium threats will be cheering during sprint qualifications, as only four can start a given race.

Yet the U.S, Olympic team will bring six female sprinters to PyeongChang. Bodensteiner stated that despite the language in the criteria (“will not exceed”), capping the number of sprinters at five per gender is not absolute.

“That is where, as I have explained with the quote-unquote sixth sprinter, that it was not a selection that was made in that allocation of 18,” Bodensteiner said. “That was made basically in consultation with the USOC and an external review to decide what’s the most fair application of the criteria in terms of filling the 19th position. That is where we as a selection committee would have looked at the athlete with the next highest selection points even knowing this athlete would be a reserve but we defaulted to the person who had the highest selection points.

“Annie is an interesting spot in thinking about how deep to get, and looking at outstanding results in sprinting, rather than choose lower on the distance list,” he continued. “It made sense to choose and recognize exceptional results. Discretion allows the committee to fill start rights and use the criteria in the most equitable way possible.”

Miller and Caitlin Gregg were tied for third on the women’s OWG distance points list. With their two best races considered, each athlete earned 56 points. Miller was selected over Gregg by applying the criteria’s tie-break procedure.

As a notable aside, multiple athletes alleged to FS, in writing but off the record, that Olympic team selection had been influenced by internal arbitration, external civil litigation, or the threat of either or both of these. However, both the existence and outcome of arbitration procedures are confidential, and multiple docket searches in state and federal courts revealed no lawsuit that had actually been filed.

Asked whether the USOC had been prompted to begin arbitration to either open up more Olympic team spots or be included on the team beyond the original 18 athletes selected, Bodensteiner stated that the USOC helped guide those particular selections.

“I guess what I will tell you, there is always an opportunity for independent review,” Bodensteiner said. “And that is where the USOC is really involved with us and we have a lot of discussions with them, like what’s the proper application of the procedure in terms of being applied fairly and equitably with the 19th selection and probably the 20th. We had done a lot of consultation with the USOC on both those selections.”

Bodensteiner also made clear that it is in every interested party’s right right to advocate for themselves.

“The athletes have the protection to challenge a selection position,” Bodensteiner explained. “It can be any reason they feel wronged. It is also not part of public record. They have the opportunity to make a complaint to USOC — they oversee the whole process. The USOC also approves the selection criteria, they have influence over it. Yet, they do not tell us to fill our quotas. So, the athlete can file a complaint to the USOC and they, the USOC, will moderate the discussion with the athlete who feels they wrongly have not been selected. If we can not come to terms, it is referred to an arbitrator.”

As far as FasterSkier has been informed, at least one athlete, and potentially more, was involved in official arbitration in connection with the 2018 U.S. Olympic cross-country selections. The USOC is not a government funded agency and it’s arbitration records are not public documents.

“That is not public record, we have dealt with that in the past, that is as deep as I want to get,” Bodensteiner said. “It is interesting when you get into application of criteria. Despite what you write specifically, they are open to interpretation. We maintain fidelity to criteria as much as possible. Some people will feel that wasn’t the right process. I understood to be something different. We will always go on and rewrite if there are any ambiguities and make better criteria.”

As of Wednesday morning, FasterSkier was still seeking comment from the the USOC regarding the reallocated spots — spots 19 and 20 — on the U.S. Olympic cross-country team.

Moving forward, Grover wrote that Hart will be a reserve for the classic sprint and Miller a reserve for the distance events.

It’s full steam ahead with 20 U.S. cross-country athletes in PyeongChang. As the final rosters take shape in what on paper could bring the U.S. its first Olympic cross-country medal in almost two generations, coaches like Grover and the USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb will be carefully penning out each race’s start roster for the Games.

In the often black-and-white world of elite ski racing, Bodensteiner conveyed he, too, could imagine the pressure exerted on both the athletes and coaches in the Olympic pressure cooker.  

“It takes pretty adept coaching to work the athletes through that and deal with the athletes who don’t get selected to race in each competition,” Bodensteiner said about the tough race start decisions facing the team. “That can be a tough thing for athletes for sure. You can imagine the pressure on the team sprint race right now. That is going to be a pretty difficult challenge for those guys. I anticipate it will be a tough one for the athletes. There’s a very high potential to get a medal there and there are certainly more than two athletes that are probably thinking they should be on that team.”

The Games begin on Feb. 10 with the women’s 15 k skiathlon.

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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