It’s hard not to root for David Norris.
Often affectionately described by Devon Kershaw as a “grinder”, the humble 31-year-old Fairbanks, AK native has been an eternal underdog, despite consistently performing among the best American distance racers of his generation on the World Cup. Highlighting his career, Norris has finished in the top-20 three times during his appearances in the 2019 and 2021 World Championships. His best result arrived in last year’s Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, where he placed 16th in the 50 k classic and 17th in the 30 k skiathlon.
Although Norris has been routinely been offered World Cup starts over the last five seasons, he has consistently hovered in the liminal space just behind the cutoff when it comes to selection to the U.S. Ski Team, whose age based-criteria becomes tougher to achieve over time. Given his birth year of 1990, Norris needs to be ranked in the top-40 in the world according to his FIS points from the previous season to be named as a B-Team athlete. In 2020, the margin by which he came up short was incomprehensibly small; a mere 0.88 FIS points, equivalent to eleven seconds in a single race during the season, left Norris ranked 43rd in the distance standings in March of that year.
Without financial support from the US Ski Team, Norris forged on, relying solely on his personal sponsors.
Then, as the 2020/21 World Cup season loomed the following November, Norris contracted COVID-19. At the time, there was little information available on how elite athletes should return to training and competition following a coronavirus infection and what the risks of an expedited return might be. While more is available currently, the message has not changed: use caution and take it slow.
Consequently, Norris sat out Period 1 and the Tour de Ski, making his World Cup return in late January 2021, finishing 32nd in his first race back – a 30 k skiathlon in Lahti, Finland, roughly one month shy of the Oberstdorf World Championships. Despite two top-20 finishes in Oberstdorf, where he was also the second American, behind only his APU teammate Scott Patterson, Norris was again left off the US Ski Team in the spring of 2021. The decision inspired one of his competitors, Craftbury’s Ben Lustgarten, to pen an OpEd to campaign for Norris’s ex post facto discretionary nomination to the team.
Heading into the 2021/22 season, Norris had a goal of making the Olympic Team, but he knew that, once again, the odds were not likely to be in his favor. The US had just five guaranteed quota spots for Beijing, with a likely sixth on the table.
If you’ve found your way to this story, you likely know how Norris fared.
After a solid summer of training, Norris started upon his usual trajectory of sub-optimal early season races, which generally progress to peak race results in February and early March. In November, Norris was 37th in the 15 k freestyle pursuit in Ruka, Finland, skiing the 27th-fastest time of day, but he never cracked the top-30 to score World Cup points in Period 1. Heading back to the States to race in the U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships in Soldier Hollow in January, his results began to trend upward. Though he’s always excelled in distance, he took 7th in the freestyle sprint, after qualifying second. Then, two days later, he was second in the 30 k mass start skate, 11 seconds behind winner Scott Patterson.
Twelve days later, in the final race weekend before the Olympic qualification period ended on January 16th, Norris won a 15 k individual start classic at the Lake Creek Nordic Center in Ketchum, ID.
On January 20th, U.S. Ski & Snowboard announced the 2022 Olympic Cross Country Team, and Norris’ name was not on the list.
This background is not intended to imply Norris should have made the 2022 Olympic Team. Rather, the intent is to highlight his candidacy to frame an interview on Friday, February 25th, the day before the 2022 American Birkie, in which Norris discussed the experience of falling short of his Olympic goal, how he “made the best of it”, and what his next steps are as he begins to shift his focus away from the World Cup.
Returning to the team announcement, Norris explained that although he was disappointed, not being selected was not a surprise given the selection process that had been outlined. He shared that “there was no dialogue at all” with US Ski Team coaches leading into the announcement, but that it also had never felt “closed”, either.
Following his second place finish in the 30 k skate in SoHo, Norris had written to FasterSkier “Every season I ski much stronger in February and March, so I’m sure good form is on the horizon, but that doesn’t help me achieve my goals when I need to be skiing well right now. All I can do now is focus on the 15 k classic coming up and then rest and prepare for the next races.”
As he acknowledged, an emphasis was placed on strong early-season results, which he did not post, and he had not expected that his historic championship results would be factored into decision making. That said, as a distance skier, looking at a Games which would be held at altitude on challenging courses that would “basically reward people who are very fit”, it was difficult to recognize he’d never have the opportunity to put his strengths on display.
“It was tough,” Norris said simply. “Seeing that the criteria kind of rewarded 15 k races, when two out of four individual races [at the Olympics] were 30 and 50 k for the men. And yeah, I was aware of it all, but it kind of sunk in just during the Olympics and watching.”
Of the six men who met the outlined objective criteria and were named to the Olympic team, four were primarily sprinters: JC Schoonmaker, Kevin Bolger, Ben Ogden, and Luke Jager. However, each started in either the 15 k classic or the 4 x 10 k relay, in addition to the two distance racers, Patterson and Gus Schumacher.
“But I still cheered my heart out for the guys who made it,” Norris added emphatically. “I don’t hold anything against the guys who are nominated. All congratulations to them — no personal difference against those guys. Everyone who went is a good friend, and I’m stoked for them.”
When weather shortened the men’s 50 k skate to a 30 k, Norris watched his APU teammate Patterson race to 8th place, an historic result for the American men, second only to Bill Koch who earned an Olympic silver medal and a 6th-place finish in Innsbruck, AUT in 1976. As mentioned previously, roughly six weeks prior, Norris had finished 11 seconds behind Patterson in a 30 k mass start skate at a similar elevation in SoHo. Though four start spots were available for each nation in the Olympic 30 k, Patterson was the only American in the race that day.
Never one to say “woe is me”, Norris chose not speak directly to the experience of watching that race. Instead, he recognized that he was not the only strong and fit American distance skier who did not make it to Zhangjiakou.
“There were such limited spots for the men’s quota that, no matter what happened, good skiers were gonna get left behind. But yeah, just given that three out of four individual races are distance, and the relay’s distance, it was kind of a bummer to see them not give any priority or emphasis to distance where we could have accumulated probably the best results. I think the 30 k (skate) at Nationals and 15 k (classic) at Lake Creek in Sun Valley, kind of showed where the fitness stacked up in the U.S. field. And I think mass starts are one of those places where you can’t really hide your form — you see how fit people are. And yeah, Scott and I are really similar and we train together, and I think it just kind of came down to –
I trained for chasing a goal of a top 10 at the Olympics, and it was far harder to make the team than to actually probably reach that goal… But it’s just limited spots and tough how it came down.”
Norris is not the first person to be left off an Olympic team who was perhaps qualified and deserving of a spot. Every four years, FasterSkier reports on those just behind the cutoff, which often sparks impassioned responses from fans supporting athletes on both sides of the bubble.
For Norris, this means outreach and support from a number of athletes who had been in the same situation and could share perspective from a place further removed from the moment.
“People have been super encouraging. One of the guys who made it based on the criteria but wasn’t taken four years ago reached out and said, ‘Use this as your secret weapon — you chase goals and come up short. And that’s kind of the way it works out more often than not, and you learn a lot from from that.’ Based on some of the encouragement from people in similar spots, it was really reassuring to hear their words and realize that the last four years or the last eight years pursuing a goal, it wasn’t a waste just based on a single selection.
And maybe there’s been moments where I have to kind of lie to myself that that’s the case, but I genuinely believe it. I don’t regret going for the Olympics, and then coming up short on my goal, it’s all been a positive experience for me.”
In the post-Olympic 50 turned 28 k episode of the Devon Kershaw Show, guest Kris Freeman, who spent years at the top of American men’s distance skiing, was critical of the American program’s lack of support of men’s distance skiing. Freeman pointed out that Patterson was the “only guy of his generation that got any U.S. Ski Team support.” He then added, “in the last six years, it’s been like, ‘Well, we got [Gus] Schumacher and Luke [Jager], let’s just wait till they come up.’”
Though perhaps in a less outspoken and direct manner, Norris affirmed Freeman’s sentiments, acknowledging the challenge many of this country’s top distance racers have faced in funding the career longevity often required to reach peak potential as an endurance athlete.
“I couldn’t do it without my personal supporters because there’s nothing coming from the national team. And there is definitely that sense of, like, Scott’s in the system. They’re hanging on to him, and he’s producing awesome results. But then, yeah, I think Freeman’s words are pretty accurate, I guess.”
Norris pointed to the U.S. Ski & Snowboard mission as a root of the challenge. The header on the cross country team page states: “We’re built around one common goal—provide the right resources for athletes who are inspired to be the Best in the World.” Though he was seen as one of the best in the US, his trajectory was arguably not one that was likely to produce Olympic or World Championships medals, a focal point of U.S. Ski Team selection criteria.
The introduction to these criteria reads: “The U.S. Ski Team will select only the most qualified athletes with the greatest possibilities for winning medals in future World Championship and Olympic Winter Games competitions. Selection criteria will stress performance in the Olympic Winter Games, World Cup and the U23/World Junior Championships in the 2021-22 season. Selection criteria will also stress progress toward individual performance markers, set forth by the U.S. Ski Team coaches, which point toward international success.”
The statement perhaps clarifies the philosophy that has kept Norris from meeting objective criteria for the team. Though he has been an asset to the distance program, and was likely to post some of the top American distance results during the Games, his potential to earn future medals was lower than a younger budding athlete with strong World Juniors results, like Schumacher or Jager. While this could be sensible from a long-term investment perspective, it may also push some of the top distance athletes out of the sport at young ages, typically thought to be prior to when one reaches his or her physical peak for endurance racing.
One might look at Rosie Brennan who at 33 years old, and after having been left off the U.S. Ski Team on two separate occasions, is coming off a second season as a regular podium threat, with a growing list of top-10 results and a string of performances in Zhangjiakou that, though just shy of a medal, were collectively among the all-time top-three Olympic performances by an American cross country skier. Without Diggins’ results in PyeongChang and Beijing, they’d be the best.
Or, on the other side of the coin, Kyle Bratrud had won four National Championship titles between 2015 and 2020, and placed 31st at the 2019 World Championships, popping a World Cup top-30 a weekend later, but he retired at 26, in part because US Ski Team support seemed unlikely and the costs associated with starving for the World Cup didn’t check out in the cost-benefit analysis.
Read and listen to more on Bratrud’s take on development pathways, support and age-based criteria, and retirement here.
“It’s kind of brutal, over the last four years, to have had the best [American distance] result [in the 50 k at] World Champs in Seefeld, and two top-20s at World Champs last year. Half the men’s team was discretioned [onto the US Ski Team] last year, and to not get any support through those years…”
Norris started and stopped a few times, carefully weighing how much he wanted to say to the small tightly-knit ski community, before laughing that he was beginning to ramble. He then continued, “I think the Olympics kind of showed that… I feel like people are wondering what happened with some of the results, but I think you could have predicted that by looking at their course profile and the altitude and how people performed in similar settings. And it seems like it’s really good to invest in the young guys but also to give support to the older guys and have us produce good results helps pave the way as well. And it seems like that aspect is getting severely neglected. And if Scott were to quit next year, then there’s a huge gap to fill.”
After competing in the SuperTour races in Sun Valley with his APU teammates, Norris found himself in limbo. He recognized he was highly unlikely to be named to the Olympic team, but had not received information or been contacted by US Ski Team coaches to confirm that this was the case.
“Before the nominations were announced, we [essentially] knew the team [that was] going based on COVID protocols.”
APU teammates Patterson and Brennan both raced in Sun Valley, along with Scott’s older sister Caitlin Patterson, who trains and races with the Craftsbury Green Racing Project and was also named to the Olympic team. Brennan returned to her childhood home in Park City, while the Pattersons headed to Bozeman, MT to create a lockdown bubble with their parents.
Seeing the writing seemingly on the wall, Norris also headed to Bozeman, where his partner Jess Yeaton’s parents currently reside. Both Norris and Yeaton graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman, and he calls the area his “favorite training grounds.” With ideal conditions and nice weather, Norris cleared his head while logging hours on trail.
“Since I didn’t have the Olympics to focus on or peak for, I just took advantage of the good skiing there and was skiing like four to five hours a day, just enjoying being in the sun and, kind of, having the like stress and the weight off my shoulders of the Olympics. It was kind of cool, because I think I skied so much, I just realized that I ski because I love it not because of one single goal or because I’m trying to prove anything to anyone or, you know, make one person proud. It was good, just to ski and enjoy it.”
Norris looked at the calendar and saw that he could hop into both the Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley and a 30 k classic at Crosscut in Bozeman. And though he thought he might have “overcooked” himself logging all those hours in Bozeman, Norris won both races.
“The past few weeks skiing with friends assures me that I love skiing and all the people involved in it… and that’s why I do it,” Norris wrote in a post-race Instagram post.
“I think he’s having a really good time, actually,” Norris’ partner Yeaton told FasterSkier in an interview in Zhangjiakou during the Games. “Going around and racing all these races, and he’s just been reconnecting with people. I truly do think he is enjoying it… I think it’s definitely been a big bummer for him, but he’s also — he’s the best at making a good situation out of anything. He’s just not a negative person by nature. He’s out there racing all these races, having fun… there’s definitely something good that’s come out of the spring for him, for sure.”
As the time of the call was within 24 hours of the Birkie start, it was yet to be seen that Norris, the 2016 Birkie champion, would this year take second in a thrilling showdown on Main Street in Hayward, WI, losing to Gérard Agnellet of France in a boot slide at the finish. Norris had scaled back on the self-indulgent distance skis in Bozeman, foreshadowing what would come with the following explanation.
“After the [Boulder Mountain Tour], I kind of shut it down and kind of found enjoyment in being a little lazier. And I think that should give me some fresher legs for the Birkie, I hope.”
His next steps remain in flux.
“Since there’s not really a spot for a 20th to 10th place skier — like, [US Ski & Snowboard] doesn’t want that on their team, it seems — I’m kind of not that incentivized at all to spend time on World Cup and keep fronting a bill from the U.S. Ski Team.”
With this shift in focus, Norris remains open-minded, explaining that his ski racing plans next winter somewhat hinge upon where Yeaton finds a physical therapy job once she finishes her clinical rotations to complete a doctoral program through University of New Mexico. The two will be stationed in Colorado and Utah through the fall, which may set Norris up for opportunities to compete in trail running races that have not previously fit into his ski preparation plan.
Norris has a track record of strong finishes in Alaska mountain running races. Amidst three wins, he holds the course record at the infamous Fourth of July Mt. Marathon race in Seward, beating a time posted by the seemingly superhuman alpinist phenom Kílian Jornet of Spain, and has won the Cirque Series race at the Alyeska ski resort along with a smattering of other regional trail running events.
“I’ve never wanted to spend money on running because I’ve always just put any money I’ve earned and sponsorship dollars towards skiing. And you know, there’s plenty of races in Alaska, so I didn’t need to travel, but now I’ll be at altitude in Colorado and Utah. There’s so many races to jump into.”
Should they end up spending next winter in a location that allows for quality ski training, Norris anticipates that he’ll continue to race, but the focus will be different.
“I think our lifestyles are such that we would be training a ton, just because that’s what we enjoy doing. And then I would 100% keep jumping into races. But my goals are definitely changing… So probably do less [international racing] and just enjoy ski racing and do it more locally.”
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646