For developing skiers all over the globe, the chance to compete at Junior and U23 World Championships can be the high point of an entire young career. American athletes compete for a spot on the team every year at U.S. Nationals, but before nationals even gets under way, up to two men and women in each age class can pre-qualify for the team if they meet a specific FIS-point standard at certain races.
That standard has changed for the coming season. Across the board, junior and U23 skiers aiming to pre-qualify for a trip to Liberec, Czech Republic, in 2013 have a lower FIS-point threshold to target. For juniors, the result has to come from within a smaller window on the race calendar. And for both age classes, the kinds of races that count as pre-qualifiers have been expanded outside the SuperTour.
The selection criteria are explained in full on the USSA website at the links provided below, but the new pre-qualifying standards break out like this:
Juniors (USSA full criteria)
- Up to two male and two female athletes can prequalify by achieving a FIS point result under 50 points (down from 65 points for men and 75 points for women)
- The 50-point result must be posted between November 1 and December 31, 2012 (last season the result could come any time between January 9 and December 5, 2011).
- The result can come from any FIS sanctioned race within that time frame (in contrast to past limitation to SuperTours)
U23s (USSA full criteria)
- Up to two male and two female athletes can prequalify by achieving a FIS point result under 30 points (down from 50 points for men and 55 points for women)
- The yearlong window in which to post a 30-point result hasn’t changed for U23s; the specific dates this year are January 9 and December 31, 2012.
- The result can come from any FIS sanctioned race (in contrast to past limitation to SuperTours and the prior year’s World Junior/U23 Championships).
The altered criteria are the outcome of the recent USSA Congress in Park City, Utah. Though it hasn’t been explicitly stated in the past, the standards are reevaluated every spring. These newest iterations now clearly stipulate that USSA will reevaluate them at the next Congress.
There are several important changes going on with the new criteria. First, 50- and 30-point results are significantly harder to reach than the previous standards. In the 15 k freestyle at the 2011-2012 season opener in West Yellowstone, Mont. for example, the difference between the old 65-point mark for junior men and a 50-point race was 41 seconds (two places).
Enabling U23s to turn in a result from any FIS race over the course of a year also expands their opportunity to prequalify. Open collegiate races are now eligible, which is notable given that many of the U23s fighting to qualify are NCAA skiers. (The new 30-point standard doesn’t pre-qualify anyone from this past winter’s FIS races, as far as a preliminary search can tell).
Lastly, shortening the timeframe for juniors to turn in a pre-qualifying result to the two months before U.S. Nationals is a reduction from the old yearlong window. Juniors can no longer qualify for the World Junior team with a result from the previous season.
According to U.S. Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish, these changes to the pre-qualifying criteria were made with a simple goal in mind: to continue giving those reserved spots to athletes in a position to be in the top 10 or top 15 at World Juniors and U23s.
If a top-15 has always been the desired result for pre-qualifying athletes, why the change in criteria?
The answer requires spending some time in the FIS database, but the short version is: FIS points in the US are dropping, but international results aren’t. At least, not at the same rate.
The trend is apparent when looking at points breakdowns for the same race over the course of, say, the past seven years. For example, in the men’s individual distance freestyle at U.S. Nationals, the average FIS points earned by the top five Americans decreased (with a few intermediate upward bumps) from 89.71 in 2006 to 30.23 in 2012.
The difference is even more striking when you look at a college race over the same period. In 2006 the top five men at an EISA carnival in Stowe, Vermont, averaged 144.88 points in the 10 k classic. In 2012 the mean is 49.27 points for the same race at the same venue.
So are Americans skiing that much faster, or are FIS points getting less reliable as indicators of where an athlete stacks up internationally?
Taking a similar look at U.S. results at World Juniors and U23s for the past seven years, the latter explanation seems to hold more weight. The FIS profiles of juniors selected for the team have followed the same overarching downward trend, and yet their results haven’t been dropping at the rate that the points would predict. In fact, they’ve remained fairly consistent. Arbitrarily picking the individual men’s 10 k, which alternates between skate and classic year to year, the American names pop up in similar places on the results between 2006 and 2012.
The growing disparity between FIS points and World Juniors performance suggests that the domestic point level that used to correlate to a top 15 at World Juniors is now much lower. Hence, stricter pre-qualifying standards.
“In the past what we’d do is say, ‘If you get 50 FIS points, that puts you in top 10 at Junior Worlds,” said Fish. “But our athletes getting 50 in the US aren’t necessarily doing that at Junior Worlds. We had to delve a little deeper to make sure that athletes that are scoring X number of FIS points in the States, what does that actually equate to at Junior Worlds. It’s not a one-to-one ratio unfortunately.”
Artificially low FIS points explain the tougher criteria. The shorter, two-month window for juniors to reach the pre-qualifying standard has a much simpler explanation: a developing skier posting a 50-point result in January of one season doesn’t necessarily equate to having the same speed a year later.
“[The time period] is looking at who’s skiing fast leading up into that season,” said Fish. “We discussed it with a lot of coaches [at the Congress], and we agreed that a lot can happen in one calendar year. We felt pre-qualification criteria should be a little bit narrower.”
The reason for maintaining the same, longer window for U23s is that 20, 21, and 22-year olds are further along in their development. Fish explained that if a U23 can have a 30-point race one year, chances are better that he or she will be as fit the next winter.
“Those athletes are through the maturation phase, and certainly specializing in the sport a lot more than juniors,” he said.
Finally, expanding the prequalifying races to any FIS-sanctioned event is an attempt to make it easier for athletes to get to eligible races. The increased accessibility contributed to USSA reexamining the points criteria — had opportunities to qualify grown and the criteria remained the same, it would have suddenly been much easier meet the standard.
“The points are lower and there’s more opportunity, but again the general premise is to set a FIS point scale that would be consistent with a top 15 or top 10,” said Fish.
Ultimately, stricter pre-qualifying standards won’t change things for most juniors and U23s trying to make it to Liberec in 2013. The criteria only apply to two reserved spots on each team, and if nobody puts together a 50- or 30-point race within the designated time frames, the entire selection process will take place at U.S. Nationals, which will be held in Soldier Hollow, Utah, this January for the first time since 2006.