At the highest level of nordic ski racing in the U.S., athletes know making the national team isn’t so much of a black-and-white decision; coaches mostly see red.
Based on U.S. Ski Team criteria, any skier that ends the season in the red group by finishing in the top 30 of the World Cup or FIS distance or sprint lists is essentially guaranteed a spot on the A-team.
Those who finish outside those standards can be included based on discretion or depending on the relative competitiveness among teammates.
This year, five athletes made the red group, which would indicate that the 2012/2013 A-team would include one more skier than last year. But the top 5 doesn’t include Kris Freeman, a staple of the team since 2001 who experienced an off year last season.
While the USST nominations have yet to be approved by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), several current members confirmed what they’d heard about the upcoming season and where they expected to end up.
In line with the comments of head coach Chris Grover, USST women’s coach Matt Whitcomb said choosing this 2012/2013 squad had been “a breath of fresh air” compared to years past.
With five skiers in the red group (Kikkan Randall, Jessie Diggins, Liz Stephen, Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton) and Noah Hoffman automatically making the team with a podium at U23 World Championships, six people can be considered shoe-ins for the squad. And that doesn’t include a slew of other competitors just a step or two below their teammates.
Raising the Bar
The hard part was splitting the athletes up into various levels of support. Usually, distinguishing A- and B-team skiers wasn’t so cut and dry, Whitcomb said.
“Now that we have more athletes qualifying for the red group, it sort of naturally has separated into ‘A’ is the red-group level skier in or around the red group on the sprint or distance list, and ‘B’ is just below that,” he said.
With more USST members cracking into the elite international ranks, the rest of the team is left to strive to do the same to receive an equal level of financial support. Currently, those outside the A-team have to cover their own ground expenses throughout the winter. If a B-teamer earns World Cup starts, they have to pay for travel and lodging expenses excluding airfare.
“There’s a high level of competitiveness gunning for each of these spots simply to race the World Cup that I think has pushed everybody a bit closer to the fire and we’ve got some good results out of it,” Whitcomb said. “It’s a stressful situation to be an elite cross-country ski racer. There’s no question.”
For skiers like Hoffman, who finished outside the red group but made the team with a second-place finish at U23’s, it makes the A-team tougher to obtain.
Unsure whether he could confirm he had made the B-team, Hoffman, 22, said that decision wouldn’t surprise him.
“I thought maybe there was a chance I would be on the A-team,” said Hoffman, who was the second-best U.S. distance skier in the overall World Cup rankings after Freeman.
“I thought for sure I would remain on the team. I felt like I had a pretty good step forward this season,” Hoffman said. “But I’m not disappointed. Happy to be on the team.”
After one season on the B-team, he said finding money to cover his expenses would once again be a hurdle. Last fall when he was uncertain how he’d make it work, his supporters at the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail and Rocky Mountain Nordic rallied to help him cover most of his expenses.
“If I can go back to those people that helped me out this year and ask for more, then maybe I can make it work again,” Hoffman said. “The funding part on the B-team is definitely the challenge.”
Also coming off his rookie year on the team, Tad Elliott expected to be renamed to the B-team as well. He spoke with his coaches several weeks ago and said he was relieved to hear the news.
“I was actually really concerned if I’d be back on the team or not,” said Elliott, who had his career best of 27th at the World Cup 30 k in Davos, Switzerland. “Everyone had such a good season. I knew talking before the year, they said I’d only be guaranteed for at least a year. Then I heard I made the B-team again … [so] that’s been a huge relief.”
Making the Cut
Closing the season with a pair of top World Cup results, Simi Hamilton finished 22nd in the overall World Cup sprint standings to make the red group and will likely get bumped to the A-team.
While driving back to Aspen, Colo., from a mountain bike trip in Fruita, Utah, Hamilton said he was excited about the promotion from the B-team.
“The support will be a little bit better and it’s nice to have that title,” he said. “We’re still hurting a bit with our budget at USSA, but NNF [National Nordic Foundation] is really stepping in and helping the A-team out, B-team, D-team and all the levels below that so that’s huge.”
Hamilton said his club, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, would continue to provide financial assistance and he planned to keep working with NNF to fundraise on a “grassroots” level.
“So when all the pieces kind of fit together, I’ll hopefully, knock on wood, be pretty well covered,” he said.
As his results improved throughout the season, Hamilton, 24, said he spoke with Grover about where he stood. His coaches stressed consistency, and at the last two World Cup sprints in early March, Hamilton had some of his best results of the season.
In a classic sprint in Drammen, Norway, he achieved a career best of seventh. Earlier that week in Lahti, Finland, he was 11th in the classic sprint, and was 10th in a skate sprint in Rogla, Slovenia, in December.
“I felt a little bit of pressure, for sure, to step up those last races there,” Hamilton said. “But at the same time, you can only ski as fast as you can. I’d like to say I went into it with a good head and just tried as hard as I could and luckily, it turned out well.”
He said his final two races of the season in Lahti and Drammen “sealed the deal.” Given the current financial situation of the USST with a limited budget handed down by USSA, Hamilton also thought he could have been the odd man out.
“It could’ve gone the other way too, and I could’ve ended up on the B-team,” he said.
On the women’s team, Diggins also qualifies to make the jump from B- to A-team status, as she finished the season ranked 26th, putting her firmly in the distance red group. In her first season on the World Cup as a USST member, she turned heads with consistent results in the top-30 in both sprint and distance races, and joined up with Randall for a team sprint silver medal in Milan, Italy. Diggins could not be reached for comment.
The top sprinter on the U.S. men’s team, Newell more or less expected a spot on the A-team after ranking 16th on the World Cup sprint list. He notched two of the best individual results of the year, placing sixth and seventh in World Cup classic sprints, and was the lone American male to score both sprint and distance points.
“Although that OK’s me a spot on the A team, I’m really looking for more than that,” Newell wrote in an email. “I wouldn’t be pressing on if I didn’t think there was a serious shot at medals in the next few years. That’s a main goal for anyone who will be on the A team, we need athletes who really see themselves going for a medal and not just skiing.”
For Freeman, who said he never really hit his stride last season, that’s likely why the USST is expected to keep him onboard as an A-teamer.
“I’m back on the A-team because of what I’ve done in the past, not because of what I did last year, and that’s never a good feeling,” Freeman said. “But I know where I made some mistakes last year, and I’m confident that I can get back to where I want to be, which is actually better than I’ve ever been.”
A Type-1 diabetic, Freeman, 30, has dealt with blood-sugar issues in the past, but was candid about how his personal struggles last season following a breakup affected his racing.
“I knew I wasn’t at my best last year and the U.S. Ski Team realized I wasn’t at my best last year and they believe in me,” he said. “I still believe in me, so I’m back.”
This summer, Freeman planned to work on his mass start glucose management by carrying a small amount of sports drink while racing for a steady supply of sugar. Earlier this month, he started the experimental process in Park City, Utah, and would follow up with the studies there in early May.
With six anticipated members on the A-team (Hamilton, Newell, Freeman, Randall, Diggins and Stephen), funding will likely be tight. Freeman said that while he was unsure how it would break down, he expected the ski team to concentrate on giving the best support in the winter. He said that was important and considerably better than when he started with the team more than a decade ago.
“In 2001, I was glide waxing my own skis at World Championships,” Freeman said. “Now we have four wax guys at every World Cup. We’ve come a long way and I think the support at international races is probably the most important thing.”
He noted the importance of clubs in supporting their athletes, even those who reach the highest level of the sport, and said that could be the trend in the near future.
“For a long time, it seemed the better our results, the more money the ski team gave us. That’s no longer the case,” Freeman said. “Based on what Kikkan did last year and the fact that we didn’t get a raise, we’re probably not going to get a raise in the foreseeable future unless the economy turns around and the ski team gets more money.”
The overall sprint World Cup winner, Randall is a shoe-in for the A-team. She finished fifth overall, and Diggins and Stephen also made the top-50 criteria, placing a respective 26th and 28th in the distance rankings.
Stephen finished off the season with an 18th at World Cup Finals, and before that produced consistent top-30s and personal-best results throughout the winter, including the eighth-best final climb in the Tour de Ski.
Sadie Bjornsen, who achieved a silver medal with Randall in a team sprint in December, expected to be renamed to the B-team. She earned her first career World Cup points in 2012, but said she thought she needed a top-15 individual finish to reach the next level.
“The thing about the B-team, you’re not getting financial support, but it’s the actual structure you receive on the B-team, the support of going to the World Cup, you have a set of people willing to take care of you,” Bjornsen said. “I think that at the beginning of the year, I was feeling frustrated; ‘OK, how does this actually help me?’ But as I started racing through the year, I realized how much you get.”
Regardless, she said any USST status helps with sponsors, as it likely did for her brother Erik. Currently a D-team member, he declined to comment on the pending nominations.
Efforts to reach several of the women on the team were unsuccessful, leaving the placement up to speculation. Sargent finished 49th in the sprint standings and scored distance points as well, and Holly Brooks of Alaska Pacific University traveled with the USST all season and was likely vying for a spot on the team. Brooks narrowly missed an automatic bid in ranking 55th overall on the World Cup.
Brooks is the most interesting case, not fitting the mold of the established ski team veteran, nor the young up-and-comer.
With regular appearances in the points in the early part of the season, Brooks appeared on-track for a spot on the USST before being derailed by a wrist injury. The A-team is likely out of reach this season, but she is a strong candidate for the B-team.
The D-team was also up for grabs, but the final word on its two current racers, Erik Bjornsen and Skyler Davis was not publicized.
Whitcomb said their commitment made the development team worth reinstituting this year.
“I would like to see more people on the D-team,” Whitcomb said. “But the same level of commitment is going to be required of D-team athletes as it will of A-team athletes. We need 100 percent buy-in.”
On the coaching front, Pete Vordenberg resigned Tuesday after coaching the team for more than 10 years. A two-time Olympian, he was the head coach of the USST for six years and also served as the development coach and men’s head World Cup coach.
Vordenberg, 40, said he was stepping down to spend more time with his new family. The structure of next season’s coaching and support staff has yet to be announced.
Chelsea Little and Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.