On Monday, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) announced its selections to the U.S. cross-country team for the 2015 FIS Nordic World Championships in Falun, Sweden. The large team of 16 athletes will represent the U.S. in the most-anticipated event of the 2014/2015 season, which takes place Feb. 18 to March 1.
The team of 16 is headlined by defending 2013 world champions in the freestyle team sprint, Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins. They will be joined by fellow U.S. Ski Team (USST) athletes Liz Stephen, Sophie Caldwell, Sadie Bjornsen, and Ida Sargent. Two additional women from the domestic circuit, Rosie Brennan (Alaska Pacific University) and Caitlin Gregg (Team Gregg/Madshus), will also compete in Sweden.
On the men’s side, Andy Newell and Simi Hamilton were the only lone two national-team members to prequalify for the championships. They will be joined by fellow USST members Noah Hoffman and Erik Bjornsen, along with Kris Freeman (Freebird), Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy), Matt Gelso (Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation), and Kyle Bratrud (Northern Michigan University).
The 2015 U.S. World Championships team is larger than in past years. The 2013 roster featured 13 skiers while the 2014 U.S. Olympic team numbered 14.
According to USST Head Coach Chris Grover, the reason for the team’s growth is due to a need to fill the four starting spots allotted to the U.S. in each race. In 2014, one more woman (Holly Brooks) qualified for the Olympics via the World Cup than in 2015 for the World Championships. Grover and the USST recognized that, based on the USST’s World Cup performances earlier this year, they needed one more classic and an additional freestyle skier.
“That was natural to take Rosie [Brennan] and Caitlin [Gregg] as they had won those races at nationals and they were the next women on the points list. It made it easy,” Grover said in a phone interview after the team announcement.
Brennan, who won three out of four races at U.S. Cross Country Championships in Houghton, Mich., earlier this month, has traditionally excelled in the classic technique, while Gregg is known as a strong skater.
Grover explained that because the two men who qualified via the World Cup — Newell and Hamilton — are sprint specialists, there was a need for multiple distance skiers on the men’s team.
“We have some good sprinters already so we needed some distance skiers, and that’s why we took the top-four distance guys on the national ranking list,” he said.
Apart from prequalified athletes, this year’s team was entirely selected from the fourth publication of the USSA points list. Brennan and Gregg were the top two domestic skiers on both the distance and sprinting lists. Hoffman, Freeman, Gelso, and Bratrud were the first four skiers in the distance rankings, while Blackhorse-von Jess and Erik Bjornsen were the top skiers (apart from Newell and Hamilton) in the sprint rankings. Coincidentally, every skier who won a national title at this year’s nationals (Brennan, Gregg, Freeman, Bratrud, and Blackhorse-von Jess) will ski in Falun.
For a more detailed look at the selection process, see our pre-team naming article.
“It worked out really well. If you went down and took the next athletes based on points, you ended up taking every athlete who happened to win at the U.S. National Championships this year,” Grover said. “That was a nice coincidence of how USSA points reflected performance this fall.”
The USST has an idea of which athletes will compete in the each of the 12 races. Final decisions for the first competitions in Falun will be based on results from the next World Cup from Feb. 14-15 in Östersund, Sweden.
“We’ve got a few people penciled in and we have a lot of alternates in every race so it really depends on what we see in Östersund in the classic sprint and the 15 k freestyle. On the women’s side it is a little bit more cut and dry because we have results from the World Cup,” Grover explained.
There’s also room for expansion of the 16-person team, as each nation is allowed 24 athletes (12 male and 12 female). According to Grover, any additional selections will be made based on results from next week’s Junior/U23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“Somebody needs to have a standout performance to demonstrate that they would ski faster than somebody who is already on the World Championship team: a top-eight, top-five, or podium performance,” he said of the possibility of additional picks.
The team announcement comes on the heels of the Americans’ best results of the 2015 season in Rybinsk, Russia. Over the course of the three-race weekend, Stephen took second in the 10 k freestyle for the best-ever distance result of a U.S. woman, and Diggins placed fifth in the both the sprint and skiathlon to match her career best.
At the same time, the World Cup weekend in Russia was also missing many of the circuit’s top skiers, with Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, Therese Johaug and Heidi Weng, among others, opting for a training block following the Tour de Ski. Because of the smaller field, Grover said he didn’t read too much into the results.
“The good thing is that the athletes, like Jessie with her fifth places and Liz, are coming into incredible shape,” he explained. “If they can make a little step between now and Falun, it would be really exciting.”
Randall, three-time winner of the Sprint World Cup crystal globe, had uncharacteristic results early in the 2014/2015 season, failing to qualify for her signature event, the freestyle sprint, in December in Lillehammer. After exiting the Tour de Ski, Randall returned home to Alaska to make a “drastic change” before returning to Europe to focus on Falun.
“We had to look at the big goals of the year [at World Championships] in Falun, and I wanted to make sure I could try to make a drastic change in my racing before then,” Randall said earlier this month. “[I] really figured a change in scenery, a change in pace, and a time to actually come home where you can actually recover and recharge was the best way to ensure good performances in Falun.”
Randall is also forgoing the current USST altitude camp in Davos, Switzerland. She flew to Östersund on Jan. 26 to train and prepare with her husband and FIS communications employee Jeff Ellis.
“I’ll have almost three weeks before the World Cup in Östersund, so that’s a good training period to actually work on fine tuning things with some good interval training and then hopefully rest a little bit going into [the] Östersund [World Cup]. And off we go,” she said.
Hoffman will also return to competition in Östersund. His fitness and racing ability is still unknown after breaking his fibula in a crash during the first World Cup weekend of the year. After undergoing surgery in December, Hoffman has been recovering in Colorado. As part of his rehabilitation, the 25 year old used a combination of physical therapy, a ski erg, and double-pole workouts to maintain his fitness in an effort to make a comeback for the in Falun. Recently, he graduated to techniques such as skating and striding.
“Noah’s recovery is going really well and he’s at the point now where he’s transitioning out of double pole only and starting other techniques. If everything continues to go well, we’ll see him in the 15 k in Östersund,” Grover said. “At this point he is a wild card. I don’t think anybody, including Noah, knows what to expect.”
The remaining USST athletes, including Sadie Bjornsen, who was consistently the top American skier in Period 1 of the World Cup, will look to peak for worlds.
The U.S. team will also feature a strong showing of domestic skiers. Even though they haven’t been on the World Cup circuit for the entirety of the season, they are expected to perform. As in the past, the USST reiterated that it chooses athletes for the world’s biggest competitions because they are at a high level of performance, not to give them international racing experience.
According to Grover, Freeman’s and Gregg’s past World Championships and World Cup experience will aid in the team’s search for performance. Freeman, a former longtime USST member, will compete in his eighth World Championships. Gregg raced the World Cup circuit from November to December before returning to the U.S. for nationals. Plagued by shingles before her first starts of the season, Gregg said that illness prevented her from demonstrating her true potential.
Of the six domestic skiers, four are making their debut appearance in a World Championships: Blackhorse-von Jess, Brennan, Gelso, and Bratrud. The event will serve as a test to see how they shape up against the World’s best.
Grover wants to see Blackhorse-von Jess, who won both sprints at this year’s U.S. nationals, translate his domestic success into international performance.
“He has been dominant in the sprint field in the U.S. Now he needs to prove to everybody that he belongs at the next level. Qualifying in the individual sprint is somewhere where he should be,” Grover said.
The same goes for Brennan, who Grover said has proven she deserves to be at the international level. Brennan won three of four races at the U.S. nationals (and podiumed in all four) and in Rybinsk, finished 13th in the World Cup 10 k and 20th in the 15 k skiathlon. This will also be her first World Championships.
“Rosie is in great shape. She’s demonstrated all fall that she is the number one athlete in the U.S. to beat,” Grover said. “She had some super good results in Rybinsk that demonstrate that she’s at a pretty high level of fitness. Is her fitness better than the distance women on the national team? They’re probably a little bit ahead, but she’s right there.”
Another first-timer is Gelso, who started international competition this season in Otepää, Estonia, as the Period 1 SuperTour leader. He will look to improve results from his first two weekends of World Cup racing.
There is one exception to the USST rhetoric of performance in the choice of Bratrud. A senior at Northern Michigan University, Bratrud won the 15 k freestyle by more than 50 seconds at U.S. nationals and was third in the 30 k classic in Houghton. According to Grover, the main incentive in choosing Bratrud was to give the young skier more international experience after the U23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and to fill extra starting spots.
“The place for him to really make his mark is the U23 World Championships. That’s the most appropriate level of competition for him now, as well as the younger men and women. World Championships should just be a little bit of a bonus,” Grover explained.
In an email to FasterSkier, Bratrud wrote he was “very honored to be named” and excited to gain experience in both the World Cup and World Championships races.
“This is a gigantic accomplishment for me and not necessarily something that I targeted going into this year. I really think this is a step in the right direction towards accomplishing my goal of making the USST,” he wrote. “I am super stoked to see how the big boys race and hopefully I can contribute to the team in some way! It will be a great step in my ski career.”
What to Expect in Falun
According to Grover, the USST’s “target events” are the same as in past years due to relatively low athlete turnaround. The first of these events is the women’s freestyle team sprint, in which the U.S. is defending world champion. Despite the return of Diggins and Randall, Grover explained that there are several women who are being considered for the two-person team.
“The ideal situation is to have three or four women that could potentially do that race on a given day, depending on what their current level of fitness is and what their health status is,” Grover said. “Obviously Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins are favorites, but there’s a number of other women who have skied well over the season: Sadie Bjornsen, Ida Sargent, Sophie Caldwell, Rosie Brennan, and all those athletes are under consideration for that event.”
Since the the team sprint is the third competition of worlds, a decision will be made regarding the members of the team after athletes demonstrate their fitness in the previous two races in Falun and the Östersund World Cup.
According to Grover the freestyle team sprint is the most promising event for the men. He said that the event is always a “wild card” due to the necessity for luck and favorable conditions. In last year’s Olympics, Hamilton and Bjornsen teamed up to take sixth in the classic team sprint.
Another target event is the women’s 4 x 5 k relay, in which the U.S. placed fourth in 2013. With a strong Norwegian team, Grover said that the U.S. would need to challenge Sweden, Finland, and Germany to fight for a remaining podium spot.
Both the men’s and women’s individual classic sprints will also prove a chance for the U.S. skiers to shine, despite their usual strength in freestyle races. In the first World Cup sprint of the 2015 season, Sargent notched a career-best fifth in the classic sprint. Grover also pointed to the 10/15 k freestyle races as strong events for both Stephen and Hoffman. The two finished fifth and 15th, respectively, in the same races in the 2013 World Championships.
Currently the majority of the team is at an altitude camp in Davos before heading to Östersund. Once there they will be join the remaining World Championship teammates including Randall, Gregg, Hoffman, Freeman, and Bratrud.