Four years ago the US brought 17 athletes to the Olympics. Realistically only one of those skiers, Kris Freeman, had any shot at a medal. And that was a long sot – Kris only started six World Cup races that year and his top finish was 18th.
This year, the US will have three cross-country Olympians with World Cup podiums, and none of them is Freeman, who once again, in my opinion, has the best chance for a medal.
Will the US win that elusive cross-country medal, and give Bill Koch some company? Probably not – the odds are certainly against it. It is very very hard to win an Olympic medal – as it should be. And perhaps especially so in cross-country skiing where the field is extremely deep, and there are so many variables in play.
But the good news is that the US has a shot at a medal. And not too shabby a one. With Freeman, Andy Newell, Torin Koos, and Kikkan Randall, there will be four American skiers, who, on the right day, can ski as fast as anyone in the world.
Will it be disappointing if there is no medal? Perhaps for some. Will the Olympics be a failure? I would say no.
While there needs to be focus and goals in order to achieve, great expectations can lead to great disappointment. Regardless of what happens over the next two weeks, it is worth remembering that fours years ago a US ski fan was hard pressed to find much to cheer about. Now we talk of medals, and what it means if we don’t win any. Now we have four world class athletes competing, and several others who have proven capable of competing for top-30 results. In fact, every member of the US team has scored World Cup points.
“2006 was about trying to improve, and get better,” USST Head Coach Pete Vordenberg told me. “And that was the right thing to do for that time.”
“But this year we have been more focused on this one event then ever before.”
There is still plenty of work to do. We definitely haven’t made it – we aren’t even close. But regardless of who does what at US Nationals or North American World Cups, we need to remember how much better things are right now. As a country, the level of skiing is higher. The top skiers, are faster than any group of skiers since Koch’s era, and I would argue, that as a team, are as good as any in the history of US skiing. And while we might not have as many up-and-coming talents as we would like, there is a good group of young skiers who show great potential. And the second tier, below the World Cup team, is closing the gap. And while many of the skiers in this group will never compete for a medal or even race a World Cup outside of Canada, they have worked to raise the level of skiing and close the gap with the best.
I hope Kris wins a medal. Or Andy. Or Kikkan or Torin. I hope they all race well and come away with top results. I also hope that the rest of the team races fast and shows the ski world, that the US should not be counted out.
But regardless of what actually happens, I am excited that we are entering the Olympics with fast skiers to root for, and the excitement of knowing, that in every race, someone will have a chance to be near, if not at the top of the results. That is a far cry from 2006.