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Archive for March, 2010

A Job Well Done

Monday, March 29th, 2010

The elite racing season came to an end on Sunday with the conclusion of the SuperTour Finals in northern Maine.  The event consisted of three races in three days, following the “mini-tour” format with intermediate bonus sprints, cash prizes, and an overall winner for the series.

In many ways the event was groundbreaking.  While it wasn’t the first multi-day race series to be held in the US, it was the first to be so closely modeled on the new international format.

As Andy Newell pointed out on several occasions, the mini-tour format is becoming more common in Europe.  In addition to the Tour de Ski, there is the World Cup Finals, and FIS is exploring the possibility of another such event to be held at the beginning of the season.

The format is exciting, creating drama, and adding significance to each race.  It also allows for true pursuit-style racing, one of the best race formats in the sport.  Until the advent of the Tour de Ski, the authentic pursuit was no longer contested, but now the end of any Tour concludes this way.

It is critical that US racers get comfortable with the rigors of racing on at least three consecutive days, and can handle the often unique start formats.  The Maine Winter Sports Center, with organizers Will Sweetser and Eileen Carey leading the way, should be congratulated on their efforts to bring this type of racing to North America.

This was a logistically difficult event to pull off, and much more work than a standard race weekend would entail.  The races went off smoothly, the skiing was excellent, and the athletes fired up for the format.

If US skiing is going to continue improving on the international stage, pushing the limits domestically is obviously key.  And staying on the cutting edge of event formats is an important component.   Hopefully this is the start of a yearly conclusion to the season, and an inspiration to event organizers to challenge themselves and athletes.

Thanks to all who put together a great weekend of racing and their commitment to improving cross-country skiing in North America.

The Best

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

We live in a time when athletic greatness has become routine.  I personally grew up with professional stars like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Pete Sampras, Tiger Woods, Roger Clemens, and a young Barry Bonds.   More recently there has been Michael Phelps, and a host of others.  Performance enhancing drug and sex scandals aside, at the time it was amazing to be able to watch a number of professional athletes who were either “the greatest ever,” or “one of the all-time greats.”

I was thinking about this in the wake of Andy Newell’s and Kikkan Randall’s podium finishes last week.  No, I am not claiming that either of these skiers is “the greatest ever.”  The athletes mentioned above were (or in the case of Phelps, are) considered some of the absolute best two have ever competed in their respective sports, world-wide.

But Andy, Kikkan and Kris Freeman definitely fit into the category of “one of the greatest-Americans of all-time.”

This is pretty significant, and worth recognizing.  It is easy to get caught up in the perceived disappointment of the Olympics and the fact that US skiing is still not where we would all like it to be.

But it says very good things about the state of our sport, and even more so, the hard work of the athletes and their coaches, from the junior level through the present, that arguably three of the four greatest US skiers of all-time are competing right now.

I don’t know much about the pre-skating history of US international skiing, and statistics are not readily available, so my casual analysis is based on the “modern” era of the sport.  The World Cup was not formalized until 1982.

Needless to say, we all know the numbers of medal won, and there were none prior to Mr. Koch’s in 1976.

Before looking at a few of the details, I would like to cut off the inevitable rants about sprinting.  Regardless of what you may personally believe about sprints, and how it has impacted the sport, it is a medal event at the Olympics and World Championships, and a large percentage of World Cup races are sprints.  A top-10 is a top-10 and a medal is a medal.

Kikkan Randall

Kikkan Randall is an easy place to start.  She is unquestionably the greatest female cross-country skier ever in the United States, and I believe, at this point, second only to Bill Koch on the all-time list.

There have been three World Cup podium finishes by the US women in the history of the sport.  Kikkan has them all.   And I shouldn’t have to mention the magnitude of her silver medal at the World Championships last year – the only medal won at a major championship event by a US skier not named Bill Koch.

Her performance at the 2010 Olympics was easily the best-ever by a US woman.  Her 8th place in the classic sprint bested the previous top individual mark of 9th – that she set in 2006.  She started four events, and was outstanding in each, teaming with Caitlin Compton to place 6th in the team sprint, 24th in the 30k, and an excellent lead leg of the 4x5km relay.

And the best thing about Kikkan is that she is clearly not done yet.  Her distance skiing has been steadily improving, and her efforts to bring her classic sprinting on par with her skate sprinting, while not complete, have yielded world-class results.

She has stated that it is her goal to become an all-round skier, not a sprint specialist, and she is well on her way to doing that.

Andy Newell

Andy’s season should not be defined by his crash in the sprint qualifier at the Olympics.  Regardless of the magnitude of that one race, it was still just that – one race.

Andy enters the final sprint of the season today with a legitimate shot to finish in the top-3 in the overall Sprint Cup.  No American has finished in the top-3 overall anything since Koch’s amazing run in the early 80’s.

Additionally, no US skier has consistently been competitive in so many races over the course of a full season since Koch.  Newell had more top-10 finishes this year (5) than any other post-1980 skier had in their career with the exception of Koch, Randall and Freeman.

His three World Cup podiums?  Second only to Koch (and tied with Randall).

He has also made great strides in his distance skiing, and while it is unlikely that he will ever match his sprint results in the longer races, skiing within the top-30 is well within reach.

Kris Freeman

Freeman has never stood on the World Cup podium, but he is unquestionably the greatest US distance skier this side of Bill Koch.

He has twice finished 4th in the World Championships, each time less than 2.1 seconds from a medal.  He has faced the challenge of being an elite athlete with Type 1 diabetes, and has continued to race at the highest level.

His eight career top-10 World Cup finishes trail only Koch, Newell and Randall, and he is the only US skier with more than 4 top-10’s in World Cup distance races with the exception of Koch.

And like Kikkan and Andy, Kris still has unfinished business. There are no sure things, but he will be looking for that elusive championship medal, and I am willing to be he will get it.

Whatever happens for all three of these athletes over the next years, each has cemented his or her place in history.  We may want more, but it is also important to recognize what we have – three of the four best US skiers of all time competing every weekend, and raising the bar of what we expect from the best America has to offer in this sport.

Olympics: One Site?

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by former Olympic rower Charles Banks-Altekruse raises some interesting questions.  Banks Altekruse suggests that there be a single site for the Olympics.  He cites cost overruns and political issues as primary reasons.

From personal experience, it has been amazing to see the amount of resources that a poured into a single two-week period.  And the data available do not show much hope of lasting positive impact of the Games on the host city – though every two years, the rhetoric of lasting economic growth is loudly bandied about.

Having now attended three Olympics, I find it hard to see the justification for the excess of the infrastructure needed to host the Games – much of which is then only operated with the help of continuing government subsidies.

Banks-Altekruse mentions a proposal that called for five permanent Olympic sites.  The Games would rotate between them.  I could see five for both the summer and winter Olympics.

Read the article here.