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A year ago I wrote an editorial on the subject of qualifier-only sprint races. At that time, I was less-than-thrilled with the concept, and my feelings have not changed.

The first column was written in the wake of the first qualifier-only event in West Yellowstone. This year, the choice was made to double up, and run two such events on the same day – one classic and one skate.

The event was not a case of making a bad thing worse. At least this time, athletes got to race for more than three to four minutes.

But overall this format is contrived, foolish and embarrassing.  Strong words, I know, but when you get into the business of manufacturing race formats and scoring them for FIS points, it is well-deserved.

There are actually some very good reasons why the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) went the route of the double sprint qualifier, and USSA Nordic Director John Farra articulated them well in several conversations and e-mails with FasterSkier.

To start with, all races sanctioned by the International Ski Federation must now be run on homologated courses, with a few exceptions, like city sprints. West Yellowstone does not have the trails to create a course suitable for sprint heat homologation. The wider trails are too flat, and the hilly trails too narrow.

Additionally, the annual Bozeman SuperTour was not on the calendar for this year, and since USSA is cooperating with Canada on scheduling, most top U.S. skiers are heading to the Nor-Ams across the border in December—meaning that the only way to have two scored sprint races in the first SuperTour period was to hold both events in West.

The double sprint qualifier meant there were four scored races, two of which were sprints, in the first period.

But that is where the positives end.

People espouse the benefits of racing more sprint qualifiers—the idea being that if you can’t qualify for heats, nothing else really matters. This is certainly true, but given the nature of sprinting, opportunities to ski in heats are rare. An aspiring young skier could go years of racing qualifiers without skiing in heats.

And anyone who claims that all there is to racing heats is “tactics” is fooling himself. There’s pacing, decisions on when to make moves, and when to hang back. And then there’s the real opportunity for learning: close-quarters skiing.

It takes countless repetitions to feel comfortable racing on a relatively narrow track, at extremely high speeds, with five other fast skiers. We want our athletes feeling confident in these situations, not intimidated, and confidence comes from experience.

A qualifier is the easiest race format to practice: It is called a max-effort interval. There is really no subtlety in skiing by yourself, as hard as you can, for three minutes—and you don’t need a starter 15 seconds ahead of you to hone your pacing.

Heats, on the other hand, are nearly impossible to practice outside of a race environment. Few teams have enough skiers of the same ability level to replicate a competitive sprint heat.

Regardless of skill sets, and the best ways to create fast sprinters, the format is contrived—and it does not exist anywhere else in the world.

A number of coaches and athletes referred to the growing predominance of mini-tours, and the associated prologue event. But a prologue is a completely different race, usually ranging from 2.5k to 3.5k. A three-minute-plus race is not pacing practice for a nine minute race. If we want our athletes to be prepared for international competition, we should be racing the international formats.

Finally, the dual qualifier format is a points grab, and that is embarrassing. Several Canadians who came down for the event mentioned this, in disparaging terms.

The strategy of trying to send more skiers to Europe to improve the points base is an excellent one. The Olympic quota issue of a year ago demonstrated that we need to be very aware of points, and the elite ski community has recognized this. It has taken several significant, proactive steps to improve them.

But those steps should be limited to travel to high-level races, and incentives to improve the fields in the U.S.–not manipulation of the system. It is shameful for the US to create events with the purpose of improving our athletes’ points. It is legal, and it may work, but that doesn’t mean we should do it.

And while it may not be the most crucial concern, the format is likely the least spectator-friendly event in cross-country skiing—especially on the heavily wooded, point-to-point West Yellowstone courses.

The only marginally interesting spot was on the big climbs at the finish, but with no real idea of times, watching the race was like observing an interval workout. The priority in this country should be on athlete development, not fan (or media) friendliness, but it is worth a modicum of consideration.

John Farra of USSA and others are working extremely hard to make sure the US is not in a position where poor points impacts Olympic quotas. This admirable, and I am confident that the US will be in a better position during the run up to the 2014 Games. But with FIS seemingly adding new formats on a monthly basis, the US should focus on races that exist elsewhere, and give our athletes as many chances as possible to race in sprint heats.

15 Responses to “Sprint Qualifiers Not the Answer”

  1. canuck Says:

    I couldn’t agree more.
    how many times do we here North Americans say when they race heats over seas that the euros were to aggressive and they weren’t ready for it..

  2. Jake Says:

    I do agree that the qualifier only race seems like a contrived format in order to give coaches some selection criteria and grab some good points, which is lame. The one advantage that it does offer, in terms of athlete development, is putting the emphasis on being 100% as fast as possible in qualifying. For moderately-to-very good sprinters, when points/$$ are awarded based on the final results of heats, there may be some tendency to back off slightly in the qualifier to save some gas for the heats. Your point that this could be achieved in training is, of course, true, but there is nothing like qualification for the World Championship team etc. to push athletes to improve.

    I remember races 5-10 years ago when Newell would blow away the field in qualifying at Eastern Cups and even US Nationals, only to lose out on the win in the heats. It seems that attitude has served him well recently. I have also seen several US National sprint champions go to Europe and have trouble qualifying. Certainly we’ve got to develop athletes who can qualify and have success in the heats, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

  3. Doug Says:

    Jake, how has Newel’s ability to qualify really fast served him? It has allowed him many opportunities to drop places throughout the rounds. He has been doing much better recently, but he still is well known as a qualifier skier. This without doubt, is NOT due to his lack of effort to get better at skiing rounds, but instead speaks to the difficulty of learning to ski rounds well.

    Qualifying is something that can be fairly easily taught… go as hard as you can with a little focus on pacing and technique. Skiing rounds really well is much more difficult to teach as Koos and Newel have shown. Skiing really well through the rounds not only requires much more fitness, but it requires an instinct that only can come from racing in tight packs many times.

    At the Canadian national championship in 2008 at Callaghan Valley, there were many top American sprinters as well as the Swedish national team, including Emil Joensson. Our sprinters did well in the qualifier and a decent number made it on. But in the rounds, I remember seeing a couple of our sprinters take off like a bat out of hell up the first climb; no regard for pacing, just like in a qualifier. One of them had a 20m lead over Joensson at the top of the first hill. By the end of the race, that lead had turned into being LAST by 100m. While this wasn’t Newel or Koos, It shows how inexperienced Americans are when it comes to the rounds.

    Olympic medals and World Cup points are based off of the final position in the rounds. If all we can do is make the top 10 in the qualifier only to drop to the high 20′s we’re never going to win. And yes, I’m setting the bar high. I believe that Newel has the ability to win, and i think there are other US skiers like Ida or Simi that will be there soon. But until we focus on finding complete sprinters, we’re going to be disappointed.

  4. highstream Says:

    There’s another upshot to learning to ski the sprint rounds. Those are the kinds of tight, hard-fought competitions where a skier earns (or doesn’t earn) respect from the rest of the pack. Ida Sargeant got a good lesson in that recently from Justyne Kowalczyk.

  5. Mark Says:

    I just think that FIS should refuse to accept points from an event like this. No rounds, no points.

  6. xcskier22 Says:

    Nobody mentioned how stinkin bad the pts from that West Yellowstone qualifier were! Go checkout the FIS results. Not good.

    Speaking of Newell, he either has bad luck or he just doesn’t have the IT factor or he lacks in endurance. Too often you see him lose steam in finals and semifinals (when he gets there). He has the tools to win, but time is ticking for him, IMO. There are youngsters coming from every part of the globe. You are starting to see more skiers born in the late 80′s and 90′s coming to the fore. Not saying that Newell is old, he’s 27, but I think most of us were already expecting him to win at least one WC and maybe medal at a major championship. Freeman and Koos are in that boat as well, a decent number of races where they are so so close, but just can’t finish it off. Kikkan is excused, she’s got a win and a silver from the 2009 worlds. Hopefully we see Ida, Simi, Hoffman, etc geting into the mix sooner rather than later.

  7. Mike Says:

    A thought provoking article much appreciated.

    Regarding XCskier22′s comments about US athletes: Freeman, Newell, et al are competing extremely well this year. Yes, I love the upcoming youth, but I still give a tip of the hat to our current athletes. Freeman is on fire and Newell is not far behind. Kikkan rocks as does every other skier throwing down this year. US skiing has come a long way and it is going even farther and faster in the future. If the kids coming up can do it, they will be given the chance.

  8. Ryan Says:

    @xcskier22 pretty much said it all!

    Get rid of this “sprint qualifier only” races and let’s see some real racing in heats.

    For all of the points mentioned above, this NEEDS to be done.

  9. Tyler Kornfield Says:

    I don’t think these sprints were a points giveaway, I think it is a good idea. A double qualifier gives people, who may not have as many chances to gain FIS points in a year, an opportunity to do so. If you compare the FIS race opportunities in Europe to here, you can see that they have many more opportunities to show their talent to FIS. Looking at the Juniors in Europe and their sprint points, you can see that the majority of them have the required 5 races in order for them not to incur a penalty. Almost all of the American Juniors have 2 or 3 sprint races. They have enough races in close proximity that they don’t have to go to a compressed weekend like West Yellowstone. For this reason, I think double sprint qualifiers, if perfected, could be a good idea.

    On the other hand, I know that because I was able to race a lot of sprint heats when I was younger, I grew up with sprint tactics ingrained in my racing. I think it is important for Juniors to race heats as much as possible because that is when tactics are learned.

    For Seniors on the other hand, one weekend in early season is not going to make much of a difference in their development. They have plenty of time and plenty of races to hone their skills, especially before nationals. I think West serves its purpose.

  10. OEB2ODB Says:

    “…and the hilly trails too narrow”

    Who is in charge of the trails? Can we help them raise funds or support to fix this in 2011?

  11. Doug Says:

    The issue with widening the trails is that they are on national forest land, so making any changes to them is a very onerous process, and usually doesn’t get approved.

  12. Marty Hall Says:

    Scheduling just has to be better–why was Boseman lost on the schedule this year? Boseman was the 2nd weekend of racing last year and then onto Canada for two more weekends of racing. All 4 weekends could have a full sprint, so by the time a skier would come out of Nationals in early Jan they would have the necessary 5 sprints to go to Europe with and plenty of heats racing experience. Putting the before Xmas schedule together is critical to be talking and scheduling with the Canadians. A solid schedule with no breaks (in my mind) and weekends that go mini tour, 2 races, mini tour, 2 races and then go home and get ready for racing after Xmas.
    To get the highest possible FIS points both teams (US and Can) need to be in full support of these races with the people left at home—-every year!!!
    West is going to have to do some course redesign, so the sprint course homologates and is a loop course–a point to point course offers too many logistical problems for the organizers and will kill the skiers in getting from finish to start (3 times), staying warm, re-waxing, changing gear etc. I say this with out having seen the current set up and I’m surmising from all the commentary I’m reading.
    I think this years program (reading between the lines) was a band aid program or at best, I hope it was.
    WY needs to approach the Forest Service about up grading its system and developing a stadium that is nearer the necessary terrain. WY is now a an important cog in the racing scene in the US and NA—it’s time to upgrade.

  13. MT skier Says:

    Bozeman wasn’t on the schedule because the club did not want to host a SuperTour this winter.

  14. Andrew Newell’s: Qualifying vs. Heats : Statistical Skier Says:

    [...] Newell posts a blazing fast qualifying time but fails to advance to the finals we’ll see some commentary about how this is a pattern with him.  That happened again this past weekend, as he qualified 3rd, [...]

  15. Tim Kelley Says:

    Good technical view points on this Topher. But I’d like to add the “view from 10,000 feet”. Each generation will morph our sports. That’s good. That’s to be expected. But what amazes me is how much the current generation has morphed xc skiing. Back in the stone age I was a four event skier for a short time (sl, gs, xc and jumping). Never in my wildest imagination would I have guessed that a day’s worth of xc racing would be just a few minutes longer than a slalom and gs race. Think about it: xc racing is becoming the same time length as alpine racing. And the course length is longer in some alpine races than xc races. Bizarre. What does that say about the current generation? Hopefully it says something good … but I won’t be around to listen, I’ll be out on a long xc ski.