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USST

A+ for Grover

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Several days ago, new US Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover outlined a vision for the 2011 US Ski Team.  This seems like a reasonable and expected undertaking for a head coach.  But in many ways Grover’s well-thought-out and thorough description of why the US Ski Team is doing what they are doing, and how it fits into the bigger picture is a new level of openness and communication with the ski community.

Over the last years, Ski Team coaches and staff have been extremely forthcoming and accessible to FasterSkier.  This has made our job easier and is greatly appreciated.  Additionally, coaches, especially former head coach Pete Vordenberg, have encouraged members of the community to contact them directly with questions, concerns, and ideas.  This is also a good thing, and impressive.

However, there has been little effort to so clearly explain what the goals and methods of the Team in a public forum.  People get very worked up about the issues surrounding the Team – who gets named, how those decisions are made, etc.  Much of the anger comes from simple misunderstandings.  The clarity of Grover’s piece immediately addressed many of the of the most controversial issues, and while not everyone will agree with what the US Ski Team is doing, at least they now have a good understanding of the how and why, and can respect the amount of thought that goes into the decisions.

Hopefully this is just the beginning of a new era of communication.  I am not familiar with the job description for the head coach, but part of it should be communicating with the public.  This might be challenging for already overworked coaches, but the benefit is enormous, and it goes a long way toward bringing the community together, and reminding everyone that we are all on the same side – we all want the sport of cross-country skiing to flourish in this country and to develop fast skiers who can compete at the highest level.

Just based on the shift in the comments on FasterSkier, early indications are that the ski community appreciates being kept in the loop.  Grover should be commended for his efforts.

The Koos Question – UPDATED

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

This piece originally stated that Koos would not be able to make the World Championship Team if he raced Continental Cups in Europe.  This is not the case as USSA has scored European Continental Cup races as part of the US National Ranking List.  As European races often have better points, racing there could actually be an advantage in making the team.  I apologize for the error.

The decision not re-nominate Torin Koos to the US Ski Team is easily the biggest and most controversial change to the team in recent years.  Koos is a nine-year veteran of the US Ski Team, and was the longest tenured member.  But none of that should matter.  Loyalty is not, and cannot be, part of the decision making process.

However, there is a strong argument, based on merit alone, that Koos should remain on the team.  In the case of the other skiers not brought back, and those who may have had a shot, things were pretty clear-cut.

Garrott Kuzzy never showed significant improvement internationally after his 9th in Canmore in 2008.  Lindsay Williams has been beset by significant injuries and lost the better part of two years, and it is unclear whether she can regain her top form.  Tazlina Mannix has yet to breakthrough outside the US.

Morgan Smyth was 30th in the sprint at the Whistler World Cup in 2009, but lost nearly all of 2010 due to injuries and illness.  A case could be made that she should be given a chance to show she is over her injuries, but with an even greater focus on the club system and a less-forgiving policy, the USST is not being as generous in granting an extra season due to physical issues.

That leaves Koos, who unlike the others, is very much a world class skier, albeit an inconsistent one, and one who is beginning to get on in years a bit.

Koos also battled significant illness throughout the season, but still managed to be in form to qualify second in the Canmore World Cup sprint.  The only man to best him?  Emil Joensson (SWE), the overall Sprint Cup winner.

And in 2009, while also inconsistent, Koos also had some excellent results, and showed great improvement in his freestyle sprinting, demonstrating that he is still getting better.

But consistency is a big issue, whether the cause is health related or not.  Koos has yet to prove he can be in the heats race after race.

Here are Torin’s top-30 results in World Cup sprints in each of the last seven seasons.  The sprint format has changed over the years, and previously, as few as 16 skiers qualified for the heats, so some of the earlier top-30 results did not result in heat appearances.

2004 2 of 5

2005 0 of 3

2006 3 of 5

2007 7 of 8

2008 5 of 9

2009 7 of 10

2010 1 of 5

2007 was obviously Koos’ best season, especially since that included the podium.  In 2009 his best result was an 8th.  One other knock against him has been that  in his career, he has made only one appearance in a World Cup sprint final – when he placed 3rd.

And in eight World Championship and Olympic starts, he has placed in the top-30 just twice, and qualified for the heats a single time.  Given that the USST’s primary goal is to win medals, this does not favor Koos.

As he approaches 30, the big question is, can he improve?  And while many skiers keep getting better into their 30’s, how likely is it for athletes who have not consistently competed in the top-10?  And how does age impact sprinting compared to distance?

The later two questions could be answered with some statistical analysis.  Obviously the US Ski Team felt that Koos would not be likely to take a step up.

At the end of the day, he missed the objective criteria, albeit by a small margin.  It appears that the US Ski Team would rather put resources into younger athletes.

Personally, while there are many reasonable arguments for Torin not to be on the team, purely based on results, I feel it is a mistake.  Even in a year derailed by illness, he still showed the speed to qualify second on a very challenging Canmore course.

And while the ultimate goal of the USST is to win medals, and it appears that time is beginning to run out for Torin, having skiers who can place in the top-15 is both good for the Team and good for the sport in general.

We need fast athletes on the World Cup for US ski fans to follow and root for.  It builds excitement and interest.  One of the biggest issues for the US is depth – if one skier has an off day, there is no one to step up.  That has been the case in women’s sprint and distance, and men’s distance.  But in the men’s sprint there have been two shots – Newell and Koos.

Even including last year’s tough run, Koos has placed in the top-30 56% of his starts.  I’m sure he wants better, but that is still quite a number of chances to keep racing in the heats.

We may not have the luxury to spend money on an athlete that the USST feels is not improving at the rate they would like and getting the results everyone hopes for.  But we also don’t have the luxury of turning away a legitimate World Cup athlete – right now we are down to three.  USSA does not market cross-country skiing, and from a business perspective that makes sense.  I’m sure the return on marketing dollars spent on alpine and snowboarding is much much higher.

But a lack of marketing hurts the sport, and the best thing we have going is fast skiers racing internationally.  It seems like they are taking the long-term approach in not nominating Koos, but I think there are actual potential long-term consequences to not having the strongest World Cup Team we can.

Koos is not stuck in limbo as Nat Herz discussed in his recent article.  Since European Continental Cup races are scored on the USSA National Ranking List, he can make the World Championship team racing over there.    The USST won’t commit to giving him World Cup starts, even if he pays his own way, so that is not currently an option, making it harder for Koos to make it back on the Team.

The only way to objectively make the USST is to be ranked in the top-30 on the FIS sprint points list, short of winning an Olympic or World Championship medal.

With several strong this past winter (notably Canmore), Koos does have a shot at making the top-30, especially if he skis at World Champs.

It would be tough to get points low enough solely skiing Continental Cup races as there is a penalty in each race – hard but not impossible.

I understand that the US Ski Team wants to maintain control over the selection process – and many countries have no objective criteria – National Teams and Championship squads are all discretionary.

But Europe is different.  There are many very high level races in close proximity – if you are Swedish or Norwegian, a regional race could be almost as strong as a World Cup field.  But someone like Koos is not likely to get faster winning SuperTours.

Koos’ case may seem unique – a skier who is still in his prime, and capable of racing on the World Cup being left off the Team.  But hopefully, as we improve as a country, this issue could come up again.  Why not start working on a better way to handle the situation right now?

There has been some discussion about personal issues impacting the decision to leave Koos off the Team.  Both parties have been circumspect in discussing the issue and respectful of the other side.  It is dangerous to conjecture about such things, and regardless of any issues, there should be a way for athletes who meet the World Cup standard to race on the World Cup if they can provide the funds, and the start spots exist.

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.

US Olympic Team Selection – Recap

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

The US Olympic Cross-Country Ski Team was named yesterday, and as expected, consisted of the top four men and women on the USSA points list.

The process played out with a minimum of drama and controversy.  The process for qualifying for the team was laid out well over a year ago and the criteria clearly published.

There was nothing ambiguous about the process.  This is in strong contrast to some other countries where selection seems to be based entirely on coaches discretion.  Norway is one such country, Russia another.

Germany, on the other hand, has a very clear standard – and a darn tough one.  To make the Olympic team, a skier must have either a single top-8 World Cup result, or two top-15 finishes.  Either way, this is a high standard.  In fact, Germany won’t come anywhere near their Olympic quota of 18.  In fact, at this point, the team can be at most 13 strong.  It is not implausible, that after reallocation, The US and Germany could have very similar sized teams.

The US has both a clear system and attainable standards.  It seems many people have been confused by the coaches discretion clause in the qualification criteria.  I have received numerous emails and read many comments stating that skier A or skier B should have been named to the team using the discretionary clause.

This clause is in there for extraordinary circumstances, where an athlete who would have a significant impact on the team would not qualify based on the other criteria.

It is NOT there to put an athlete racing marginally better on the team.  The US Ski Team is interested in winning medals, and the system has resulted in all athletes with medal potential being on the team.

Every system of qualification will have issues.  There is no way to be 100% fair, and at some point there will be a situation where a less-deserving athlete qualifies.

But that is not the case this year.  The team that deserves to go to Vancouver is going.  Because ultimately it is not about who works the hardest or makes the most sacrifices.  It is about who skis the fastest during the qualification period – as measured by FIS points.  That is what the qualification critera state. Should this criteria be changed?  That is a discussion for another time, and one worth having, as it is always worthwhile to review and rethink.

We all have our personal favorites we were  rooting for, but emotions aside, I don’t believe anyone can make the argument that our medal chances are compromised by any one individual not making the team.

Hopefully the US will gain additional spots in reallocation, and several more athletes will get the chance of a lifetime – to compete in the Olympics.

Congratulations to everyone who made the team.  And congratulations to everyone who gave it their all, but came up short.

The Gold Standard?

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

According to USSA Nordic Director, John Farra, the job of the US Ski Team is to win Olympic Medals.  Not World Championship Medals, not World Cup Titles, Olympic Medals.  This was the reason that no US Women’s Jumping Team was named for next year – Women’s Jumping is not currently on the 2010 Olympic program, and therefore, there are no medals to be won in the sport.

Is this a good thing, to specifically target on event that only happens every four years?  And in cross-country, and event that may not play to the strengths of our top athletes?  It is no harder to win an Olympic Medal than a World Championship medal.  In the 15km men’s classic race in the 2006 Olympics, 57 skiers posted under 100 FIS points.  In the 2008 World Championships, the number was 59.  Granted, the World Championships happen every two years, meaning that fewer Olympic medals are available, and therefore making them more valuable.  But an Olympic Medal does not demonstrate greater skill or mastery of the sport.

And winning an overall World Cup title is arguably significantly more difficult than a top-three finish in any single event.  Such a feat requires an amazing ability to perform at the top level for months, avoiding significant injury or illness.

But in the US the Olympics are  the Gold Standard.  The general public couldn’t care less about World Championships and World Cups.  Kikkan Randall’s World Championship silver was an historic moment in US skiing, and while it got some play in the national media, imagine the response had it been in the Olympics.  A Bob Costas Olympic Special Moment feature would just be the start.  And thus the sponsors, who are interested in promoting their products, are going to want to see results that the widest audience notices.

As a passionate ski fan, I was no less excited about Kikkan’s silver than if it had occurred in 2010 in Vancouver.  But I am in a tiny minority, and USSA needs to attract sponsor dollars and membership contributions.  The short of it is they can sell Olympic medals.  This is a reality of sport.  Financial backing is needed and therefore sponsors and the public will dictate the definition of success.  This is not unique to skiing.  When is the last time that you checked in on the bobsled World Cup or World Championship results?

But the Olympics as the Gold Standard is limiting – both to the US Ski Team as a whole and to individual athletes.  Kikkan will be hard-pressed to repeat World Championship performance in Vancouver given the strength of her skate sprinting (the Vancouver sprint is classic), and the US Ski Team is putting all of its eggs in one basket by focussing on a single two week period of racing.  Ultimately, however, as in so many things, money is the final word, and as long as the Olympics bring in the bucks, the Games will be the focus.

The Drama that is Skiing

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Recently the National Governing Body for cross-country skiing in Canada, Cross-Country Canada (CCC) came to a compromise agreement with young star Alex Harvey to ensure Harvey’s inclusion on the World Cup Team, and the associated support, for the summer.  CCC had threatened to leave Harvey off the team as Harvey planned to miss two of the four World Cup training camps – the first this month in order to minimize travel, and the second in the fall when Harvey planned to head to Austria for on-snow training.   The compromise was that Harvey would attend the May camp in Western Canada, but would go to Austria as he has in past years.  Director of High Performance at CCC Tom Holland made it clear that this was an exception made for Alex, but that the precedent could result in similar requests (or demands) from other athletes.

At a news conference, Alex repeated several times that his desire had been for the issue to be handled internally.   But the media got wind of it, setting off a round of sniping in the press, and a drama that concluded with last week’s compromise.  This was the second upheaval in the Canadian program in the last few weeks.  In addition to the Harvey incident, head World Cup coach Arild Monsen, who was hired a year ago as part of the run-up to the Olympics, was fired and replaced with another Norwegian, Inge Bråten.

The purpose here is not to pick on Canada, but to point out that drama follows Cross-Country Skiing, just like any other professional sport.  In North America we are somewhat isolated from the soap operas of some of the European teams.  The latest controversy involved a group of young Norwegian women on the National Team supposedly expressing displeasure with Head Coach Egil Kristiansen, and calling for his replacement with current Swiss coach Frederik Aukland.  And last year a number of top Swedish skiers quit the National Team and formed their own group.  It took the hiring of Gunde Svan to bring them back in to the fold.

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Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

A short preamble – this blog can be thought of as an editorial column for FasterSkier.  I will post observations and opinions, as well as information that may not warrant, or be ready for, a full article on the main site.  Feel free to make your opinions known in the comment section, or email me at topher@fasterskier.com

Zach Caldwell’s recent article titled “The US Doper Problem” generated some impassioned responses.  Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the comments on the piece served to prove Zach’s assertion that the US has an unhealthy infatuation with doping, and completely ignored his presentation of a critical component to international success – the ability to replicate top performances consistently.  We can argue endlessly about who is doping, who is clean, the efficacy of testing, etc.  But none of that will get us closer to more medals.

We need to admit that doping is an issue.  We need to support testing, and programs to reduce that amount of cheating.  And then we need to go out and work as if the field is clean.  There is no question that doping has a major impact on the sport – and on US athletes.  If Veerpalu is indeed a cheater, he stole a medal from Kris Freeman.  The difference for Kris personally, and for US skiing,  between 4th and 3rd is enormous.  In sprinting, one cheater can have an exponentially large impact on the results.  In Whistler Kikkan Randall just missed advancing out of her quarterfinal in the classic sprint.  One of the two women ahead of her?  Natalia Matveeva (RUS), who tested positive for EPO at those World Cups.  If Matveeva is disqualified, Kikkan will move up a place, but who knows what would have happened had she qualified for the next round.

But none of this gets us anywhere.  Analyzing and complaining does not change the reality.  The US Ski Team appears to recognize this.  They put up with all the out-of-competition testing and I have never heard a USST athlete or coach make excuses based on doping.  All they can do is prepare as best as possible, and hope that is enough to beat clean and dirty athletes alike.

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