The Long Distance Ski Championship

U.S. Ski Team Nomination Breakdown with Head Coach Grover

Author: 
Jason Albert

Jessie Diggins celebrates after anchoring her team to bronze in the women’s classic team sprint on Feb. 26 at 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland. (Photo: Dustin Satloff/dustinsatloff.com)

Shortly after the U.S. Ski Team (USST) formally announced its 2017/2018 cross-country team, FasterSkier reached USST Head Coach Chris Grover on the phone for his comments. Grover is in Bend, Ore., for the team’s traditional on-snow camp.

We have nine athletes who made the objective criteria to make the 2018 U.S. Ski Team,” Grover said. “Eight that are on the A-team, all of whom finished in the top 30 in the world in either sprint or distance. And then Katharine Ogden, who as a medalist at the World Junior Championships, made the objective criteria that way.”

Below are the eight A-team athletes and Ogden, who was renominated to the development “D” team, that met the USST’s objective criteria for team selection.

A Team

Men

  • Simi Hamilton (Stratton Mountain School Elite Team)
  • Andy Newell (SMS Elite)

Women

  • Sadie Bjornsen (Alaska Pacific University)
  • Sophie Caldwell (SMS Elite)
  • Jessie Diggins (SMS Elite)
  • Kikkan Randall (APU)
  • Ida Sargent (Craftsbury Green Racing Project)
  • Liz Stephen (Burke Mountain Academy)

D Team

  • Katharine Ogden (SMS)

The USST’s 2018 cross-country nomination criteria, as it relates and is applied to athletes meeting the objective criteria, remains straightforward.

  • Attain top-50 ranking in the 2017 final World Cup Overall ranking list.
  • Attain top-30 ranking in the 2017 final World Cup Sprint or Distance ranking list.
  • Attain top-20 ranking in the 2017 FIS final sprint or distance points list.
  • Attain a top-3 individual finish at the 2017 Junior World Championships or U-23 World Championships.

Six women finished the season ranked in the top 50 in the World Cup Overall ranking list: Diggins (6th), Bjornsen (16th), Stephen (28th), Caldwell (33rd), Randall (36th), and Sargent (44th). Notably, Diggins, Caldwell, Sargent, Randall, and Bjornsen all ranked in the top 30 for the final World Cup Sprint list, too, and Diggins, Bjornsen and Stephen all finished in the top 30 on the final World Cup Distance list.

Nineteen-year-old Ogden earned an individual bronze in the 10-kilometer skiathlon at the 2017 Junior Worlds.

Hamilton and Newell were the two men that met the objective criteria, with Hamilton ranking 30th on the final World Cup Overall list and ninth in the World Cup Sprint standings and Newell 28th on the final World Cup Sprint list.

The remainder of the USST were discretionary selections. The athletes nominated to the team under the discretionary guidelines are as follows:

B TEAM

Men

  • Erik Bjornsen (APU)
  • Paddy Caldwell (SMS Elite)
  • Scott Patterson (APU)

Women

  • Rosie Brennan (APU)

D TEAM

  • Ian Torchia (Northern Michigan University)
  • Hannah Halvorsen (Sugar Bowl Academy)
  • Julia Kern (SMS Elite)

As Grover explained, the USST’s use of discretion should not perceived as murky. Built into the criteria are aspects of fulfilling “individual markers” or competition results, “attitude and commitment”, illness or injury, and the heavily weighted medal potential.

“We are trying to incorporate athletes who we see are on a path to winning a medal at the highest level, at the Olympic level or at the World Championship level,” Grover said. “Can we make a strong case suggesting that athlete is on the path to winning the medal? It’s really a difficult call. What are the metrics that we’ll be using: FIS points? Should we be using World Cup points? Should we be using placing at World Juniors or U23s, at NCAAs or SuperTours? There are so many different places where athletes are coming from, so many different places where they are competing. Are they all equal? No, of course not.”

What often makes discretionary selections difficult is that USST coaches must make assessments about future potential using real-time accomplishments between skiers skiing on the World Cup and those skiers competing at the World Cup and Continental Cup (i.e. SuperTour).

“You can’t really compare someone who has been competing on the World Cup to someone who has been competing at a Continental Cup level,” Grover explained. “So that’s a real challenge for us. Yes, you can look at FIS points – that’s one thing we have always done, for many years. We’ve taken that athlete and tracked FIS points and age in distance or sprint, whatever that athlete’s strongest discipline is, and we try to see where they are compared to the best skiers in the world, the top 10 athletes in sprint or distance of that sex in the world.”

Grover knows the FIS point system is not necessarily the best indicator of a U.S. skier’s potential on the World Cup.

“One of the big challenges that we had using that methodology is that our FIS points as a nation in the US are artificially low,” Grover said.

Grover believes FIS points are “artificially low” because the U.S. collegiate system has numerous European athletes with low FIS points that compete nearly every weekend on the NCAA circuit or FIS-sanctioned races. As a result, those skiers bring some U.S. skiers’ FIS points down.

“The same thing happens occasionally when the U.S. Ski Team comes back from Europe,” Grover said. “The U.S. women in particular but also some of the men, and they bring good points and then they are not perhaps at their sharpest at SuperTour Finals, and other athletes are able to improve their points by coming close to or beating these athletes. And so that really drives our points down. We’re just not in the European pool enough to have points that are directly compared to European counterparts. The isolation, the way that points come over and they get passed around, and then they stay isolated over here, it prevents us from our points being representative of where people are compared to their European peers.”

Athlete by Athlete

American Erik Bjornsen (33) racing to the 11th-fastest time of day in the men’s 15 k freestyle pursuit at World Cup Finals in Quebec City for his career-best World Cup result. He finished 25th overall. (Photo: Gretchen Powers)

For the B-team, let’s go athlete by athlete, those nominated and those not, to get a better picture of the whys and hows of USST discretionary selection. (Note that all of the D-team members from last year were renominated and will accordingly be invited to team camps.)

“About Erik Bjornsen for example, and why was he nominated to the team,” Grover said. “For a number of reasons, but one thing that we see is that he could contribute to a medal in the team sprint, which is an event where he and Simi were fifth at this World Championships. … [Erik is] a guy who is scoring points in sprints in the World Cup occasionally, some points in distance occasionally. He is a hybrid between aerobic and anaerobic capacities, and that lends itself rather well to team sprint. We feel like he has strong potential there.”

Bjornsen also skied to an impressive 18th (+1:56.7 behind the winner) in the 15 k classic at the 2017 World Championships.

Patterson is the lone new face nominated to the USST.  “[Scott] just keeps coming up in conversation and he’s a really really interesting skier,” Grover said. “He got sick before U.S. nationals and then was sick for part of U.S. nationals and did not ski particularly well, at least by his standards for national championships in Soldier Hollow.”

The Anchorage-based skier did not make 2017 World Championships team. Yet at the start of the season, before his illness, he placed third in the 15 k classic in the West Yellowstone SuperTour and won the 15 k skate in the Sovereign Lake NorAm in mid-December.

“So this past winter, we knew he’s definitely one of those next guys — can we find some opportunities on the World Cup to start him?” Grover said.

Scott Patterson (APU) racing the anchor leg of the mixed relay at U.S. Distance Nationals in late March in Fairbanks, Alaska. (Photo: Lance Parrish, Fairbanks)

Last season, Patterson was offered World Cup starts in PyeongChang, South Korea, and Oslo, Norway. In a thin PyeongChang World Cup field, he placed ninth in both the 30 k skiathlon and team sprint. At Holmenkollen in Oslo, Patterson was the top American man, skiing to a 28th in a loaded field. Patterson also qualified for World Cup Finals in Quebec.

“And the cool thing was everywhere he went, he scored World Cup points as a 25-year-old athlete,” Grover said of Patterson’s potential. “So he’s a young guy who has got a big history of training. He’s training a lot and training really well and he’s also seizing these opportunities and showing in a very difficult men’s field that he’s a young guy who can grab some World Cup points.”

Patterson went on to dominate U.S. SuperTour Finals and Distance Nationals at the end of the season, winning both the 20 k skiathlon and 50 k freestyle mass start in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Addressing the question of why Patterson was given starts in PyeongChang and Oslo despite not leading the SuperTour at the time or qualifying for World Championships, Grover said Patterson had nearly fallen through the cracks. They needed to see he how he might perform on the World Cup.

“Last year it was a challenging year for us as a national-team staff to look back at what was happening domestically and to make much sense of who was skiing well,” Grover said. “For example, in the first four distance races of the year, Yellowstone, Silver Star, and the two at Soldier Hollow, we had four different men win the four distance races. And of the four first sprint races, in those locations, I believe we had four different men win those four sprint races. And different athletes that were winning qualification in some cases versus those that were actually winning the day result for the sprint. So it was a very unclear picture in terms of who was skiing well … especially on the men’s side.”

Of the skiers winning some of those races outright, Grover knew Patterson was promising, yet he wasn’t able to demonstrate it internationally on the World Cup or at World Championships.

“So we wanted to find opportunities for Scott,” Grover said.

Patrick “Paddy” Caldwell, 23, was bumped from the D-team to B-team status.

“Paddy, he’s been on the D-team for a few years; he’s obviously been on the radar,” Grover said.

Caldwell placed ninth in both the 15 k freestyle and 30 k skiathlon at the 2017 U23 World Championships. He also qualified for World Cup Finals in Quebec, where he skied the 25th-best time of day in the 15 k freestyle pursuit.

“Just given where he is in terms of his ability and his age, we felt like it was the right move for him to move from the D-team to the B-team,” Grover said.

Longtime USST member Noah Hoffman was not renominated to the team, but he has been offered World Cup Period 1 starts.

“I think Noah would be the first to admit that last season was pretty disappointing, by his standards,” Grover said. “He and I were able to talk about expectations going into the season and Noah had struggled for a few years on the World Cup previous to this past season. …  And so we just talked that we need to make progress towards an eventual medal in the sport. So this year needs to be a step forward and unfortunately it wasn’t. It wasn’t the results Noah wanted to see and unfortunately it wasn’t the result that we were hoping to see from Noah.”

Hoffman, 27, finished the season ranked 51st on the World Cup Overall list, a single point from the top 50 needed to meet the team’s objective criteria.

“We hope that Noah gets back in there and starts skiing closer to his potential and starts making progress towards that medal,” Grover added. “Absolutely, the door for sure is never closed for Noah or any athlete.”

On the women’s side, Rosie Brennan, 28, was renominated to the B-team. This past season on the World Cup, Brennan earned eight top 30s (the benchmark for scoring World Cup points). Her best finish, beyond her 23rd-best time of day in the Tour de Ski’s final climb, was a 22nd in La Clusaz, France, in the 10 k freestyle mass start.

Rosie Brennan (43) racing to a season-best World Cup result of 22nd in the 10 k freestyle mass start on Dec. 17 in La Clusaz, France. (Photo: Toko/NordicFocus)

“Rosie is another interesting case,” Grover said. “It’s very hard to differentiate right now between Rosie Brennan, the skiing that she is doing, versus Caitlin Patterson, for example, or Chelsea Holmes. Yes, Rosie has been a little bit stronger in some races, but she has also had some more opportunity. However, we are really looking towards Rosie as a potential leg in a 4 x 5 kilometer women’s relay at a World Championship event. She has contributed a 5 k classic leg to a podium in Lillehammer, and she also skied a terrific leg in Ulricehamn — I want to say 12 seconds from the fastest on that particular leg in that relay this year. So she’s someone we are really looking towards for a potential relay leg. So there are athletes like that where it’s hard to differentiate sometimes between some of the domestic athletes who are really starting to blossom, who we are starting to take a lot of notice of them, but Rosie is somebody who … is in shape and ready to go when we get to Korea this winter.”

On the non-nomination side of the equation are Holmes and Patterson.

“Chelsea, she is someone who we have discussed a ton this spring,” Grover said. “And this is a conversation I’ve had with Chelsea as well. Is she a 5 k skier right now? Maybe, maybe not. She has certainly shown her ability in longer events. Her one standout international result from this season is a longer event in skating.”

The 30-year-old Homes placed 13th in the marquee 30 k freestyle mass start at 2017 World Championships.

“Does that, at this particular moment, suggest that she might be able to provide a 5 k classic leg in the relay? Not at this particular moment,” he said. “We have a lot of skaters on the women’s side right now. Our skating ability is quite high. So at this moment it doesn’t pencil out, but does that prevent her from being considered in the future for anything? Absolutely not.”

Scott Patterson’s older sister Caitlin, 27, remains on the USST radar as well.

“Caitlin is somebody else that we’ve discussed quite a bit,” Grover said. “She’s made a big step forward in the last year she started to score World Cup points and really flirting with that edge of the top thirty on a regular basis. So we absolutely have our eye on her. … Of course Chelsea is Continental Cup leader for Period 1, so she will be skiing World Cup Period 1. And then we’ll assess where she is at that point. Anything can happen at that point. She might be someone that’s skiing really well and we want to keep on the World Cup.”

— Chelsea Little and Gabby Naranja contributed

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