Competitive Edge

By J.D. Downing

Post-Olympic years are always funny things on the international cross country ski scene. Typically there are always a number of retirements of notable big name athletes after any given Winter Olympics. The post-Olympic year also features a Nordic World Championships as a major event lure, whereas the second year after an Olympics (aka the upcoming ‘07-‘08 season) inexplicably is devoid of any major championship event at all.

The end result is that the year immediately following a given Olympics tends to keep at least a few big names around, but maybe not at the top of their game. This situation, combined with retirements of the spring before, opens a big door for new or improved athletes to make a splash.

True to form, the ‘06-‘07 international cross country ski season had the usual cocktail with the added twist of a Nordic Worlds held away from Europe -- Sapporo, Japan -- for the first time since 1995.

For North America, the women’s scene was in transition as Canada’s all-everything duo of Beckie Scott and Sara Renner dropped out of the picture.

On the women’s side, things started out normally enough with Norway’s defending World Cup overall champion Marit Bjoergen winning the opening Dusseldorf, Germany, individual sprint as well as tag-teaming for the team sprint win. But after the man-made October fiesta on the Rhine, Bjoergen didn’t dominate anything else the rest of the season. Two more World Cup wins (one in December, the other on the closing March weekend) were a far cry from “normal” for a skier we’ve gotten used to seeing at or near the top of the podium nearly every weekend.

The low point for the “female terminator” had to be the Sapporo Worlds where Bjoergen barely had two top-ten finishes, with a best finish of ninth in the 30km classic. What would have been a career fortnight for most humans had the cross country ski world buzzing that Marit the Magnificent had been toasted by overly ambitious training the past few years.

On the flip side of Bjoergen’s jumbled season, ‘06-‘07 was all about eventual women’s World Cup winner Virpi Kuitunen of Finland. Snared in the 2001 Lahti doping bust along with half the Finnish men’s team, Kuitunen has quietly worked her way back to the top of the sport after serving the mandatory two-year suspension. With top officials (in and out of Finland) swearing as to her “clean” training/racing record since 2001, the ‘06-‘07 season was a form of redemption for the once-tainted athlete.

And boy was it ever redemption.

Nine World Cup race wins. The first women’s Tour de Ski overall crown. Four Nordic Worlds medals -- three gold. Plus the overall women’s World Cup overall title. ‘Nuf said.

For North America, the women’s scene was in transition as Canada’s all-everything duo of Beckie Scott and Sara Renner dropped out of the picture -- Renner to have a child (although expectations are she’ll be back in time for Vancouver 2010) and Scott retiring. Canada’s 2006 Olympic gold medalist, Chandra Crawford, was the only major face north of the border heading back to the international grind -- and Crawford found the waters mighty rough in ’06-‘07. A lone third place World Cup in December was Crawford’s only trip up the international podium.

For the U.S., the ‘06-‘07 season had -- for a refreshing change -- some truly bright spots on the women’s ladder.

Kikkan Randall posted the first U.S. women’s podium since the late ‘70s, coming in third at the Rybinsk, Russia, sprint. With two other seventh place World Cup sprint finishes on the heels of a solid 2006 Olympic season, Randall appears to have come into her own as a true contender in World Cup sprinting. Whitman College grad Laura Valaas also turned some heads in ’06-’07. Spending a year skiing for the new Central XC program, Valaas ruled domestic sprinting early in the year and then got a chance at the international level with starts at the Nordic Worlds and World Cup before snagging a very notable sprint silver at the U23 World Championships in Tarvisio, Italy.

On the men’s side, parity again ruled as Germany’s Tobias Angerer easily claimed his second consecutive World Cup overall crown, plus the men’s Tour de Ski. Yet Angerer had “only” three World Cup race wins over the five-month season. The men’s ladder features an increasing number of sprint, mass start, and technique specialists. Angerer had the ability to post big results in nearly every type of race, making him a dominant skier in the vein of past superstars like Svan, Daehlie, Smirnov and Alsgaard.

Although perhaps lacking a signature “big name” to anchor the group, the Norwegian men still made enough noise in ‘06-‘07 to seriously challenge the German men’s recent run as the world’s best national team. Norwegian men claimed gold in four of the six Nordic World races and placed a staggering seven men in the top 11 on the final overall World Cup standings.

For North American men, the news was the progressive march of several top athletes towards being consistent World Cup players.

U.S. sprinters Andrew Newell and Torin Koos continued to knock heads with the international speed merchants, with Newell ending up sixth on the overall World Cup sprint standings. After several years toiling off the podium, Koos snagged third in the Estonian WC sprint stop (with Newell fourth) for his first trip to the medal stand. Now very much the U.S. international veteran, Kris Freeman returned to top form in ‘06-‘07 after battling roller coaster health since 2004.

Although missing out on the podium, Freeman posted a top-ten and had six top-20 finishes between Cup and Nordic Worlds events. On New Year’s Eve, Canada’s Devon Kershaw snagged second in the Munich, Germany, sprint leg of the Tour de Ski, but otherwise had a rocky year.

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