Nordic Racing: North American Status Report
By J.D. Downing
While the international race scene enters its 2003-04 season with a fanfare of up and coming racers, the North American race picture continues to blaze with stars. Major North American race events will highlight domestic talents in this off-Olympics, off World Championship year.
After all the 2002 Olympics hype and energy, the home 2002/03 campaign felt understandably a little anticlimactic. Continuing an unfortunate tradition, nary a single Nordic World Cup event took place in North America, and none are scheduled through 2006. The U.S.-Canadian Continental Cup and American Ski Marathon Series become the big news west of the Atlantic.
Continuing to be the shining individual star of the continent, Canadian Beckie Scott made a top-shelf name for herself on the World Cup circuit and continues to be the class of the North American scene as well. Because Scott is so dominant, news headlines now announce when she doesn't win a North American race. A challenge for Scott, Canadian teammate Sara Renner has rapidly emerged as a legitimate threat on the World Cup in her own right.
After the retirement of four-time Olympian Nina Kemppel, the mantle of top U.S. female transferred to Utah native Wendy Kay Wagner. She topped the U.S. results sheets, adding two national classic titles to her collection at the Nationals. With the boys, the 2002/03 season domestically became a story of past, present and future all merging into one winter. For much of the past Olympic cycle, Oregon's Justin Wadsworth and Colorado's Carl Swenson reigned as top dogs. They continued their assault on the results both at home and in Europe, but were convincingly joined by youngster Kris Freeman from Vermont. After he joined Swenson in the exclusive 2003 World Championship top five circle, the pair divided up the 2003 U.S. Nationals titles, two to Freeman and three to Swenson.
The 26th anniversary of the American Ski Marathon Series saw one of the closest overall competitions in history as Rossignol's Marc Gilbertson broke the Subaru Factory Team's stranglehold on the men's Champions Cup. On the women's side, 2002 Olympian and NCAA Champion Katerina Hanosova of the Subaru Factory Team collected her first "pro" title. Heading into 2003/04, the domestic ladder is likely to stay more or less the same with only a few big names swapping places.
For the men, Wadsworth will likely hop in a few marathons but otherwise will retire from the international circuit. In the wings last year, two female athletes "quietly" emerged from outside the national team program. Completing her U.S. citizenship, Katja Ivanova of the Vermont National Guard could quickly become a force both domestically and overseas. Last year, she pulled in three titles at the 2003 U.S. Nationals. As a junior in the late nineties, Colorado's Rebecca Dussault was saddled with “the next big thing” label. Prior to Salt Lake City's Olympics, she completely left the ski scene. Yet over the latter half of last season, she staged an impressive comeback that could lead to even bigger things this winter. Outside the blue chip circuit, the age-group championship events for 2002/03 concentrated in Alaska with the Subaru National Masters in Anchorage and Junior Olympics in Fairbanks. Despite virtually no natural snow in Anchorage, Alaskans pulled off the 300+ skier, four-race Masters Nationals, proving what a hardy bunch they are. With rave reviews, Fairbanks similarly made headlines as one of the best-organized championship events in U.S. history.
For this winter, all three U.S. Championship events will be held east of the Mississippi: Juniors in Lake Placid, New York; U.S. Nationals in Rumford, Maine for the second year in a row; and the Subaru National Masters in Ishpeming/Marquette, Michigan. As the American Ski Marathon Series enters its 27th year, the same slate of eleven powerhouse all-comer events spread from coast-to-coast.
With a relatively quiet international year celebrating no World Championships or Olympics, top North American skiers will likely spend a bit more time on NorAm races, particularly early season. In an interesting twist, Canada and the U.S. will be offering entirely separate elite circuits this season, ending several years of North American elite race partnerships. How this impacts field quality and depth on both sides of the border remains to be seen.
With the North American race season just around the corner, it's time to wax those skis, folks. So, get on it!