Competitive Edge

IT AIN'T OVER 'TIL GAMES TIME

Pre-Olympic race seasons are funny things. On one hand, they provide a good glimpse as to what one might expect to see in the big show, a.k.a. the 2006 Winter Olympics. This year, we might see predictable winners step to the podium when it opens February 12 in the northwestern Italian alps. On the other hand, the season prior to a given Winter Olympics isn't always the best predictor of what is in store come "Games Time."

On the international scene, a new Queen of Cross Country has firmly taken the throne—you heard it here first! Last winter we previewed Norwegian Marit Bjoergen, who is indeed something for the upcoming Olympic season. She had long been tabbed as the eventual successor to Bente Skari—the dominant Norwegian female force leading up to and at Salt Lake in 2002. However, Bjoergen destroyed gals in sprints, but had very little confidence when it came to anything longer than five kilometers. Let that now be put to rest; long live the new Queen. The 25-year old Bjoergen steamrolled into the 2005 World Championships last February in Obersdorf, Germany, on the strength of an eight-win World Cup tour de force that saw her finish no worse than sixth in any international race all season. She won at sprints. She won at 30 km. She may have even beaten the coaches at poker, for all we know.

At the World Championships, the ever-smiling Bjoergen took an eye-popping five medals including gold in the team sprint, traditional relay, and 30 km classic. At the season end, Bjoergen won the overall World Cup by more than 600 points—an astonishing result that has some wondering if Olympic organizers might just pre-engrave her 2006 medals now. (Yours truly figures if she is healthy at the Olympics, Marit is guaranteed hardware.)

At the "advanced age" of 32 and a mom to boot, Czech Katerina Neumannova continued a stellar career last season. Neumannova won the World Championship 10 km freestyle and ended up second to Bjoergen on the overall World Cup ladder—despite racing a limited schedule that kept her at home for long periods during the winter.

A Canadian female also made history at the 2005 World Championships, but for a change it wasn't 2002 Olympic champion Beckie Scott. Sara Renner pulled off an all-time amazing stretch run in cross country history. Late in the women's individual sprint finale, she came from a drop-dead-in-the-water position to take silver. Similar to Scott's history-making race in 2002, Renner's medal was the first medal taken by a non-European female at the Nordic World Championships and the second non-European World Championship medal to Bill Koch's 1982 bronze.

On the U.S. home front, the trio of Rebecca Dussault, Wendy Wagner and Abby Larson between themselves took the lion's share of U.S. titles. Unfortunately, international success wasn't in the cards for American women last season. To further compound matters, with yet another round of budget cuts for the national team, no women were named to the 2005/06 U.S. Ski Team.

For the men, German Axel Teichmann claimed the overall World Cup crown ahead of France's Vincent Vittoz who shook off a positive doping test earlier in the season (the "B" sample came up negative clearing him to compete). But in spite of their World Cup titles, the World Championships lacked a stud duck. Several observers quickly pointed out that doping control is having an impact, as evidenced in the sheer depth and difficulty of the men's competition in which no less than four different men took individual gold medals. Norway still can lay claim to the best men's team in the world winning both the traditional relay and team sprint as well as showing no mercy with a podium sweep of the 50 km classic finale.

On home snow, the best overall U.S. skier continued to be the guy that rarely races in North America...Kris Freeman. Since a spectacular start to the 2003/04 season, the New England native struggled with health and results, but seemed to rally with a solid leg in the World Championship relay and a 15th finish in Lahti, Finland, in mid-March. Andrew Johnson had the top overall U.S. Nationals while Andrew Newell had the best U.S. finish at the World Championships with a nifty 12th in the men's classic sprint.

In U.S. marathon racing, Abby Larson and Dave Stewart—both racing for Subaru Factory Team—won the American Ski Marathon Series Champions Cup overall titles.

While last season may have catapulted this year's Olympic medalists to the forefront, we might see some surprises. After all, anything can happen before "Games Time."

J.D. Downing is the National Director of the American Cross Country Skiers, editor of xcskiworld.com website, and coach of the XC Oregon elite development program. Visit xcskiworld.com and for year round coverage of XC ski news as well as beginner XC ski information, event listings, fitness and technique help, and more.

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