North American Olympians
On Home Soil
By JAY TEGEDER
Last month I introduced you to the European favorites for the cross country skiing medals at the Salt Lake Olympics. Skiers such as Per Elofsson, Bente Skari, Thomas Alsgaard, Julia Tschepalova and Johann Muhlegg among others expect gold medals. However, several developments could throw the North Americans into the mix. The first and most obvious: The Olympics take place in Salt Lake City, Utah. The young and highly praised Soldier Hollow ski trails are very familiar to both the U.S. and Canadian teams. Both teams have raced the U.S. National Championships and a World Cup race at the venue. The trails are at the high end of allowable altitude limits where many North Americans live and train. The biggest advantages the North Americans have are racing in their own time zones and the support of the fans. Plus, unlike racing in Europe at World Cup events, they don’t have to spend eight hours on a plane.
Another big development for the North Americans has been the increase in drug testing. Specifically, WADA, the World Anti Doping Administration, is conducting the tests which will take place before the Olympics and before, during and after each event. This is important because cheating has been going on for years in cross country skiing. Last year at the Nordic World Championships in Finland, the home team lost six national heroes during a drug bust. A few years earlier, Russian, Ljubov Egorova got caught with her hand in the
doping jar. Several other nations have long been
suspected of cheating. Think tremendous relay race upsets, bears and classical music for clues. What does this do for the North Americans?
It levels the playing field. They now battle the
athlete. In the past, they battled the athlete and the chemist. Check out the World Cup results this season. Some of the top-ten skiers of recent years are
So, who will emerge from the ranks of the North Americans to represent the U.S. and Canada? One country is easy to figure out, the other will be more difficult. Specifically, Canada is the easy nation for identifying Olympic athletes. Six skiers have qualified based on FIS points, World Cup results and other criteria. First and foremost for the Canadians is Beckie “the Great” Scott. A World Cup podium at Soldier Hollow last year and a 15th place World ranking are among her accomplishments. During the December World Cups in Europe, Scott grabbed a fifth, ninth and thirteenth place finish. She’s World Class and is a medal threat in the One-Day Pursuit, the Sprint and the classic events. Here’s what Scott has done for the Canadian program: Just about every article on the U.S. Ski Team mentions Bill Koch’s silver medal in the 1976 Olympics. The U.S. hasn’t had a medal threat since so the past is always brought up. Before Beckie Scott came along, the Canadian Ski Team articles always mentioned Pierre Harvey’s World Cup wins in the late 1980s. Now, the articles talk about Beckie Scott’s recent exploits.
Joining Scott on the Canadian Women’s Olympic Team will be Sara Renner, Milaine Thereiault, and the Fortier sisters, Amanda and Jaime. The Relay Team will likely consist of Scott, Renner, Thereiault and Jaime Fortier. They placed second at the Soldier HHollow World Cup last season. Outside of Scott, a top twenty finish for a Canadian woman would be fantastic. The lone Canadian male who has qualified for Salt Lake is Donald Farley. The Quebec native is a classic specialist and won one of the U.S. National Championship events a few seasons ago. Farley is a top thirty contender and a top twenty racer on a good day. Robin McKeever is a long shot to make the team. However, the cancellation of the Thunder Bay and Telemark Nor Ams in December make the task almost impossible. Not surprisingly, many Canadians have criticized their Olympic Team selection process. The Olympic Team standards are very hard to attain and leave many good skiers home for the games. However the Canadian Olympic authorities argue against sending skiers with no chance of competing at a World Class level. The other side of the argument mentions the valuable experience young skiers get at Olympic events. Regardless, the rules have been in place for several years now.
The U.S. and Canadian Teams differ in two areas. One, the U.S. doesn’t have a skier in Scott’s class. As a result, expect more articles mentioning Bill Koch’s Silver in 1976. Hey, I’m guilty of mentioning that too. Anyway, the other difference is the selection process. The U.S. will send at least five women and five men to the Olympics. More will likely be named as a result of the Sprint races. Among the locks for the U.S. Team are Nina Kemppel, Carl Swenson, Justin Wadsworth, Marcus Nash, Torin Koos and Wendy Wagner. Those skiers are already on the U.S. Ski Team this season. The other positions will be filled based on Nor Am results (a North American FIS race series), the Gold Cup at the end of December and the U.S. Nationals in Montana in January. Time is running out for those relying on Nor Am races. As I mentioned above, the Thunder Bay and Telemark races in December were canceled.
|Members of the Canadian National women's cross country ski team: At left, standing is Coach Dave Wood; from left to right is Milaine Theriault, Beckie Scott, Amanda Fortier, Jaime Fortier, and Sara Renner. Donald Farley is at the upper right.
Alaska’s Nina Kemppel leads the Nor Am points list. Salt Lake City will be her fourth Olympics. She already has the record of fifteen National Championships for the U.S. women. Plus, Kemppel has a 20th and 27th place on the World Cup this season. Expect a top twenty or two for Kemppel in both classic and freestyle events. Second on the Nor Am points list is Wagner. She prefers classic races where a top thirty would be great. Aelin Peterson, Kikkan Randall and Tessa Benoit are ranked high based on Sprint results. They gave Beckie Scott a run for her money at one of the Nor Am Sprints. Barb Jones is another possible Olympic skier. She had some great results in the Nor Ams last season. Perhaps a long shot but a wonderful story, has been the emergence of Mahtomedi, Minnesota’s high school sensation, Lindsey Weier. She was the fifth U.S. skier at one of the Silver Star Nor Ams. A good Gold Cup or National Championship race could put her on the team.
The Men’s Nor Am points list is led by Carl Swenson. Known by the nickname, “the Glide,” Swenson is a past American Birkebeiner Champion and a professional mountain bike racer during the off-season. His ski resume is impressive and includes a 21st place finish at the Nordic World Championships last season in the 50K Freestyle and an 18th position in a 15K Freestyle World Cup race this season in Italy. If you noticed the freestyle theme, you’re right. Swenson is a top fifteen threat in the 30K Mass Start Freestyle and top ten threat in the Sprint. Justin Wadsworth has an impressive resume too. He placed eighth at the Soldier Hollow World Cup last year in the 30K Mass Start Freestyle. Wadsworth is a good classic skier as well. Like Swenson, Wadsworth is a top fifteen threat in the 30K. A top twenty in the One-Day Pursuit is a possibility also. One of the best U.S. skiers the past several seasons has been Marcus Nash. He’s scored World Cup points several times over the last five years and has quite a few national championships. While a shoulder injury has slowed his training, his best chances for a top thirty finish are in the classic events. With the arrival of the Sprints last year at the World Championships, Washington State’s Torin Koos has emerged as one of the best speed specialists in North America. He and Carl Swenson often go head-to-head in the Sprint races. Unlike Swenson, Koos is mainly a Sprint specialist. A top fifteen would be an improvement over his 29th place at the World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
Other U.S. men with an Olympic shot are Lars Flora and Pat Casey who are very good sprinters. If they make the team, the Sprint would likely be their only race. Second on the current Nor Am points list is Vermont’s Andrew Johnson. He’s one of the U.S. Ski Team Development Group members who’s improved rapidly the past few season. I would expect him to make the Olympic Team where a top thirty would be a very good start. Several veterans will need a good National Championships or Gold Cup race to qualify for the team. Among them is Marc Gilbertson who is currently fourth on the Nor Am points list. Gilbertson made the 1998 Olympic Team by winning a race at the trials. Patrick Weaver, nine-time National Champion John Bauer and Pete Vordenberg are all past Olympians and in their early thirties. Bauer placed third at one of the Nor Ams and is back in form after taking some competitive time-off. I would rate Bauer as having the best chance to make the team among the veterans. If he’s on the team, Bauer could score a top twenty or two.
While the Nor Am points list will be used to help select the Olympic Team, the Gold Cup and the National Championships carry even more weight in the process. The Gold Cup will be a one-day pursuit format event on December 29th at Soldier Hollow. It’s a winner-take-all event with first place guaranteed an Olympic Team slot. The U.S. Nationals will take place in Bozeman, Montana the first full week of January. In order, the races will be the Sprint, 15K Women’s and 30K Men’s Freestyle, 5K Women’s Classic and 10K Men’s Classic followed the next day by the Freestyle Pursuit races of the same distance and then the Women’s 30K Mass Start Classic and Men’s 50K Mass Start Classic. A win in one of those events would be a ticket to Salt Lake City. While the Olympic Team selection process is different for the U.S. and Canada, both countries should be well represented. A medal for Beckie Scott would be a great achievement and a top fifteen for anyone else would be equally impressive. Check out all of the action in February and tune into the Cross Country Skier website for updates; www.crosscountryskier.com