American cross-country skiing does not have a trials system. That is, selection to the U.S. team for international championship events – the Olympics and World Championships – does not involve having everyone show up in the same race (or race series) on the same day, top finishers make the team. Championship teams used to be picked this way; Luke Bodensteiner writes memorably in Endless Winter: An Olympian’s Journal of his experiences at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park for the 1994 U.S. Olympic Trials. (Spoiler alert: as the subtitle suggests, he made the team.)
But the current approach is somewhat more elaborate, including ranking lists and points and a variety of criteria that are primarily objective, but are also supplemented by discretionary factors. As we approach the winter of 2016/2017, and the country’s top skiers await the first intervals of fall with dreams of competing at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland, FasterSkier breaks down the selection criteria that set forth the ways in which a U.S. athlete may be named to the team.
New selection criteria: Last winter’s results are out, this winter’s results are in
The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s (USSA) full selection criteria for Lahti are available here. This document reflects the final stage of a long process. In January 2015, shortly after he had shared the selection criteria for the 2015 World Championships in Falun, U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover wrote on his blog about his intent to work on updating the criteria before it came time to select athletes for Lahti.
“I’ve organized a working group of top US coaches this summer and fall to help us create a new selection criterion for Lahti 2017,” Grover wrote in response to a question about the interaction between objective and subjective criteria. “One important aspect of this new criteria is creating a head-to-head format in fall SuperTour racing (including U.S. Nationals) that provides an athlete with a clear path to Championship selection, without the guesswork of looking for races with low points. We are currently running the criteria by our legal department to ensure that, like all of our criteria, it’s fair, clearly understandable, and complies with the Amateur Sports Act.” *
Eighteen months later, in June 2016, Grover wrote that he was “excited” about the updated selection criteria for the U.S. team for Lahti. He wrote that “the Objective and Discretionary selection procedures in [the new] criteria are very similar to what we have used in the past. The big change, however, comes in how Additional Team Selections are made. In the past, additional selections have been made using FIS or USSA points, which are created by scoring points races on a year-round continuum. This new criteria relies on head-to-head SuperTour and U.S. Nationals racing in the fall/early winter of the season of the Lahti Championships themselves.”
Grover wrote that the new criteria are intended to reduce the temptation for athletes to chase FIS or USSA points, or even to “willingly manipulate the results of races” with an eye to improving points.
He added, “This criteria rewards head-to-head competition in the season of the Championships. Athletes who skied fast in the spring of the previous season no longer have a potential advantage over those athletes skiing fast in the current season. The criteria provides a clear path for athletes to the World Championships. The athlete that is winning races is most likely going to make the Team. The guesswork of improving one’s FIS or USSA points is removed.”
U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb concurs. As he told FasterSkier earlier this summer, the new focus on results solely from the 2016/2017 race season is “definitely a criterion that focuses more on how athletes are skiing closer to the Championships. It’s a very important concept, I think, that from what I can tell the entire ski community is behind.”
(Concern over what is effectively a year-long window for the development of USSA points, and the implications of making championship-team selections on this basis, is not of recent vintage. In December 2001, Cory Smith, at the time an elite American skier, blogged about his disfavor with selecting skiers for the 2002 U.S. Olympic team on the basis of the most recent USSA points list, when the relatively low-key races held at Spring Series 2001 ended up having a disproportionate effect on the USSA rankings list used for Olympic selection many months later.)
Inside the selection criteria: World Cup success as an objective path to selection
The selection criteria themselves include a mix of objective standards and discretionary options. Performance on the World Cup is the easiest and most direct way to merit selection to the team, but there is also the option of skiing on via domestic results on the SuperTour. Probably.
Starting with objective standards: The objective standards look solely to an athlete’s performance on the World Cup. An athlete will be automatically selected to the World Championships team if they have either (1) a “ranking in the top-50 in the Distance World Cup standings or the top-50 in the Sprint World Cup standings as of January 16, 2017,” or (2) a “top-8 individual final World Cup result” in one of three selected race formats between the start of the upcoming World Cup season and Jan. 16, 2017. (The full document explains various tie-breaking procedures and additional principles; for example, a top-8 individual sprint finish trumps a top-50 sprint points ranking.)
The three specified race formats in which a top-eight finish will lead to team membership are “Sprint F, individual start 10/15 km C, and 15/30 km Skiathlon.”
This does not account for all of the individual races in the first half of the World Cup calendar – individual races in other formats include a classic sprint in Ruka, a classic sprint in Lillehammer, a 5/10 k skate in Lillehammer, a 15/30 k skate in Davos, and six of the seven races in the Tour de Ski (all save the opening skate sprint).
In an email to FasterSkier, Grover explained that this distinction is by design. “Only individual events in the specific format we are racing in Lahti qualify for top-8 automatic qualification,” he wrote. “Classic sprints [which will be held in Lahti in the team sprint format] are not included in this specific part of the criteria because the aerobic and anaerobic demands of team sprint are different enough from individual sprint.”
Grover addressed the possibility that an athlete could achieve a top-eight individual result on the World Cup, but do so in some race format other than the three designated ones of skate sprint, 10/15 k individual start classic race, and full-distance skiathlon.
“An athlete that has scored a top-8 in any event will most likely score enough [World Cup] points in that single race to make the top-50 discipline qualification standard,” he wrote. And “at the end of the day, we want any athlete that can finish in the top-8 on the [World Ski Championships] team. We also have discretion to use in the event that a top World Cup performance by a given athlete fails to qualify them outright for the Lahti Team. The top-8 criteria has an element of redundancy in it, but it is important in the event that an athlete only gets 1/2 points for that performance if it comes during the Lillehammer mini-tour [on December 2-4] or the [Tour de Ski].”
The possibility of discretionary picks
Grover had alluded to USSA’s discretion to make additional selections. As the criteria document states, “The USSA may select additional athletes to the Team using coaches’ discretion, using factors other than objective criteria.” (This language is unchanged from the criteria that governed selection to the U.S. team for Lahti in 2015.)
These discretionary factors include everything from results in last season’s races to “attitude,” “illness or injury during the selection period,” and “Indicia of medal potential in future Olympic or World Championship competition, which would be materially enhanced by selection to team.” Finally, a catch-all provision states that USSA may make discretionary selections for nearly any other reason if the objective criteria do not reach the desired goal: “Other unanticipated failure of objective criteria to select an athlete likely to achieve competition results consistent with USSA program goals for World Championships.”
Whitcomb told FasterSkier in July that making discretionary picks was “one of the harder parts” of his job as a coach, stating, “We love not to do it.” Though he added, “But in any criteria, discretion can often be one of the most important pieces.”
Inside the selection criteria: SuperTour success as a likely but not guaranteed path to selection
After USSA selects athletes via objective criteria based on World Cup performance, then, potentially, via discretionary factors, “any remaining positions” for the Lahti team “may be filled by considering the athlete ranking highest on the 2017 Championship Selection List.” (Technically speaking, the document says that remaining positions may be filled rather than will or shall be filled, meaning that USSA would not be strictly required to name a leading domestic skier to the team if it did not want to.)
The scoring system for the 2017 Championship Selection List is explained in detail in the full selection criteria document. Briefly put, the list takes an athlete’s two best finishes “in a single discipline (sprint or distance)” and looks for the highest point total, based on awarding SuperTour points on a standard basis plus bonus points for a top-3 podium finish at U.S. Nationals. Notably, the window in which these performances may occur is only the first half of the 2016/2017 season, and does not – unlike the rolling USSA standard points list – include the second half of the 2015/2016 season.
The highest ranked athlete on this list (who was not otherwise selected via objective criteria or discretionary factors) “may be recommended by the Head Coach to the Selection Committee, who may nominate additional selections.”
The “Head Coach” is Grover. The “Selection Committee” is not literally defined elsewhere in the selection criteria document, but the document does discuss a “discretionary selection review group comprised of the USSA President and CEO, the Executive Vice President, Athletics, and the athlete representative from that sport who is a member of the USSA Board.” Grover clarified in an email that, in practice, the discretionary selection review group is the same as the “Selection Committee.”
The USSA President and CEO, Executive Vice President for Athletics, and cross-country skiing athlete representative are currently Tiger Shaw, Luke Bodensteiner, and U.S. Ski Team member Rosie Brennan, respectively.
Looking back and looking forward
So how did this all play out in practice when it came time to select the team for Falun? Two years ago, eight athletes qualified objectively via their World Cup results. Another eight athletes were selected based on the most recent USSA points list. Finally, one athlete was selected via discretion.
Specifically, Sadie Bjornsen, Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent, Liz Stephen, Simi Hamilton, and Andy Newell qualified for the U.S. team for Falun via objective criteria based on their World Cup rankings in the 2014/2015 season. Rosie Brennan and Caitlin Gregg for the women, plus Erik Bjornsen, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess, Kyle Bratrud, Kris Freeman, Matt Gelso, and Noah Hoffman for the men, were then “entirely selected from the fourth publication of the USSA points list,” FasterSkier wrote soon after the selections were released. Finally, Ben Saxton was added to the team a few weeks later following his strong results at 2015 U23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“Brennan and Gregg were the top two domestic skiers on both the distance and sprinting lists [as of mid-January 2015],” FasterSkier wrote at the time. “Hoffman, Freeman, Gelso, and Bratrud were the first four skiers in the distance rankings, while Blackhorse-von Jess and Erik Bjornsen were the top skiers (apart from Newell and Hamilton) in the sprint rankings.”
The U.S. team for Lahti is tentatively scheduled to be announced on Jan. 23, 2017. The first race at World Championships is the skate sprint on Feb. 23.
* Footnote: The Amateur Sports Act of 1978, officially known as the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C. §§ 220501 et seq., “establishes a legal framework for protecting the participation opportunities of Olympic sport athletes,” one commenter explains. The Act mandates the creation of an Athletes’ Advisory Council, and describes procedures under which an athlete may submit eligibility disputes to binding arbitration. A related provision, section 9.1 of the Bylaws of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), states that USOC “shall, by all reasonable means, protect the opportunity of an amateur athlete to participate if selected (or to attempt to qualify for selection to participate) as an athlete representing the United States” at the Olympics or World Championships.