Something happened this week in the Czech Republic.
World Championships for all the nordic disciplines – jumping, nordic combined, and straight-up cross-country – were held in Liberec over the last week. Why are these races more important than regular World Cup races? Added bragging rights, and because everyone shows up. When there’s a World Cup in North America, many Europeans skip it, and we can’t afford to field full teams for races across the pond.
On one of the first days of competition, Lindsey Van won the first ever women’s ski jumping world championship. Then in three nordic combined events, Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong combined for four medals including every available gold.
This was an incredibly impressive performance by the Americans. At one point we were leading the overall medal count, which was unprecedented.
But Demong and Lodwick each have multiple World Cup victories under their belts. What about the last of the nordic disciplines competing in the Czech Republic, my own sport, plain nordic?
Since the last Olympics, sprinters Kikkan Randall, Torin Koos, and Andy Newell have exactly a handful of World Cup podiums between them, including one win. There were no comparable results for distance skiers, and this was an improvement over the preceding Olympic cycle.
American skiing hasn’t been much competition for the Scandinavians, the Russians, the Italians, the French, or, well, the Europeans in general over the last years. Even Canada had Becky Scott, who narrowly missed bagging the season-long World Cup overall title a few years ago, and Chandra Crawford, who won gold in the last Olympic sprint.
It’s not that our skiers aren’t fast. As an athlete at my level, it feels a little bit like blasphemy to say that they are less than the best. They have shown flashes of brilliance, teasing the community with hints of what they could do on a regular basis. But they have often left us asking, why can’t they take that next step?
In Liberec’s opening race, Randall posted her best-ever distance result, 26th. The next day Kris Freeman finished 4th in a 15k race, less than two seconds out of a medal. In the pursuit, Liz Stephen finished 15th.
Then came the sprint. Randall won a silver medal. Newell was 12th – good, but after Randall’s performance, overshadowed.
The long-distance races are always saved for last at events like this. In the 30k, Stephen finished 17th, followed by Morgan Arritola in 22nd.
These results are a leap forward; for the last decade, our culture has been steeped in inferiority and cautious optimism. It’s a culture of “maybe they’ll finally do it this time.” To a skier like me, it’s a culture of “if I’m this weak against an American field, I would be terrible compared to the Euros.”
So, while my coach Cami Thompson has been quoted as saying “I don’t think it’s unbelievable at all, they’ve been moving toward this for years,” the fact that they finally got there is extremely exciting.
Indeed, to some these results might feel like a proclamation: we have arrived. Maybe we can’t fund a full team for the World Cup circuit, but when Americans show up, they mean business.
As lower-level skiers, maybe we’re not the small fish in the smallest pond. Maybe we’re small fish in a normal pond where the big fish might just be the best of all of them.
To make sure that I wasn’t completely misinterpreting the situation, I turned to my Dartmouth teammate Rosie Brennan, who is a member of the U.S. Ski Team.
Rosie competes for Dartmouth, but she spends some of her time training with Stephen and Arritola and their coaches. Do their results give her more confidence in her own skiing?
“Watching the results come in day after day from Worlds has without a doubt given me inspiration and some level of confidence that what we are doing is working,” said Brennan. “Sooner or later I can be there too.”
But, she continued, “It brings mixed feelings. Sometimes I tell myself, they are over there killing it, I can totally be in there too. Other times I think, well I’m not over there and they clearly just made a huge step up in their level of skiing while I’m still here.”
Brennan won Friday’s Eastern college championship 5k by over a minute, so she’s obviously not slowing down even though she’s stuck in the United States. But her comments serve as a reminder of the recent development strategy for outstanding young athletes.
Stephen is my age and started racing exactly the same year I did, when we were both sophomores in high school. I remember meeting her at my very first Eastern Cup race that year. She finished second; I finished second to last.
Stephen and Arritola – one year her senior – have had very disciplined developments as racers. Despite being two of the best skiers in the country, they were not pushed into World Cup competition. Instead, the U.S. Ski Team focused on teaching them to race in Europe before teaching them to race the World Cup in Europe. It obviously worked.
So it makes sense that Brennan has some regret that she wasn’t joining them in Europe, and was instead stuck decimating the college field. But some day, she’ll be there too. Brennan is aiming for the Olympics, and if she makes it, these results will give her more confidence to go for it instead of just feeling lucky to be there. Now she’s even more sure that she and her teammates would have “a good chance of getting some good results.”
In the end, does anything change for the small fish like me? Probably not. But it gives us something to get excited about.