U.S. Team Ready to Rock
by Peter Graves
The U.S. XC Ski Team athletes have traveled far and wide to get the best of training they possibly could this off-season. Here's a look at how it has gone. Head Coach Chris Grover told Skitrax that the team had solid preparation this summer. “Although we were not able to conduct our traditional May onsnow camp at Mount Bachelor in May, we had excellent snow conditions at the Snow Farm in New Zealand. The athletes collected over two weeks of on-snow time in good conditions, with a heavy emphasis on technique improvement. We were especially focused on striding, herringbone and double pole – critical techniques that we need to incrementally improve in order to compete with our Scandinavian competition.”
Those attending that camp included Liz Stephen, Jessie Diggins, Sophie Caldwell, Ida Sargent, Simi Hamilton, Noah Hoffman, Andy Newell, Paddy Caldwell and Ben Saxton. Alaska-based athletes such as Kikkan Randall, Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen and Rosie Brennan stayed home to train on the Eagle Glacier, where they enjoyed superb conditions. The women's A Team includes Sadie Bjornsen, Caldwell, Diggins and Sargent, along with Randall and Stephen, and the B group of Brennan and Caitlin Gregg.
Both men's and women's teams have a B squad this season, and they include Julia Kern and Katherine Ogden, along with Saxton and Paddy Caldwell.
Veteran Newell said the summer camps have gone better than expected. “We had a perfect two weeks' training in New Zealand. I am continually excited with the level of our team and how it's grown and improved over the years. This winter, we will again take on the World Cup with the biggest squad of Red Group skiers we've ever had, and that gets me fired up.” Newell, along with teammate Hamilton, are the lone U.S. men to nab A Team spots, while Erik Bjornsen and Hoffman are on the B Team.
In late summer, Newell told Skitrax that he had a new approach to the upcoming season, which is largely centered on feeling healthy for both training and racing. “Last season,” he said, “I struggled with health and injury problems, which is especially frustrating when you're on the World Cup, and although I was able to snatch up some top 10's, I was never at my best or even close to potential. As an older skier, I can rely more on my stored fitness and focus instead of quality over quantity.”
Randall reflected on how quickly the summer has passed, noting, “It's just flown by fast, as usual, but I'm quite satisfied looking back at my training log with the training I've done so far. I just returned home from the Toppidrettsveka races in Norway, and I got a really good gauge of where my fitness stands and came back with good motivation for the remaining few months.”
Randall was candid about goals for the upcoming season: “After some
struggles last season, I'm really focused on rebuilding my base and getting back to challenging for the podium in sprints every weekend. I am also aiming to bring my distance racing back inside the top 15 and to be able to stay strong through the entire Tour de Ski. This upcoming season is about getting my gears back.”
But all that changed in mid-october, when Randall and husband, Jeff Ellis, announced to her teammates and the media that they are expecting their first child in April (see News on pg. 6). Randall will put racing plans on hold for the upcoming season, but plans to return for the World Championship season in 2016-17 and to compete at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In a statement, Randall said, “I am excited about becoming a mother, but am also looking forward to coming back to race in 2017.” Ellis, who serves as a marketing support manager on the International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup tour, will continue to travel on the circuit this winter.
Speaking of the Toppidrettsveka races in Norway, the U.S. squad posted some strong results, including a Day One fifth place in the Classic sprints by Sophie Caldwell. In Day Two of the comp, Stephen and Randall both cracked the top 10 in a 15km Skiathlon, with Stephen also reaching third in a grueling uphill foot race. On the final day in Trondheim – before a huge crowd reminiscent of a World Cup – Diggins skied to a strong 10th place in a 15km rollerski Pursuit just ahead of Randall (who was 11th), as four Americans broke into the top 16.
Diggins said the course was a real challenge: “The course had two-way traffic for half of it, and that part was all double-pole on, more or less, flat city roads, but then you went up a really steep climb – I heard it was a 20% grade. You climbed for maybe three to four minutes, then went back down, which seemed like it was going to be sketchy, but they gave us all slower wheels so it wasn't as scary as I'd thought it would be.”
Sadie Bjornsen told Skitrax that this was the first summer she hadn't had summer school in nearly six years. Her summer was full, with more running and hiking than normal, but with much time on-snow at the Eagle Glacier in Alaska, along with much strength training. Looking forward, she told us that her plans for the winter were not yet complete, but that her goals revolved around the “. . . full World Cup season. I want to find improvement in all disciplines and I want to be able to fight for a medal on any given day. This may take a few more years to achieve, but I am chasing the first individual medal soon.” She hopes to complete her first Tour de Ski this winter.
Hamilton had great training opportunities this summer, saying, “Training has been going very well, and we've logged a ton of quality hours of on-snow time,” and also that he and the team were really excited about the 2016 Canada Tour in March: “What we are probably most excited about is that fact that we get to come back to North America next spring and race our final World Cups at home.”
Though not a current member of the USST, tough veteran skier Kris Freeman also told us his summer had gone well, noting, “I have incorporated all of the methods that have worked best for me over the years, with a lot of over-distance workouts, but I have tried to balance them with running speed on the track and a lot of recovery days.” His plans include starting the season on the World Cup and racing through Period One.
The U.S. squads regimen included traditional fall dryland opportunities in Lake Placid, N.Y. in September and Park City, Utah in October.
Expect the U.S. World Cup team to depart mid-november for Gallivare, Sweden for an on-snow camp and to take part in some FIS races prior to the start of the World Cup in Kuusamo, Finland on Nov. 27-29.
Coach Grover had the last word regarding the season ahead: “The team is really looking forward to the season. We have made a substantial effort to better an individual's recovery markers in order to hopefully prevent some of the overtraining issues we had last season. In addition, the athletes have remained relatively injury-free when compared to the 2014-15 preparation period. These two improvements alone should help us close the gap slightly on the toughest competition,” he concluded.
Team USA in new colours: (back row l-r) Bryan Fish, Chris Grover (head coach), Matt Whitcomb (coach), Andy Newell, Ben Saxton, Erik Bjornsen, Paddy Caldwell, Jason Cork, Simi Hamilton (front row l-r) Caitlin Gregg, Kikkan Randall, Ida Sargent, Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan, Julia Kern, Katherine Ogden, Sophie Caldwell, Liz Stephen, Sadie Bjornsen