On a drizzly day at Mt. Bachelor, U.S. women’s cross-country coach Matt Whitcomb makes teams of two.
“Full time world cup racers right here,” Whitcomb tells the racers. “If you have done a handful or zero of them you are over here and then we’ll pair you up. The world cuppers are gonna start first.”
This morning’s race simulates the upcoming Olympic team sprint that will take place on Feb. 19 where one teammate skis a lap and tags their partner. Each athlete skis a total of three lung-busting laps. Before this start, anxious racers shuffle skis and poke poles in the snow.
After the climb, the skiers turn a corner and zip back down.
At the finish, racers prop themselves up with their poles. They pant like thoroughbreds easing into a cool down. Jessie Diggins, who along with Kikkan Randall is the 2013 team sprint world champion, knows this effort is only the start of an important Olympic year.
“You know, you get really sore and you feel your muscles burning,” Diggins said. “But you’re like, ‘All right, you know, this is what change feels like.”
For the U.S. women’s team, change is a major theme. Chris Grover, the U.S. head coach says he wants his skiers to know how it feels to ski at the front of the pack, even if they fade 8k into a 10k race. Turns out, taking those tactical and psychological risks have proven successful. But other factors are in play.
“In general, one thing that is really helping U.S. skiing right now is that the sport of cross-country skiing has become cleaner and cleaner,” Grover said.
Since 2002, many ski federations have increased their efforts to catch cheats, although there’s general agreement that some doping remains. Yet Grover insists the U.S. runs a clean program.
“You know, we take a lot of pride in doing it the right way,” Grover said.
Kikkan Randall, from Anchorage, Alaska, has been on the U.S. ski team for the last 13 years.
In 2007, Randall became the first U.S. athlete in 30-plus years to win a cross-country World Cup.
“And then when I started to kind of break through and get these kind of results, I think it was like when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile,” Randall said. “I mean no one thought he could do it, and once he did it then everyone started to go, ‘Whew, well maybe I can do that,’ and then individual athletes started to hint at success and then the power of belief just really started growing.”
Randall’s teammates believe. Just three weeks prior to the Sochi Games, the women’s team ranks four members among the World Cup’s top 30. The team’s quick success startled Erik Flora. He’s Randall’s personal ski coach. Flora says the upbeat environment within the U.S. team is something physiological testing couldn’t predict.
“Because on paper it doesn’t make any sense,” Flora said. “You know it doesn’t make any sense a few years ago that the U.S. women’s team was going to be one of the top in the world in this short order, but it’s the attitude, and it’s contagious. You see it with the coaches, too. It carries a lot of strength.”
That strength has roots in the farm team of sorts that Flora runs at Alaska Pacific University where he’s developed a core collection of skiers dedicated to success at the international level.
“And I think that’s something that 10 to 15 years ago that we were missing–this idea of being internationally successful was something that happened in Europe–is something that happened in other countries; but in the U.S. it didn’t happen,” Flora said. “And so all of sudden we had this daily culture where people showed up, they trained hard, they all had a common goal.”
Another elite skier who came from the APU program is U.S. ski team member Sadie Bjornsen. Along with three U.S. teammates, she skied to a third place finish in the only 4 x 5K relay before the Sochi games. Bjornsen thinks the women’s cross-country team’s results shouldn’t surprise anymore.
“I think that the cool thing is we walked away from that day and not many of us had our best races that day; in fact a couple of us really struggled,” Bjornsen said. “And that’s really neat because we know that like even now when we are struggling in races we can be on the podium.”
Podium appearances are now expected. After a January World Cup sprint race in Czechoslovakia, I spoke with Patrick Winterton. He’s a longtime commentator for British Eurosport.
Winterton had just witnessed Kikkan Randall ski away on the home stretch, finishing with a pre-Sochi exclamation point.
He says on many teams, having a superstar skier like Randall holds others back.
“Because they are sort of a little intimated,” Winterton explained. “But in the U.S. team, there was no doubt that Randall’s performances were bringing everyone else forward, and at the beginning of last season that was when we really thought, OK, it wasn’t just a flash in the pan.”
But U.S. skier Holly Brooks understands that the team won’t have fully arrived unless it performs well in Sochi.
“I have a Sochi countdown clock,” Brooks said. “I mean we know that we’re poised to make history, and it’s totally doable. We’re not a long shot for a medal. That said it’s Nordic skiing, and anything can happen.”
The first women’s Olympic cross-country ski competition is the skiathlon on Feb. 8.