Monday, November 28, 2011

Skofterud: Norwegian for "Early Season Star"?

Though the World Cup season is only two weekends old, I'm intrigued by two trends - Therese Johaug's development as a sprinter and Vibeke Skofterud's success so far. I might get to the first topic in another post, but I'd like to dig into the second topic here. (Maybe the Statistical Skier can use his quantitative skills to offer some additional insights. Pretty please?)

In a nutshell, my take on Skofterud is that she's a good early-season performer who rapidly fades after six or eight weeks of racing. That's not to say that she's not worth respecting. Using Statistical Skier's tool, even an innumerate like me find data to show that she's improved markedly since starting her World Cup career in 2000. Skofterud has frequently turned in top-10 results throughout the Bjørgen Era, and raced on many a Norwegian relay team. In fact, she's collected four World Champs relay medals (gold in Olso '12 and Oberstdorf '05, silver in Val di Fiemme '03, and bronze in Sapporo '07) and a gold in the relay at the Vancouver Olympics.

In short, most countries would be happy to have someone of her ability on their teams. On many of them, she'd be the strongest female skier.

But at the same time, Skofterud is not the most reliable individual performer. Her major-event best in an individual race is a sixth in the 30k skate at the Olso Worlds earlier this year, when she was one of the four Norwegian women in the top six. She's never done better than eighth at an Olympic Games - and that, way back in the 30k classic race at Soldier Hollow in 2002.

On the World Cup, she finished second or third nine times in individual or stage races. Just this month, in fact, she's enjoying her best-ever streak of results: third place in the opening 10k skate in Sjusjoen and third overall in the Ruka Triple at Kuusamo, where she missed qualifying in the classic sprint but then pulled off back-to-back thirds in the 5k skate and the 10k classic races.

This early-season accomplishment is par for the course. All but one of her individual podium places have come in November or early December. (The outlier is a second place in the 2002 Birkebeinerrennet, when the race was run as a World Cup.)

Race Date Place Event Place
27-11-2011  Kuusamo 15 km M    3 
19-11-2011  Sjusjoen 10 km F    3 
29-11-2009  Kuusamo 10 km C    3 
08-12-2007  Davos 10 km C    2 
24-11-2007  Beitostoelen 10 km F    2 
28-11-2003  Kuusamo 10 km C    2 
23-03-2002  Lillehammer 58 km C Mst    2 
09-12-2001  Cogne SP 1.5 km F Final    2 
08-12-2001  Cogne 5 km C    3 

Her good form in 2007 vanished soon after that second place in Davos; she only raced three more times after that weekend. Her 2008-09 season was even shorter (only four races), and the subsequent seasons weren't much better: nine races in 2009-10 (one podium, in November) and seven races in 2010-2011 (no podiums).

What's the cause of this? I have no idea beyond the usual culprits: overtraining, a lack of focus, injury, illness... I hope Skofterud can maintain her form to and beyond Christmas this season. We need some new faces near the front of the Bjørgen parade.


Anonymous said...

Hey Chris, I was wondering what you and Colin's background is. Were you guys ski racers before, coaches or are you just ski enthusiasts? Are you/were you inovlved in any other sports? These questions are meant to be condescending or thought provoking, I am just curious, because your analysis of these WC races is pretty darn good, and has been since I first read the blog back in 2008!

Anonymous said...

Hey i think Skofterud struggled with a eating disorder for parts of her career

I doubt that explains her early season form then fade off but i do think its the reason why she has sometimes not been on the Norwegian national team.

Christopher Tassava said...

Thanks for the comments, Anonymous I. and II.

II., I appreciate the information about Skofterud. A serious problem like that would compromise her abilities. I hope she's beyond it now. I like watching her race.

I., I started skiing in high school, when my P.E. class had a cross-country skiing unit. (I grew up in Upper Michigan.) I've been an avid skier ever since. I do train fairly seriously, and I race a couple times each winter, but I'm hardly a Ski Racer - and I've never been a coach. I just enjoy following the World Cup, and it's never been easier or more fruitful than it is now, thanks to the internet.