Friday, November 22, 2013

Kris Freeman: A Call for Civility

The ski season is coming on fast. In just over a week the World Cup show will be in full swing in Kuusamo, Finland, for the Nordic Opening, and you can bet the hype that goes with the 2013-2014 season will be rocking.

In an Olympic year, the speculation starts early and often. Olympic team previews are being written, water coolers are being assaulted with predictions, and in cross country skiing the small community means we talk about an even smaller cast of characters.

And in the good ol’ US of A (and to a lesser extent, Canada), it’s all going to be about one man – Kris Freeman.

Why? Freeman was dropped from the USST at the end of the 2012-2013, for reasons cited as having a lack of medal potential on a team with a very limited budget.

Regardless of whether your metric is FIS points, World Cup points, or performance at US Nationals, Kris Freeman is at minimum the second-best American male distance skier at this very second.  Kris Freeman finished 4th in the 15 km classic individual start race at World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic in 2009. He finished 18 seconds behind a certain Andrus Veerpalu, and was less than 2 seconds from a World Championship bronze medal. He has sixteen National Championship titles, including 5 in the 50 km. Finally, Kris Freeman has Type I diabetes, and is one of very few elite level athletes to compete at the Olympic level while juggling the difficult disease.

The above pedigree places Freeman in the elite category in North American male cross country skiers. Full stop.

Is he still at that elite level? His World Cup point totals in the last two season have barely managed to top 50. Data suggests that he’s now more likely to finish outside the points in the races he starts than inside. So no, he’s no longer at that same elite level.

Through the fall and early World Cup season, there are two things I think Kris Freeman, and the USST system are owed by us, the fans.

Number One – Respect. For both Freeman and the USST. Freeman has battled diabetes and racing on the World Cup and at the Olympics for 12 seasons. That deserves our respect. The USST has supported a ski team that has brought us highlights such as Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the World Championship Team Sprint. If this race gives you the spine-tingly’s, then you have to give the USST some credit. If you don't, then you aren't allowed to be proud of Kikkan and Jessie. Sorry!

Number Two – A focus on the real issue. Kris Freeman’s performance is not the issue. Kris Freeman being dropped from the USST is not the issue. Bill Marolt’s salary is not the issue. Those are all symptoms of a larger problem – that cross country skiing in the United States and Canada is underfunded, under-appreciated (in our view, anyway), and a niche sport. Let’s talk about that. Let's change that. Let's make it so A-Rod's annual salary doesn't dwarf the annual amount of money that USSA and CCC spend on cross country, Nordic Combined, and biathlon a year. (Quick tip: it won't happen overnight.)

Let me be clear, this does not give the USST and Kris Freeman a clear pass not to be criticized. If Freeman struggles out of the gate, and finishes far out of the points, expect me to be the first one to unload both barrels - on his skiing, not his personal life. If the USST ends the season without an Olympic medal, I won’t be pulling any punches - about their policies and choices, not their individual characters.

But in the world of cringe-inducing anonymous internet commenting, let’s treat our heroes with the respect they deserve. Or else we just might not get too many more of them… 

Friday, March 15, 2013


The Holmenkollen races are pretty wonderful. This year should be a Norwegian sweep, but I would love to see some North Americans - Harvey, Stephens, Diggins, maybe even Randall and Kershaw - in the top 10. And though the Oslo races always portend the end of the ski racing season, I'm very excited about next season. Good NorAm results, an exciting World Championships, and no doping (so far) means that the year of the Putinolympics should be great.

My picks for Holmenkollen (made, unfortunately, in advance of a final women's start list):

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Big Distances

The relays were amazingly fun to watch, more so than in many years thanks to the strong performances by the American women (so close: how many days till the Sochi relay?) and the insane hijinks on the anchor leg of the men's race. And while the relays are great spectacles, I love the long-distance finales. Back in 2005, I started paying attention to ski racing again after seeing the great 30k and 50k at Oberstdorf: Marit Bjørgen skied the rest of the field off her tails to win the women's race, and Frode Estil blew up a big pack in the last 5,000 meters to drag Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset and Anders Aukland to the podium. Great races, through and through.

I hope the Val di Fiemme equivalents will be half as good. I think Johaug is just too strong right now for anyone to beat. Bjørgen might do it, of course, but I expect a replay of the Olso Worlds: Johaug relentlessly working the hills and getting away fairly late. Not even Kowalczyk will keep up.

On the men's side, the race will almost certainly come down to a sprint finish which you-know-who will win. Before that, though, I think some hard men like Olsson and Harvey will try to get away - only to be reeled in by Northug.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Relay Day 1: The Women

I am really, really looking forward to seeing what happens in the women's relay at Val di Fiemme. While Norway is obviously the top team, anything can happen in the relay, and the cluster of teams one tier lower than NOR includes the American squad, which will start two Val di Fiemme gold medalists, along with Liz Stephen. Finland, Sweden, and maybe Germany and Russia are right there in the hunt.

My picks:

  1. Norway (Weng, Johaug, Steira, Bjorgen)
  2. USA (Bjornsen, Randall, Stevens, Diggins)
  3. Sweden (Ingemarsdotter, Wiken, Haag, Kalla)

Monday, February 25, 2013

An Interval of Individual Start Racing

The last of the (semi) old-school races, the individual start distance races will be dominated by the usual suspects - almost. Petter and Justyna will have to wait for a chance at medals.

picks from

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Team (USA) Sprint: The Randall & Diggins Show

I just rewatched today's women's team sprint at the Val di Fiemme World Championships. I don't think skiing has raised the hair on the back of my neck more since the American nordic combined boys medaled in Vancouver. Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall were not just the gold medalists today; they were far and away the smartest, most aggressive, most tenacious, and fastest skiers on the snow.

Photo stolen from Audrey Magnan

The peak moment was Randall winning by a country mile, but the previous lap was the clincher. First, Diggins decisively took the lead just out of the stadium. A minute or two later, as she crested the big climb, lost her pole to the Finnish racer in second place. In the slo-mo replay, you can see Diggins shout for a replacement, but she hardly slowed down: she charged hard for 150 meters on one pole, keeping contact with the Finn and separating from the Swede in third.

It was an astounding moment of ski racing, and Diggins followed it up a minute later when - re-armed with a pole that looked longer than she is - she charged the last hill and took the inside line on a tricky uphill left-hand hairpin. The aggression put her back into a lead which she didn't relinquish and which Randall then extended in her amazing effortless style all the way to the line. Gold, set, and match.
Photo stolen from Audrey Magnan at

It's inarguable at this point that the naissance of the American women's team is due to Kikkan Randall. Over the last decade, she has showed everyone that there's no reason that the U.S. can't produce world-class - and now, world champion - skiers. I think the clearest evidence of this is Jessie Diggins: she doesn't know that she shouldn't be the best, so in fact now she is, racing with breathtaking heart and skill. I can't wait to see what the full relay quartet does on Thursday. The American women know they're among the world's best. Now they can show it again.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Team Sprint! USA! USA!

The team sprint is always an odd event, since it is relatively rarely contested on the regular World Cup and since it has an especially manic character, what with the super-high sprinting speeds and the constant exchanges. I'm looking forward to this one.

1. USA (Diggins, Randall)
2. Sweden (Kalla, Ingemarsdotter)
3. Finland (Sarasoja-Lilja, Lahteenmaki)


1. Sweden (Hellner, Joensson)
2. Norway (Golberg, Northug)
3. Canada (Kershaw, Harvey)