The Caitlin Gregg Situation

Ah, yes, another Olympic year, another wildly entertaining FasterSkier comment thread regarding team selection.

I find this round interesting because I sort of assumed that most of the heat this year would fall on the men’s selections, but apparently the decision to not select Caitlin Gregg is getting the bulk of the attention.

This is a singularly difficult thing to analyze, because there just isn’t much concrete data to go on. But let’s get a few things straight right up front. The selection criteria were clearly intended to not give special preference to people skiing fast just this fall. You really had to have had good points from last season as well, and some of the best opportunities for those points would have come at the spring races with the US women present (mostly).

There’s no question that reasonable people can disagree on whether this is the best strategy for a selection criteria, but I think it’s impossible to argue that its a bad idea, or even the worst idea. At best, you’re only going to see 7-8 starts from someone by early January, and when you consider someone like Gregg who you’d be taking primarily to ski a distance skate race, you really are only going to see 2-3 relevant results out of her in that time period. That’s not a lot to go on, really, and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask that a major part of putting yourself on an Olympic team to be demonstrating that you can ski fast over a longer time period, and against relevant fields.

So let’s acknowledge that Caitlin hasn’t raced against anyone on the US team at all this season (except for the two recent sprints in Europe). What do we know about how she has stacked up against that particular group? If we take each head-to-head matchup between Gregg and one of Randall, Diggins, Bjornsen, Brooks, Caldwell and Sargent, Gregg compiled a 6-25 record in 2011-2012 and a 3-20 record in 2012-2013. Not surprisingly, in sprint races its even worse, with a 2-11 record in 2011-2012 and an 0-20 record in 2012-2013. In graphical form, that looks roughly like this:

gregg1

 

Negative values are bad for Gregg here. Over the past two season, Holly has basically dominated Gregg overall. Brooks hasn’t skied all that well herself this year, and I think it’s clear that Gregg is skiing faster. Have they moved enough to swap places? Impossible to say, since they haven’t skied against each other yet.

Last season, basically all of those match ups (except against Brooks) came during  “Spring Series” (I’m honestly not sure if they still call it that, but I like the name) at which Gregg skied rather poorly. It’s quite possible that she was just unlucky, getting sick near those races, or maybe she just didn’t manage her fitness as well as she could have and went into the series a little run down. Who knows. Regardless, I feel like anyone looking at the selection criteria would have known that those races were going to be very, very important, both for potential points and for demonstrating an ability to ski toe-to-toe with the gals spending all year over in Europe. So that was clearly a missed opportunity.

So the record we do have from Gregg from 2011 through last spring has very little evidence that she was skiing very close to the level of the top US women in Europe. But then she shows up this fall and has clearly improved, winning or finishing on the podium of basically everything she enters. In particular, she crushed the field in both of the freestyle skate races, a 10k and a 20k mass start. Does that tell us anything meaningful?

It’s hard to say. Normally, I’d be very skeptical of reading much into a huge margin in a mass start race, since the in race dynamics can be so weird. Certainly, a good portion of that margin came from the field simply deciding they weren’t going to catch her and they started racing for second. But she won the 10k individual start in Yellowstone by a huge margin as well. My personal feeling is that while she was clearly the best skier on both days, I have a hard time putting much stock in the margin of victory. The Yellowstone race was an extremely early season event, and the other was a mass start.

And then there’s the problem that you just keep circling back to: the fact that the people she’s beating in those races themselves fare very poorly against the top US women. In those two skate races, the other top women (Patterson, Fitzgerald, Flowers, Brennan, Rorabaugh) all have pretty dismal records against the US Ski Team women themselves. Brennan skied well enough to earn herself a trip to Eurpoe, but even she went 12-40 against that group in 2012-2013 and only 2-18 so far this season.

And finally, two stellar races in the discipline you want her in isn’t much of a trend, really.

I realize as I’m writing this that I probably sound very negative about Gregg’s results this season. Actually, that’s not the case. I think it’s clear that she’s skiing considerably better than last year. I would have loved to have seen her selected and it would have been great to watch her ski in the 30k in Sochi. But the selection criteria made it pretty clear, I think, that relying on skiing fast this fall to get in was going to be long odds. A stronger signal would have been to put up some good results last spring against the other top US women head-to-head and then demonstrate you can sustain it when racing resumes the next fall.

I think it’s perfectly fair for people to react to Gregg’s non-selection with a cry of “What does it take?” The answer to that is complicated by the fact that the Olympics are such an emotionally charged event. The Games have symbolic and cultural importance for many people that really transcends the more mundane aspirations of a national skiing body (winning hardware). It’s frustrating, but I think it’s unfair to expect an organization like USSA,  whose mission really ought to be to do everything it can to win, now and in the future, to treat Olympic starts any differently than World Cup or World Championship starts. Still, as a fan, that can be tough to swallow.

Gregg’s been working a long time for this, she’s well known, and folks look up to her. Sending her to Sochi to race the 30k would certainly have been a big payoff for a lot of long, hard work, even if she isn’t likely to finish very high up the results, and even if, at ~34, she’s not likely to remain an elite racer for that much longer. But it would certainly make a lot of folks back home happy and excited about ski racing.

The counter-argument is that I think the folks running the US Ski Team want us all to dream bigger. The days of simply going to the Olympics, or simply getting the chance to race in Europe as a fitting reward to a long career are over. Qualifying for Olympic/World Champ teams, attaining first period WC start rights, are all just steps along the way. Worth celebrating, for sure, but no longer a career capping moment. I think on some level, they actually don’t want us to be aspiring to long, successful domestic racing careers capped off with a trip to a major event with middling results.

And I think that mostly people are ok with that message, and that we really are dreaming bigger. But when it comes to the Olympic Games, the cold hard reality of that message can really sting, since for so many the Olympics are just a different beast altogether.

I don’t really have an ending for all this, except to say that I’m excited that Caitlin Gregg is skiing so well this year, and that as an American I’m thrilled to see what results she can put up across the pond, Olympics or no.

Related posts:

  1. Brief Season Assessment For North America
  2. Gällivare: Wrap-Up
  3. Handicapping WSC 10/15km Freestyle
  4. Optimal US Women’s Relay Team
  5. US Men’s Distance Olympic Selection

About Joran

Comments

11 Responses to “The Caitlin Gregg Situation”
  1. DRR says:

    Well said. Thoughtful, objective, not easily said….but my thoughts exactly. Thanks

  2. Scott W says:

    Yes, I concur. Thanks for writing. Still, if you want to enter a full quota in the 30 k, who will they pick? How many spots does the US have in that race, and who is likely to fill them? Holly Brooks, Liz Stephen, and Jessie Diggins are proven distance skiers this season. Who do you think will be in that race?

    • Joran says:

      Well, I think the thing is that they probably don’t really consider who gets that fourth spot to be that important, in terms of results. My guess would be Kikkan. Her “important” events would be over, she’s a great skater, and you’d have a hard time convincing me that she’d be dramatically slower than Sadie/Sophie or even Caitlin or Kate Fitzgerald. Realistically, only Liz (and maybe Jessie) have a shot at a great result in that race, and here “great race” would be a top 10. That’s sort of what I meant at the end of my post. There are sentimental reasons (which is not to say they aren’t valid) to fill out the roster more fully, but in terms of results, there probably isn’t much point.

  3. Kuan says:

    Including previous year’s results does two things. It provides connectivity (in this case) but also adds a bias. This is unnfortunate because we need the connectivity but we don’t need the bias. If there had been one race pre-nationals where at least one of the US Ski Team athletes were in the same field as Caitlin Gregg then the FIS points would have more credibility.

    • Joran says:

      Well, I think you’re presuming that results further from Sochi are automatically less relevant, and I’m not sure I agree. I think the argument I was trying to make was that the ability to sustain a high level of performance over a longer time period is frequently a stronger signal of genuine improvement than 2-3 isolated races. So in a lot of cases, I’d rather bet on someone who improved more modestly, but displayed that improvement over a larger set of races, than someone with a small number of extraordinary races in a short time period. In other words, ski racing is so dominated by high variance, that I place a bit more value in low variance than low bias.

  4. George says:

    Thank you. The most rational comment anyone has made so far about the situation.

  5. Wilson says:

    I see it all just a little differently -
    First, she had her two huge results a month and a half apart if anyone can teach me how to sustain a peak for that long please let me know.

    Next I would push back a little bit on the analysis that said a > b and c > b so c isn’t better than a. In this case to compare a and c you need to look at things like margin of victory or percent back. Look at Rosie’s percent back in world cups and compare that to her percent back on Caitlin. Of course the sample size in this situation is way to small to make any strong statements.

    Look at Caitlin’s improved strength in classic races and sprints. She won in west (I was there, her win was never in doubt). At soho, she dominated the qualifier and fell in her quarter and still won the heat. As for classic true, she didn’t win in Bozeman nor Nationals, but compare this years classic results to previous years. I don’t bring this up to say that she is better than the USST girls, but it demonstrates that she didn’t just “blow up” two skate races. Her fitness and speed nearly erased any deficits she had in sprinting and classic.

    Last, I think that you are severely undervaluing the 30k Mass. Kate and Rosie had a chase group behind them the whole race – they weren’t slacking. Also where was the carrot? Caitlin had no one to chase, and no one right behind her – so I contend that she could have gone even faster.

    • Joran says:

      I think you’re reading my post as an argument against naming Caitlin to the Olympic team, but that’s not what it is. My point was simply that while it’s clear that Caitlin is skiing very well this fall, without a more direct comparison to some stronger or more relevant competition, it’s hard to know for certain just how fast she’s going. So I’m really just pushing back against the attitude that somehow it’s obvious that Caitlin would be faster than Brooks, or even contend for a top result, in the 30k at Sochi. I think that’s far from obvious.

      But I certainly would never argue that Caitlin hasn’t shown a dramatic improvement this fall. But the data is just so thin, no one (both for/against naming her to the team) really knows for sure how big that improvement is, or how it would translate to a WC/OWG race.

      I’m not sure if discounting really fast skiing in the fall pre-Olympics, as the selection criteria implicitly do, is a good idea or not; I can see both sides. The point of my post was that given how limited the information is from that short a span of races, basing decisions on it can be a big gamble, relative to longer, more sustained stretches of high performance. But different people will be more/less willing to make gambles like that.

    • Kuan says:

      a>b>c therefore a>c is not provable logically.

  6. Fiona says:

    I’m not sure this graph tells us anything we didn’t already know. It shows that she didn’t ski as fast as the national team members last year, but doesn’t tell us anything about how much she’s improved. The arguments I’ve seen for naming her to the Olympic team are that she’s improved significantly since last year.

    We can’t use FIS points to assess the improvement, because she would have gotten the same number of points for winning by a boot length as she got for winning by 3 minutes. (She is behind Kate Fitzgerald and all the national team members on the latest FIS points list, though, so that doesn’t help her case.)

    Can you do the same sort of analysis as you did for Jessie Diggins in 2011 (http://www.statisticalskier.com/2011/12/how-will-jessie-diggins-fare-on-the-world-cup/)

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