So, how did the US do overall at the Olympics this year?
Well, as usual, I’m going to mostly ignore the team events. As I did before, here’s some historical context for our results this time around:
That’s all WSC and OWG results for Americans stretching back to 1992. It’s still kind of hard to swallow the women’s sprint results as a significant improvement, but there you go.
The men’s and women’s distance results both ticked slightly in the wrong direction. However, my suspicions held true and the women continued their steady improvement at the low end. The men are really just in a holding pattern. Basically nothing has changed on that front for about a decade, really.
A friend phrased the question to me in terms of a grade. Personally, if I’m being objective, I’d give the results a B+. Kikkan’s sprint race was a huge disappointment, to be sure, but four women in the top twenty is still quite good and we did put Sophie in the finals. Liz could certainly have had a better 30k, but beyond that I don’t really think anyone significantly under-performed in the distance events compared to what I expected, or thought was reasonable.
On the other hand, (and it’s very hard for me to say this publicly, because Kikkan Randall has been nothing short of revolutionary for the US skiing community), I find it hard not to consider these Games a pretty huge disappointment. But that’s my heart talking, not my head.
As always, thanks to Jan at worldofxc.com for the heat time data…
I’m beginning to get a feel for the relationship between heat times and sprint courses. It’s hard, cause I’m not actually there skiing on the courses, so I do the best I can reading about them. But it seems this course was pretty fast and mostly flat until the very end. That led me to guess that we’d see fast qualifying times, and then the heats would get progressively slower as folks get more tactical. Sure enough, the men’s finals:
I didn’t do nearly as much writing about the Tour as I would have liked, but here are some graphs summarizing the way things shook out.
Here’s a bird’s eye view of the men’s Tour, measured using seconds behind the median skier:
These sorts of bump charts are nice, as they can allow you to see at a glance some overall trends regarding how much movement there was in different stages. So clearly stages 4, 7 and 8 saw some of the biggest movement. Most of the movement in the final stage, a long grueling hill climb, happened at the back of the field, which sort of makes sense.
Here’s a look at how the Tour played out for the eventual top ten men: Read more
This will just be a short note with similar graphs as last time, only for a few of the major European nations.
Sweden continues to generally improve. Note that in terms of top thirty performances, Norway has steadily declined over the years, but not among the top ten or better level. So they’ve become somewhat less deep of a team, but they still manage to crank out top results. Indeed, if anything they’ve been improving. After a couple stronger seasons, the Russian men aren’t off to a great start so far this season. Read more
During this lull before the Tour de Ski, I thought I’d show some graphs quickly summarizing how the US and Canada have fared thus far with some historical context. I think we all have a good sense of what’s going well (American women), what’s going not so well (American men) and what’s going OK (Canadian men, given their expectations). But it’s always nice to have some numbers.
As we all know, the American women are having a banner year. In two seasons they’ve gone from landing someone in the top 30 around around half the time to consistently putting two women in the top thirty, often three. Read more
Each weekend seems to be an interesting mix of results for the North Americans. Starting with the women (Davos result circled in blue):
Compared to this season, that was an off day for Kikkan, but compared to last season that was pretty typical. Part of me wonders if she dialed it back a bit late in the race when she knew she wasn’t feeling strong to save some energy for the sprint. But as you can see from her graph, if that’s going to be her “bad” race this season, she’s going have a strong set of results this year.
I’m very cautious about jumping on bandwagons when someone pops a good race or two, but Holly Brooks is beginning to convince me. That’s three good (and one OK) distance results in a row now. More importantly, I like the direction her trend is heading. It’s still early, so it’ll only take a few mediocre races to flatten that trend out, but so far it looks promising.
You can’t deny that Liz Stephen has had some strong results so far this season. My only concern is that they have all been roughly where we’ve seen her topping out before. Can her good days inch up towards the top ten?
As for the men: Read more
Last, but not least, the women’s sprinters, which was easily the highlight of the season for the Americans:
The Canadian women recovered somewhat after two rough seasons. While they didn’t have the eye-catching results of Kikkan Randall, the Canadian women have three different skiers (Crawford, Gaiazova, Jones) who qualified for the heats more than once, and each of the three advanced to the semifinals on one occasion. It’s nice to have more than one skier capable of making a run into the heats, but the news isn’t all rosy:
Gaiazova has improved her sprinting compared to 4-5 years ago, but didn’t see much improvement over last year, although her best result was slightly better. Crawford has been fairly inconsistent from year to year, including a season lost to injury, and her best seasons are now 3 and 5 years in the past. It was neat to see a third Canadian able to advance past the quarterfinals, but it’s not clear from Jones’s trend whether that will prove to be an anomaly or not.
For the American women, it was obviously a banner year for Kikkan Randall. I’m not going to spend much time singing her praises, since I think we’re all pretty familiar with her season. Instead, let’s look a little more closely at the fact that there’s Kikkan Randall, and then there’s everyone else:
‘Other’ refers to American women other than Kikkan Randall. Randall’s median performance slipped a bit back in 2009 thanks to a few more sub-par races than usual, but she’s turned things around dramatically since then. Some people have noted that both of the folks who finished above her in the sprint World Cup points (Follis and Majdic) are retiring next year. However, we should also note that Marit Bjørgen was only 24 WC points behind Randall and did two fewer sprint races this season. With Bjørgen likely to do the Tour de Ski next year, and with the sprint races evenly split between classic and freestyle, I think Bjørgen’s a safe bet for an overall sprint podium. The next closest women to Randall were Kowalczyk (113 points back) and Falla (122 points back). Kowalczyk did 10 races, the same as Randall, but Falla only did 8.
I’m betting that in order to repeat her overall sprint podium next year, Randall will have to outpace one of those three: Bjørgen, Kowalczyk or Falla. (And of course there’s always the unpredictable newcomer.) But to do that, Randall will surely have to raise the level of her classic sprinting, as all three of those ladies had much more balanced results between techniques this year and the schedule will be evenly split 6C/6F next year, not 5C/7F.
Getting back to the graph above, it’s clear that Randall’s sprinting success hasn’t really filtered down enough to show up in WC results, at least not yet. Along with quite a few others, I was excited by Ida Sargent’s early season racing this year, but an unfortunate car accident seemed to gum up the works. On the one hand, I’m optimistic that Sargent might have some success if she earns some WC starts next year, particularly in classic sprints. On the other hand, I’m following the classic sprint stage of the Sun Valley SuperTour final as I’m writing this, and while Sargent was the closest American to Randall in qualifying by a hefty margin, she was still slightly more than 4 seconds back. Sargent beat Randall in qualifying in her one classic WC sprint (in 33rd), but when Randall has qualified, 4 seconds generally would push her Sargent of the top 30.
This is all pretty negative for what was easily the best season by a US skier in recent history, and probably the best since the days of Bill Koch and Co. So let’s end on that reminder of what a fun season it was!