Brief Season Assessment For North America

This is by no means a comprehensive look at how we fared this year, just one perspective based on a single graph.

One of the things that I pay closest attention to is depth: how many different skiers do we have performing at a particular level. The reason for this is that for relatively “small” skiing nations like ourselves, it can be pretty common for a single extraordinary skier to come along and provide excellent results for several years. This can make the program as a whole look pretty good, but if the success isn’t “filtering down” it probably won’t last.

In that vein, here’s a graph of the proportion of skiers (with World Cup starts) achieving a top 30 result, broken down by gender and race type (sprint or distance):

I’ve included the size scale with the points to give you a sense of the “denominator”: how many skiers we actually sent out there in a given season. As you can see, oftentimes is hasn’t been very many at all.

The Canadian men have obviously been quite successful recently, but note that Len Valjas is really the only new development lately, in terms of scoring WC points. Also, it’s interesting to me how the Canadian men seem to tend to have a larger number of athletes getting starts than the US, at least over the past 5 years or so.

The story with the Canadian women is pretty simple. There’s the big bulge for the Beckie Scott & Co. era and then a pretty steep drop off. There was a sudden explosion in the number of women getting sprint start between 2008-2010 in the run-up to the Olympics. While that has dropped off considerably, the women they are starting are finally scoring some points (Crawford and Gaiazova, mainly). Their distance results have sort of bounced around.

As for the American men, the 90’s saw a lot of years with only a few skiers getting starts (and hence the proportion bounces around quite a lot). Unsurprisingly, there was a huge increase in the number of starts prior to the 2002 Olympics, and then a somewhat deceptive jump in performance in the Olympic year. We did ski pretty well that year, but it was aided by some pretty sparsely attended pre-Olympic World Cups. (It would be interesting to do a version of this graph that looks only at races on European soil.)

That was basically the beginning of the Kris Freeman era in US men’s distance skiing. Between then and 2008 there a steady decline in the proportion of skiers reaching the top 30, despite a fairly steady 5-10 athletes getting starts each year. Recently, things appear to have picked up somewhat, although this year is basically identical to the last.

With the departure of Torin Koos and Simi Hamilton taking a few seasons to get healthy and performing where he’d like, sprinting has also seen a decline over the last several years.

That leaves the obvious big bright spot, the US women. For much of this graph, the proportions bounce around very erratically, since we very often had only 2-3 women getting starts. Following a real low in 2007, with no American women scoring points we’ve seen several consecutive seasons of improvement, with a slight drop off this year. The improvement in the women’s sprint events is only ~3 seasons old, but if anything it seems more promising.

Most Unimproved: Women’s Sprinters

Last in the series of most improved/unimproved we finally turn to the women’s sprinters:

Alena Prochazkova took a major tumble this season in sprints. She had been a fairly reliable presence in the semifinals until this season, when she appeared to often have trouble qualifying. Celine Brun-Lie also saw a major drop-off, but the much reduced number of races that she did this year makes me wonder if she possibly had some issues with illness or injury.

Anna Haag joins many of the Swedish men as having a sup-par sprinting season, but sprinting wasn’t really her focus it seems, anyway. Laure Barthelemy did a lot “worse” this season, but the data is fairly clear that what really happened is that she had an unusually large cluster of excellent races last season, that were at least partly out of character for her. Most of her results this season seem generally in line with how she’s fared in 2009 and 2010.

Let’s consider the two Finns next, Roponen and Saarinen. There were also some injury issues here as well, but even so, note that both ladies have seen some declines for more than one season in a row now, so that doesn’t necessarily explain all of it. Roponen in particular was a fairly solid sprinter several years ago and has just really struggled since. Saarinen was an arguably pretty dominant sprinter for two seasons there in 2009 and 2010, but now has seen two seasons in a row of faltering results.

Stefanie Boehler deserves a mention as well as someone who’s had a few seasons in a row of troubles. She was never a really dominant sprinter, but things have gotten pretty bad the last two seasons.

Most of the other ladies here may seem like odd inclusions. Keep in mind that these “bottom twelve” were picked based on a blend of a few metrics (average result, best results, etc.) and I’m only graphing one of those. But their declines are certainly less stark.

Most Unimproved: Men’s Sprint

Almost done with the series now, just the sprinters who struggled the most this season, starting with the men:

This list is notable for a few reasons, first because of the large number of big names on it. Usually there are at least of few people my metrics pick out that I don’t really know, but I’m familiar with basically all of these guys.

Secondly, this highlights what a rough season the Swedish men had, particularly in sprints. Joensson, Hellner, Modin and Rickardsson all struggled considerably this year compared to last. In Joensson’s case, he still had some decent races, but he simply wasn’t as absurdly dominant as he was the last two seasons. Hellner, Modin and Rickardsson all saw pretty dramatic declines, though. I mean, Rickardsson didn’t qualify for the heats once this year, Modin qualified but rarely advanced past the quarterfinals, and Hellner only qualified half the time.

Two Italians also make the list, Scola and Pasini. Scola’s sprinting performances last year are looking like they may have been a bit of an aberration, although his results have been pretty erratic from year to year. Pasini just plain struggled to qualify at all.

John Kristian Dahl has seen a steady decline (while still occasionally popping good races) for 4-5 seasons in a row now. But while he still manages to advance to the semis or finals a few times each season, his bad races are just getting worse and worse.

The Finns, Nousiainen and Heikkinen don’t do quite as many sprints each season as some of the specialists, so one might expect their results to be a bit more erratic. Northug’s inclusion here is probably somewhat marginal, stemming from his struggles with injury and illness that prevented him from doing more sprints. I sort of doubt that his actual sprinting abilities declined all that much.

Most Improved: Women’s Sprint

Moving right along to the most improved women’s sprinter (at least, according to the metric laid out in this post).

Here’s the collection:

As usual, you can click on it for a slightly larger version.

Once again, I think we’re seeing that North America had a pretty across the board incredible year in sprinting, with Chandra Crawford making continued progress. The list of North Americans who had strong sprint races on the World Cup this year is quite long.

Van Der Graff, Kylloenen and Oestberg all have patterns that look roughly similar: young-ish skiers on a fairly steep improvement curve.

Kowalczyk sneaks in here with an increase in podiums basically (along with the usual smattering of “off” races), but it’s hard to make out in the graph due to some over plotting of points. Despite a sudden lack of consistency from Ingemarsdotter, she qualified through to the semifinals considerably more often this season.

Gaia Vuerich, Anastasia Dotsenko and Alenka Cebasek are skiers I don’t know much about, but they all appear to be fairly young. Given the women’s field, young sprinters showing dramatic improvement from the 40’s-50’s down into the 20’s-30’s isn’t all that uncommon. We’ll see if they can stick around…

Most Improved: Men’s Sprint

Now we’ll finish up this series with the sprinters, starting with the most improved men. The methodology is simpler here, as we really only need to use finishing place as a metric (although we will still scale improvements so that, say, improving from 40th to 20th isn’t seen as a dramatically larger improvement than from 10th to 5th).

Here’s most improved men (click through for the full version):

Sweden’s Teodor Peterson tops the list here (which is interesting, given what we’ll see for the most un-improved men’s sprinters…) followed by the Norwegians Golberg and Brandsdal. Golberg is still quite new to the circuit, so rapid improvement isn’t terribly surprising for a guy getting more starts.

My general impression is that its pretty hard to sustain dominant sprinting performances for very many seasons in a row (too much luck is involved) so I wouldn’t be shocked to see Peterson have another successful season next year, but maybe not so relentlessly advancing to the semifinals.

I’m glad that Simi Hamilton gets his due here, while perhaps overshadowed by other successful North American sprinters this year, he really did finally put together a solid season. Similarly, Devon Kershaw pretty dramatically stepped up his sprinting performance, which is a major reason why he finished 2nd in the World Cup overall.

Morilov’s improvement doesn’t look terribly impressive, at least to the eye, but he’s getting credit here for some increased consistency.

Len Valjas basically doubled the number of times he qualified for the heats this season. And that’s nothing to shake a stick at!

Roddy Darragon, Fabio Pasini and Eligius Tambornino (awesome name!) I’ll group together as they both saw some improvement after a handful of sub-par seasons. Pasini showed some flashes of his 2009 self, but wasn’t terribly consistent. Darragon has two pretty bad seasons with not many races (injury or illness perhaps?) and improved, but not quite to where he was in 2009.

Most Un-Improved: Women’s Distance

Last in the sequence of related posts covering distance events, the most un-improved women from this season:

As always, you can click through for a slightly larger version.

The Slovakian Prochazkova takes the cake here with what looks like a small set of somewhat mediocre results after two fairly strong seasons. The small number of races compared to previous seasons suggests to me that she may have had injury or illness issues, but I wasn’t following her closely so I don’t know for sure.

Both Ingermarsdotter and Fessel are relatively young skiers who had seemingly breakthrough seasons last year, but seem to have come back to earth slightly this season. Finland’s veteran Saarinen, if I recall correctly, was injured early in the season, and apparently never quite got back up to speed.

Anna Haag is a sort of interesting case as she had some rather dramatically good races in 2010 (an Olympic year) but has pretty consistently slid backward in each of the following seasons. But if anything, its the 2010 campaign that seems out of place; she’s basically back to performing at the level she was pre-2010 at this point.

Silvia Rupil appears here as one of those skiers with a “decline” simply because she failed to pop the occasional outstanding race, although her “average” result has remained roughly the same.

Kolomina and Novikova are both young Russians, part of a squad that two years ago  I thought maybe was seeing signs of a resurgence, but my general impression was that they really struggled again this year.

Laura Rohtla looks like she shouldn’t be on this list at all, but remember that my ranking includes 3 other measures besides the one I’m showing here. Still, she’s probably a marginal inclusion.

Most Un-Improved: Men’s Distance

These are definitely less pleasant posts to write, but part of any season assessment should include what went wrong as well as what went right.

Once again, you can refer to my initial post in this series for an explanation of the general methodology.

That said, here’s the twelve men who took the biggest slide in distance events this season, compared to last:

Daniel Rickardsson didn’t exactly have terrible results this year, but after several years of steady improvement 2012 just didn’t include the top level results we’d seen from him last year. You’ll note that, with two lone exceptions, he really didn’t have any truly bad races compared to his general range in the past. But he was apparently just lacking that top gear this season.

Nikolay Chebotko’s appearance on this list is something of an aberration, as it’s mostly due to an unusual set of races last season. Notice that this year’s results aren’t terribly different than what we’d seen from him in 2008-2010. Algo Karp is probably a similar case here.

In the “truly dramatic decline” category I’d probably include Curdin Perl and possibly Petter Eliassen. Perl obviously had an unusually good season last year, so some regression was probably to be expected, but he definitely fell back below where he’d been before. Eliassen is a more ambiguous case, since he has less of a racing history on the WC level.

Franz Goering also didn’t have a great season, but his was mostly a case of a lack of consistency. Four of his races were roughly on par with his past, but then his other five were all over the map.

Tom Reichelt is a marginal inclusion here, probably, mostly due to fewer truly exceptional races compared to last season.

Pietro Piller Cottrer, Fulvio Scola and Kris Freeman all strike me as somewhat similar in that I see a slow steady decline across multiple seasons. Granted, Freeman’s trend is only 2 seasons long, while the Italians have been nursing their’s for longer. But I will be particularly curious what Piller Cottrer’s future looks like. I’m not sure if he’s planning on sticking around until Sochi or not.

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