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Career Retrospective: Arianna Follis

Several talented sprinters are retiring this year, among them Arianna Follis. While she’s known as a sprinter, her results indicate that she wasn’t a terribly slow distance skier either, particularly later in her career:

This suggests that it’s been the previous four seasons where her distance racing has really been fairly strong, and in fact she seems to be ending her career with perhaps her strongest distance racing season yet. The 2010 race that stands out here is a handicap stage from the Tour de Ski in which Follis, Majdic and Kowalczyk gapped Saarinen in 4th, who herself was over 1.5 minutes ahead of 5th. The handicap start stage races can produce some unusual race tactics, for sure. In fact, her only two distance wins came in handicap start stages, the other in this year’s World Cup Finale.

Her distance results translated into a total of 10 podiums, spread across the Tour, WC and one WSC Bronze. All of these came in freestyle or pursuit races, so the following graph is only partially surprising:

A very clear separation between her classic and freestyle results, with the notable exception of 2009-2010, where it seems like her classic races were considerably better and her freestyle results were slightly worse.

Follis may not have exactly been the best distance skier, but she was consistent. Half of her distance results were in the top 15 and three-quarters were in the top 30. And that’s for her entire career. The last four seasons were her best with her median result generally around 9th and three-quarters were better than 12th. She just seemed like one of those skiers who didn’t win much, but she was almost always near the top of the results sheet.

Her sprinting record was somewhat better:

Better in the sense that she managed 14 sprint podiums (again, spread across the Tour, WC and a WSC Gold and Silver), but my sense is that like in distance skiing she was more of a consistent presence than a dominant one, compared to folks like Petra Majdic and Marit Bjoergen. For instance, count how many WC level sprint races in this above graph where she was outside the top thirty. Some of those earlier seasons sprints were run with only 16 qualifiers, but from 2006 on? Perfect record. And the technique split is even larger here:

She didn’t even do classic sprints until mid-career, and while she wasn’t exactly bad at them, she never really approached her skating results. But again, look at how consistent she was in freestyle sprints. The 2009-2010 season was a minor step back, but aside from that she essentially could be counted on to reach the podium in half the freestyle sprints she entered in a season and made the semifinals more than 86% of the time.

In fact, digging a little deeper, if you calculate the proportion of times people have advanced to the finals in freestyle sprints since 2005-2006 (limited to those with at least 10 races), who do you think is ahead of Follis at 67.6%? That’s right, no one. Men or women. Natalia Matveeva, with only 15 freestyle sprints to her name, is just behind Follis with 66.7% and Björgen and Pethukov are close as well with 64% and 62.5%. But then things start dropping off fairly quickly. (Kikkan Randall is the fourth woman in this list, reaching the finals of freestyle sprints 52.2% of the time.)

Her absence (along with Petra Majdic’s) is of particular interest to North Americans, since it appears to open some space for Kikkan Randall to step into next season. I’ll have more to say on that topic in a future post.


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