Covid Cases, a Skeleton Staff, and Julia Kern’s Parents Handing out Poles: Matt Whitcomb on the Americans’ Tumultuous Tour de Ski


There was more drama surrounding the American team in this year’s Tour de Ski than is usually the case, both on and off the race course. Jessie Diggins missed the heats in a skate sprint for the first time in eight years. Jessie Diggins was, allegedly, skiing poorly. Jessie Diggins was maybe skiing great, actually. Jessie Diggins was quoting Atticus in an Instagram post. Devon Kershaw was questioning Diggins’s taste in anonymous Canadian poets (i.e., Atticus). The Norwegian media was calling for Diggins to drop out of the Tour. Diggins responded by thanking a Norwegian tabloid for their concern, then posting the top time of day in the following race.

Techs were missing the wax. Techs weren’t missing the wax. Techs were simply straight-up missing due to illness. Skis were good. Skis were bad. Rosie Brennan’s boyfriend was helping with kick testing. Julia Kern’s parents were helping shuttle skis around. Suffice to say, there was a lot going on for Team U.S.A. in this year’s race, on top of what are already the formidable logistics presented by contesting seven races in nine days in three countries, all against the background threat of a highly transmissible respiratory virus now affecting its fourth consecutive World Cup season.

At the end of the day, Rosie Brennan finished fourth in this year’s Tour de Ski, the third-best all-time American finish in this event behind Diggins’s Tour victory in 2021 and third in 2018. Ben Ogden placed 13th, the best-ever American men’s Tour finish by a substantial margin, after a string of strong performances all week, including an all-time gutsy push in the semifinal of his Stage 5 classic sprint.

You’ve seen the headlines, and may have also noticed athletes or coaches refer to “staff shortages” amidst the blur of the second half of the Tour. Now that racing has wrapped up in Val di Fiemme and a few days have passed to let the dust settle, Nordic Insights caught up with U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Matt Whitcomb to get some more detail on what actually happened out there.

(TLDR of what actually happened: Whitcomb got Covid; half the tech team got Covid; none of the American athletes got Covid; a heroic it-takes-a-village effort got the American skiers out on course every day with skis on their feet; first-year coach Kristen Bourne came into her own leading the team in Whitcomb’s absence; Diggins had subpar skis on some days of the Tour, but is fundamentally fine.)

We spoke with Whitcomb by phone on Thursday. Whitcomb was finishing dinner on his eighth day of quarantine, joined by another American staff member who is also recovering from Covid and so was safely within Whitcomb’s inverse Covid bubble. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

USST coach Matt Whitcomb gestures at a training camp in Anchorage, Alaska, July 2016. (photo: Gavin Kentch)

Nordic Insights: As you know, this interview started with an email to you in the middle of the Tour asking basically, “How is Jessie doing?” But it sounds like to fully and fairly talk about Jessie’s experience in this year’s Tour de Ski, we need to back up. A lot. So let me get some context here first: What does your baseline for techs and staff look like when everyone is healthy and at full strength? That is, what did your staff look like going into this year’s Tour?

Matt Whitcomb: For the Tour this year we had 13 athletes, eight men and five women. And then we had 15 staff to round it out to a cool 28. We had seven full-time techs, plus our Trail to Gold fellow, who was Liz Stephen. During the Tour she was mostly used as a tech, but she did coaching during the races as well. Then we had myself and Kristen Bourne as full-time coaches, who also did some of the testing and things like that. We had a team doctor, we had a chef, and we had a physical therapist and a massage therapist. So a cadre of 28.

So that’s your baseline. What happened after that? The rumors among ski fans were that everyone on staff was dying of Covid, no one was there anymore, and so on. Can you speak to what actually ended up happening in terms of tech and staff availability?

We got through the first two races in Val Müstair healthy. We got to Oberstdorf and a couple of staff started to feel some kind of minor symptoms. And on the first day we tested everybody because that’s sort of our current policy right now, is you test going into an event to make sure that everybody before they get together, we’ve tested at least negative on an antigen test.

And then beyond that, barring a crisis, we will only test if we have somebody who has symptoms, so that we know what we have and try and mitigate the spread if we can. And so because we had a tech that was feeling a little off we decided to have that person test, and they tested positive, and then when we got to Val di Fiemme, that’s when things kind of fell off the rails a little bit.

Photo four shows some diligent, and in retrospect pivotal, mask wearing on the drive to Val di Fiemme.

I drove the entire women’s team, which is only five, to Val di Fiemme that night. We were all masked, all the women were masked, I was masked as a driver, but it’s still a four-and-a-half hour drive and you take your mask down when you’re eating and whatnot. I dropped the women off at the hotel about nine o’clock; they went and had dinner; I went down to pick up the truck drivers at the venue. And we did a little work, set up the truck, and then I brought them back to the hotel for a very late dinner.

And I had just a weird kind of sweat starting to happen. And so I tested right away, and I tested positive. And so of course, I was very nervous about my exposure to the women’s team during that drive.

And over the next 24 hours, we had a total of five of us that tested positive and were essentially immediately evaced from the Tour.

And the reason we do that — we are aware that it’s, you know, quote unquote, “just a cold.” That’s how the naysayers of our policy would describe it. But you know, it’s just a cold that can reduce an athlete’s lung capacity over the course of the season. In particular, if they pick up long Covid. And so our number one priority as staff is to keep the athletes healthy.

I think four out of the five of us could have kept working; we had sort of minor to middle-grade cold symptoms. It wasn’t like end-of-world kind of symptoms. But we just did our best to keep the athletes healthy, and we were able to finish the Tour with still having 13 healthy athletes. So we’re happy with that.

It put an unbelievable burden on the techs who were healthy, and on Kristen Bourne, who took over leadership of the Tour when I went down. She’s one of our first-year coaches and was an intern last year for three weeks. The techs did an unbelievable job. The final three days of this Tour, when we were experiencing the greatest pinch point of our staff shortage, we had really good skis. And then Kristen, during that whole spell, demonstrated incredible leadership capabilities and organizational skills. And none of us coaches who work with her already are surprised at that. But it was it was a cool feat. I know she’s hopefully holding her chin a little higher, because she pulled off — she really saved the day, I think.

There’s no easy or good time for this to ever happen, but I feel like the final three days of a multi-day Tour, which also feature three races in a row, is just about the worst possible moment for this to occur.

Yeah, it’s tough. We put a lot of emphasis on the Tour. So much of the season’s World Cup points are wrapped up in the events of the Tour, with your final ranking being magnified by four.

So it’s a really exciting event. It’s my favorite event of the entire year. It’s different, it’s challenging, and it requires a lot of good fortune to pull off a great Tour for an athlete. It involves the balance of hardship and success and just working together as a team to flow through all of it that gets thrown at you. And every year it’s just an unbelievable experience for me as a coach and I feel like for the athletes, too; we get to the final stage and it ends in this fantastic way with a very exciting 10km cross-country race that ends with three kilometers of climbing. It feels like an important thing.

So for us to go down in this event, it was not ideal. It’s the greatest staff shortage I think we’ve ever experienced on the Tour, or in any event. We’ve lost a tech or two here or there over the years, and you can you can figure that out. But when you lose five staff, that’s tough.

I’m curious about the extent to which this is further problematized by you here, once again, being the Americans in Europe. I’m not asking you to make excuses, but it looks from the outside like if this happened to the Italian or Swiss team, someone new could just drive in the next day. Switzerland is a small country. Or if it happens to the Norwegian team, someone can fly down. By contrast, you really can’t have someone drive over from New England on short notice. I’m curious about the extent to which this makes things harder for you as the American team specifically.

That’s a good question. A really good point. It definitely is true. And we’re in the same boat here as Russia, in a normal year. Or Japan, China, Canada, Australia. There’s no question that the teams who simply can’t go home have it harder in these situations. When one of us gets sick, we have to go into kind of just locked-down mode, and you go hide away for the duration of your illness, whereas anybody from another team who just lives within the continent of Europe can just go home. So that’s challenging.

But I do want to point out some pretty cool things that happened for us. We had Rosie Brennan’s partner, Tyler Kornfield, around for the last three stages of the Tour for classic testing. And he was incredibly helpful there and from a coaching perspective, handing out poles and things like that. So we were able to use him, and are grateful for that. Tyler is a fantastic classic skier, and he did a great job for us. We ended up having good skis.

We used Julia Kern’s parents, Dorothee and Gunther Kern. I think the combination of the two of them actually handed out two poles and a ski during the sixth stage. They were incredible.

When things fell apart for us during the classic sprint, they were running skis from Yolanda, our [wax] truck, to the start, back and forth. I’d love to see a Strava segment for those two, not just who’s fastest, but how many miles they actually logged that day just running back and forth from from the start/finish area to our truck. We really were able to fill in some gaps that had been exposed when our staff got sick.

We also had our medical director, Gillian Bower, and our athletic director, Anouk Patty. And for the first three stages, this is when we were still healthy, we had our CEO and her partner, Sophie Goldschmidt and her partner Johnny. They were there when we were all healthy. And even then we were putting them to use running shuttles for us, which was pretty cool. You know, the CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard is actually running shuttles on race morning to help us get athletes to the start. That was pretty cool. So very proud of the team’s resourcefulness and grateful for everybody that was willing to pitch in.

The other shoutout goes to — and this might be interesting for readers — is that all of these athletes have industry reps. Ben Ogden has a couple of reps [from Madshus] that give him help on race day. And that can mean just handing him a pair of skis that they feel are worth testing. Or if we’re in a real hole, they were willing to help us test. We got that help also from Salomon, also from Rossignol, and so there was just a lot of outside-of-our-team help coming in.

Rossi (orange base) and Madshus (green base) reps, using the force.

Before I ask this question, let me emphasize that Jessie is not some automaton who has to race every race for anyone’s enjoyment. She is a skilled professional athlete who knows her own body, and I want to be respectful here. That said, I went back and listened to Jessie’s audio comments from after stage seven, and I was struck that she didn’t immediately have an answer to what is typically the fairly simple question of when her next race will be. [Final fifteen seconds of this clip if you’re curious. Also, thanks to Tom Horrocks with USSS for getting post-race audio from athletes inside what appears to be a discotheque.]

With all those caveats of the tech and staffing issues that we’ve been discussing so far, and also that Jessie is clearly allowed to be human, can you say anything about how Jessie is doing and what happens next for her?

Absolutely. My general policy is I don’t like to comment much when skis aren’t good, because it’s just sort of a lose–lose situation. And in some ways, TV viewing audiences get to actually see how the skis are themselves. And they see more of the race than I do when I’m actually there in person.

But at the same time, we tell the athletes, if they’re asked the question of how a terrible race went for them, they don’t have to shoulder all the blame if they feel like the skis weren’t good. The techs, and the coaches who helped with the testing, should be able to shoulder that for the athletes. Otherwise it’s not a fair environment we’re establishing.

But I think Jessie’s Tour points out, of course, the importance of hitting skis. And not only hitting skis every day, but hitting just great races, and great tactics. And when one does that, you can have good overall Tour results. But when you have a miss or two, it throws you off and takes you out of contention for the win or the podium. And pretty quickly, you can get knocked down the ladder quite a ways.

It was unusual for Jessie not to qualify in the skate sprint. And there was big attention in Norwegian media, with the boss of Norwegian skiing saying, you know, I would run a full health check on this athlete. And it all seemed pretty ridiculous to me, because we’re talking about an athlete in a cross-country ski race who missed qualification by one second.

And I know we all hope to get to see Jessie have this great comeback whenever she’s down, but that’s just not the reality of what happens in the real world. She just had a bad race that day, and probably didn’t have good skis. And when I say she had a bad race, she did not feel bad. I spent quite a bit of time talking with with her that night. She felt like she did everything right. She didn’t fall.

And so you take a look at how somebody felt, whether or not you stayed on your feet, and if those two boxes are checked, then you look at skis. That’s just a simple way, Occam’s razor, of talking about what happened that day. And so she probably just picked the wrong pair of skis. And it’s as simple as that. It happens to someone almost every weekend; it’s always a bummer when it happens to one of your fastest athletes.

So over the course of the next several days, she still wasn’t able to put together a race that felt like it was matching how she was feeling physically. And again, I spent a fair amount of time chatting with her about it and and letting her know that, Hey, look, if I felt like I saw, felt like I was talking with a tired athlete right now, or with an athlete who seemed unwell to me, I would tell you. But you know, we eat three meals a day with these athletes, we see them first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It’s pretty hard to hide when things are going sideways with you physically.

I’m also struck that you have a baseline here from your last decade of working together, right? This is not someone who’s coming in as the Continental Cup leader, whom of course you would support and want the best for, but maybe you don’t have that decade-long experience with.

That’s right. You might not notice when the whites of the eyes look a little bit different. And for Jessie, even after four stages of things not going as she planned, she still seemed fine and healthy and well, and ready to pounce. And so when she did in the skate race, in Oberstdorf, it was of no surprise to anybody on our team. But it made some noise in the Norwegian and Swedish media, of course, and I think quieted a lot of critics who were expecting that she was not healthy or whatever. It was just nice to see Jessie be validated for one race there. And again, she was able to do that on the final climb.

So at the end of the day, I think this Tour was a combination of tricky conditions that are challenging to ski in. It was maybe, for Jessie, a combination of having some skis that weren’t competitive on a couple of days. And those are things that happen. You just don’t notice when it happens to people who are in the middle of your team. It only makes news when it happens to Klæbo, or to Jessie Diggins, or to one of the Wengs.

And that’s always a bummer. But we know that’s just normal. There’s so many variables associated with putting together a great pair of race skis, and it’s very easy for things to go sideways.

Can you speak to what Jessie’s next race will be? Or I guess a better question would be, what are some of the things that you, and Jason Cork, and especially Jessie would look at in determining what happens next for her in the season?

If I can just remember to say one thing first, it’s that on the final stage Jessie was validated with a pretty strong race where she was fifth on the day. And I think she’s been maybe second, third, fifth, tenth, 13th there, so it was right up there with with one of her better times. And so I think she was able to leave the Tour with her head held high and feeling that, you know, there aren’t months of recovery and regeneration that needs to happen. It’s just our our typical post-Tour, let’s have a really strong week of recovery and then a buildup. Just to tie up some loose ends with that.

[Turning to Diggins’s next race:] The World Cup schedule’s a little bit in flux right now. Next weekend, in nine days, we’re going to Livigno, Italy, for for two days of sprinting, a skate individual sprint and then a team sprint. And some athletes, including Jessie, are a little up in the air on what they’re going to be doing based on what happens with Les Rousses the following weekend. Les Rousses currently has no snow, but it’s just gotten cold over there with some snow in the forecast. And they’ve just changed the snow control date to the 16th [which is next Monday]. So they’re rolling the dice and taking a chance and hoping that Les Rousses can work.

Because the Tour didn’t go great for Jessie, she’s no longer as concerned with overall World Cup rankings. And so the need to do every race, the pressure to do every race, is not on the table as much as it was. And so I think there will be a little more flexibility, at least when it comes to considering what races to do coming up. And Livigno is on the table; we just don’t know if she’ll be there or not yet.

Clearly the math for Jessie here is “bad” rather than “good,” because I know she wanted to contend for the overall crystal globe and now that’s likely out of reach. That said, I’m curious if there is some extent to which this may be potentially liberating for her, though I say that while acknowledging the sense of loss of probably no longer being in contention for the overall.

One of the things that occurred to me when Jessie and I chatted about this was that not much character building actually occurs when everything is going well, and you’re winning and the skis are perfect and the team vibe is great. Character building really happens when we’re getting knocked around a little bit.

And so I think this has been a great opportunity for Jessie to take a deep breath, and to remember that it isn’t winning that she loves about cross-country skiing, it’s cross-country skiing that she loves about skiing, and the team that she does it with and the staff that she does it with. And winning, the act of trying to win these races, is a wonderful process. But there’s so much more to it.

And I’m very proud of the perspective to be able to see that, and to remember that and to draw upon that during the Tour to stay happy and well. Were there hard days? Oh man, it was really hard. But were there moments during those hard days where Jessie was laughing, and the whole team was having a blast together? Big time. Because for us, it is not just about succeeding. It’s about doing this together and doing our best. And that’s really all we can control.

So yeah, perhaps this will be a blessing in disguise, and will take some of the overall World Cup pressure off. Because the main goal for every season is the major championships, it’s the World Championships or the Olympics. And the Tour de Ski, as important as that is, doesn’t really hold a candle to the Planica World Championships coming up.

And so that’s the beauty of our sport. It’s four-and-a-half months long [for the World Cup season] with 42 races or something like that, where you can place a higher priority on various events and you’re always looking forward to something. And that’s what we’re doing now. We’re resetting, we’re rezeroing, and we’re looking ahead.

Moving on here, there is no way to hide the fact that I just asked you about Jessie for 10 minutes, while by the way Rosie Brennan was a low-key fourth in this year’s race. So I should acknowledge that I’m not unique in American or global ski media in that focus; that’s on me. That said, can you talk about Rosie’s Tour please?

Yes, I think she probably is the second-best woman ever now in the U.S. when it comes to overall Tour results. Jessie won two years ago, and I believe Liz Stephen was fifth one year.

And it takes so much to go right to make it into the top five on the Tour. And Rosie was able to tie together a combination of good and great races to pull that off. It’s really remarkable, and a huge shoutout goes to her wax tech, and all of our service techs for for just consistently putting good skis on her feet.

The classic race on stage six was probably the best classic race of Rosie’s life. And to be able to do that six stages into a Tour is is pretty special.

Rosie had Covid in October at our at our fall camp. And I know she’s felt like she’s been largely recovered from it, but also still a percent or two missing from being able to just absolutely pin it. And I think perhaps she was feeling that earlier in the Tour. But I think she was racing unrestricted in the last couple of stages.

Last question: It’s been a big 10 days, to put it mildly. I’m sure you always learn something from every race and from every Tour, because you’re smart people who care about what you do. That said, I suspect that there may have been no shortage of learning opportunities from this year’s Tour de Ski. Can you talk about some of the things that you learned this year, both personally and as a team?

That’s an interesting question. And one thing is, we feel like we were staffed, with regards to ski service, right on the edge of what is internationally competitive going into the Tour. And so when we started to lose a tech here and a tech there, we really felt it. So that’s one thing, I think, is to increase our resources and personnel, when it comes to waxing for the Tour de Ski, but really any World Cup or World Championships.

We have a meeting with the athletes on the national team coming up on Monday to debrief about the whole Tour. That’s a big part of our program, is to make sure we’re not just always looking forward and forgetting what just happened, but we’re also taking a moment to reflect on what just went well, and what could be better. So that call is coming up on Monday, where we’ll crowdsource ideas from every athlete and staff member. And so I’m looking forward to that.

We want to talk about our Covid policy because we’re entering this transition in the pandemic, where perhaps it makes a little sense to lighten our standards a little bit. But at the same time, we were quite strict during the Tour, and we finished with healthy athletes despite an outbreak within the team. And so I am very confident that had we not had a strict protocol during the Tour, we would have also had Covid-positive athletes. So we’ll see where that goes.

I’m looking forward to hearing everybody, because this whole program is guided by all of us. That’s really our philosophy.

— Gavin Kentch

Would you like to read more articles like this? Would you like to help cover the site’s expenses to send Gavin on in-person reporting trips to both Houghton and Whistler for U.S. Nationals and World Juniors? Find out more about our GoFundMe (terms and conditions: we’re donating anything in excess of actual expenses back to NNF), and consider donating, here. You may have noticed that there are not, currently, any ads up on this site; your support truly makes a huge difference to the financial viability of this startup website. Thank you for your consideration.

Leave a Reply

Share post:



More like this

%d bloggers like this: