Last week Nordic Insights wrote an article based on a press release from U.S. Ski & Snowboard stating which athletes had been named to the American team for 2023 FIS Cross Country World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia.
I have since had the opportunity to follow up with several of the named athletes individually, and to explore the distinction between “named to the team” and “accepting the nomination and expecting to compete.” I can now report that at least five of the eighteen athletes officially named to the team will not be traveling to Planica: Alayna Sonnesyn and Novie McCabe, for the women, and Zak Ketterson, Johnny Hagenbuch, and Luke Jager, for the men.
Here’s what they’ll be doing instead:
Alayna Sonnesyn: The SMS skier wrote on Instagram yesterday that she was “proud and excited” to have qualified for her first World Champs team, but was having to face the reality that she was unlikely to receive a start in any of the races in Planica. (More on the harsh math of start rights and team size at the end of this article.)
Sonnesyn added that she would be heading home to spend time with her support system for the sake of her mental health and overall wellbeing. She said in the comments to her post, linked above, that she would be racing this year’s Birkie, a race that she has won multiple times before.
Novie McCabe: “I am not going to go to Planica,” the University of Utah skier wrote to Nordic Insights in a recent text. “I am an alternate for a few races but I think the chances of going over and not racing would be quite high. It would still of course be super cool to go over there and be part of the team/cheer for everyone and I am bummed to miss that, but I’m opting to stay in the US and do some racing in Alaska [starting next week on the RMISA collegiate circuit] before hopefully going to NCAA!”
Zak Ketterson: The Team Birkie athlete will be staying home to race in the Midwest, including upcoming SuperTour races at Wirth Park in Minneapolis and the American Birkebeiner. In a late-January post, embedded above, Ketterson wrote of “struggling with a seemingly unshakable tiredness” since the end of this year’s Tour de Ski. He has been training in the Twin Cities for the past few weeks.
John Steel Hagenbuch: The Dartmouth College athlete will be staying in this country to race the NCAA circuit. Steel Hagenbuch pronounced himself only “moderately content” with both of his individual races at World U23s in Whistler, while alluding to lacking sharpness after a heavy recent racing load.
Luke Jager: The University of Utah athlete will likewise be staying in this country for NCAA races. “Just want to spend time in one place for a while and get to focus on college skiing my last year and hopefully get to compete at NCAAs,” Jager wrote in a text to Nordic Insights. “Stoked to watch the team every race though because they are going to crush.”
McCabe and Jager’s college teammates at Utah, Sophia Laukli and Sydney Palmer-Leger, both confirmed with Nordic Insights that they will be traveling to Planica and expect to race, so the NCAA athletes named to the team have divergent responses here.
In conclusion, my understanding is that the American team traveling to Planica and planning to start at least one race there is, in full:
- Rosie Brennan (APU)
- Jessie Diggins (SMS)
- Julia Kern (SMS)
- Sophia Laukli (University of Utah)
- Sydney Palmer-Leger (SMS and University of Utah)
- Hailey Swirbul (APU)
- Kevin Bolger (Sun Valley)
- David Norris (Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club)
- Ben Ogden (SMS and University of Vermont)
- Scott Patterson (APU)
- JC Schoonmaker (Sugar Bowl Ski Team & Academy)
- Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars)
- Hunter Wonders (APU)
This is a total of thirteen athletes, considerably less than the eighteen athletes originally announced as having been named to the team.
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Now for some brief news analysis: While I am not going to attempt to sketch out precisely which athletes should expect to start each race, it was clear from my reporting, as well as from things like Sonnesyn’s public comments (“it’s looking like I will not have a start for any of these races”), that athletes already have a pretty strong sense for which races they could expect to compete in.
This is, if you’ll pardon one paragraph worth of editorializing here, something between a sensible thing to communicate in advance and a common courtesy before asking an athlete to commit time and money for lengthy travel to a European championship. Laukli, Palmer-Leger, Schoonmaker, and Schumacher were all racing in Whistler earlier this month, and Norris has been racing and coaching in Colorado for his day job with Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. It is helpful to give athletes some sense for what to expect before they travel from North America to Europe.
Each country is allotted four starts per gender per race (plus a fifth starter, with a special bib, if you are the defending world champion in an event, which does not currently describe anyone on the American team).
I haven’t asked, so I can’t report, whether Jessie Diggins and Rosie Brennan intend to start every race in Planica this year, but they have both done precisely this at major championships in the past. Julia Kern is currently ranked sixth in this year’s World Cup sprint standings, but also is twelfth in the overall, and was 10th and 11th in her last two distance races. Hailey Swirbul won every race at U.S. Nationals last month, in both sprint and distance. Sydney Palmer-Leger was the most consistent U23 performer in the distance races in Whistler. Sophia Laukli had the highest American finish in Whistler, fifth in the 10km skate, and even that was frankly below her expectations. Even with just six women going to Planica, four athletes per race means that coaches will be leaving some talent on the sidelines.
The distance vs. sprint breakdown is a little cleaner for the men: Alaskans David Norris, Scott Patterson, Gus Schumacher, and Hunter Wonders are primarily distance skiers, while Kevin Bolger, Ben Ogden, and JC Schoonmaker are primarily sprinters. But Ogden’s sixth in the 10km classic in stage 3 of this year’s Tour de Ski is also the single best American men’s World Cup distance result this year, and without doing the research is probably the best American men’s World Cup distance result since Kris Freeman, so even that may be a little complicated.
There is ample precedent for American athletes receiving no or limited starts at a global championship. Caitlin Patterson spent 2+ weeks in the Olympic bubble in Beijing last February, and didn’t start a single race. Her Zhangjiakou housemate Sophia Laukli got only one start, in the 30km skate — and finished 15th. One Olympiad earlier, Annie Hart described her experience as an ultimately non-starting alternate for the classic sprint in Pyeongchang, writing, “you go to training, help with tactics, get ready to go in case your needed…but most importantly cheer like crazy when your teammates toe the line.”
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Finally, I apologize for publishing an article last week that, it seems erroneously, referred to “the 18 athletes … who will represent the U.S.” in Planica. I wrote an article that said this because I was looking at an advance copy of a USSS press release that began, “U.S. Ski & Snowboard announced the 18 athletes of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team that will compete” in Planica. The press release at one point listed multiple athletes that “will also travel to Slovenia,” including multiple athletes that, it seems, will not in fact travel to Slovenia.
I am not even trying to be incredibly snarky with this phrasing, honest, so much as just to make clear where I got my information from and why I wrote what I did. Finally, I should also note that athletes’ sponsor contracts often provide bonuses for being “named to” a global championship team (in addition to separate performance bonuses for finishing place x or y or better at a global championship), so it is not necessarily a disservice to an athlete for USSS to name them to the team even if they do not ultimately accept the nomination or travel to the race venue.
— Gavin Kentch