PARK CITY, UT (Dec. 19) - Following up one of its most successful seasons in 25 years isn't the easiest of milestones to beat. But the 2009 U.S. Cross Country Ski team is four competitions into its World Cup season and ready to hit its stride to compete for another page in the annals of history.
"We had our best winter in 25 years of U.S. cross country skiing, and this past summer was even better than the summer before for training. We had great camps, great head-to-head training sessions, and all of our athletes were obviously at a higher level than before," said Cross Country Head Coach Pete Vordenberg. "So, we have higher expectations this season to have some podium results on the World Cup and a podium at World Championships."
The Team, which experienced a good amount of World Cup podium success in the 2008 season, has focused on training throughout the summer months to prepare for what it feels can be another monumental season.
"Our World Cup skiers have had tremendous off season training, they are fit, healthy and fired up to test themselves against the rest of the World Cup athletes," Nordic Program Director John Farra said. "While training can be perfect and testing results point to improved results, the only true measure is the weekly battles with the rest of the world's best."
According to Vordenberg, on the whole, the focus for the Team is to pace itself for success.
"This year we are looking at being in Europe, adjusting, training well, and hitting the World Cups with performance at the forefront of our minds. It's the same for World Championships," Vordenberg said. "Our preparation has been focused on achieving great results at specific events mostly because looking toward the Olympics, it's one race on one day and we have to learn to peak for specific events."
Among the athletes to watch are World Cup performers Kris Freeman (Andover, NH), Andy Newell (Shaftsbury, VT), Torin Koos (Leavenworth, WA), Chris Cook (Rhinelander, WI) and Kikkan Randall (Anchorage, AK).
Geared up and ready to put on a show for the women is Randall who, last season, became the first woman to win a modern day FIS World Cup in a sprint at Rybinsk, Russia December 2007. It also was the first U.S. victory in cross country since Bill Koch in 1983. American Allison Owen-Spencer last won in 1978, before the FIS established the permanent World Cup series.
"I'm looking forward to making sure I am prepared for all the sprints on the schedule this year. Last year there were three skate sprints and this year there are six and one at World Championships," Randall said. "The fact that I did well in the skate sprints and won makes me feel strongly that I can win. I'm looking forward to winning some more World Cups this year."
Randall began her World Cup season in Kuusamo, Finland, finishing 33rd in her first sprint and 23rd in a 10K. Her competition travels then took her to Davos, Switzerland, where, after an unlucky tangle with another athlete, she was 26th. She will be one of the favorites in this weekend's Dusseldorf sprints.
Another athlete who has been preparing heavily after landing on the World Cup podium in Finland last March is Newell who aims for the top of the podium each weekend.
"Last year's second place finish has motivated me a lot because I know I have what it takes, but this year I'm going for a win," Newell said. "It's hard to say how I will stack up in the overall, but I'm going to try to take it one World Cup at a time and see what I can do. If it's classic or skate, I'm going to try to win each weekend."
Newell kicked off the season with some good momentum, finishing 11th in a sprint in Kuusamo, but an unexpected slip as he was in the lead at the top of the race hill in Davos, Switzerland, pushed him back to 26th.
With World Championships coming over the horizon, Newell also says that part of his plan is to hit a stride that has him at his best for the title event - a competition he has spent his whole training period focusing on.
"My preparation for this season has been more focused than ever before. My coaches and I have tried to simplify our training a little bit to try and figure out what kind of intervals work best for me and how to peak best for World Champs," Newell said. "That's the main focus for the year - the sprint at World Champs."
Backing up the World Cup Team in its pursuit of success is the Continental Cup Team, which features athletes Liz Stephen (East Montpelier, VT), who took the bronze medal at the U23 World Championships, marking her first international medal, and Garrott Kuzzy (Hayward, WI), who had back-to-back wins during the Madison, WI, SuperTour.
For now, however, the athletes plan to take it one day at a time as a Team.
"This is going to be an exciting year. I think our team has come a long way as a whole." Randall said. "As well as my individual World Cup, I'm just excited for a year as a team because I think we're going to have a lot of success on all levels. I'm just excited to be a part of it."