Thursday, April 23, 2015

2015 World Championships - Medals

I've been involved in a lot of really cool ski racing over the years. And up until very recently, when someone would ask what my favourite race was that was always an easy answer for me: December 22, 2009. Olympic trials. 30km classic. Must win situation. And Madeleine won in dramatic fashion.

That is still my favourite day of ski racing. But now it's a tie with February 24, 2015 when team USA won two world championship medals in the same race in Falun.

I've been asked 100 times what happened, what was it like. And I've never really gotten around to writing anything down. Luckily, Zach did.

Here, word for word, is an account Zach sent a couple of months after the race. I could not have described it any better. 

Is this real life? Some very happy waxers. (Zach Caldwell photo)

The medals ceremony at World Championships is a fun thing to attend. Especially when your team has won two medals. (Zach Caldwell photo)

Falun World Championship Report (by Zach Caldwell)

Every championship series has its up and downs. But sport is always defined by the triumphant moments, and Falun this year was all about one really huge day for the US team. Medals are the goal, and everybody acknowledges that hitting that goal means that everything has to go exactly right. So what does it mean when you get two medals? Obviously, it means that two American women showed up with their best performance on the biggest day, and it means that the entire staff produced something close to perfect skis. But it has to be acknowledged that two US medals also means that some other players did not show up. That is sport, and nobody is going to apologize for it.

However, it’s worth asking the question on skis alone; how does a small program like the US produce superior skis at a championship event against a country like Norway? I can tell you that it’s not a question of being smarter than everybody else, or of working harder than everybody else. The US service staff always works hard, and is among the most critical and open-minded groups I’ve seen. But if they were just plain better than the rest of the world, I think we’d see it more often!
I think the answer has to be someplace in the procedure, and in the comparative scale of operations. Let’s take the example of Jessie’s skis – she has twelve or fifteen pairs of skate skis and she can only race on one. Jason Cork is her service tech, and he will often put eight or more pairs on the snow on a given day. That means that on a given day, Jessie might have two thirds of her total available skis on the snow – suggesting that a pretty broad cross section of materials and represented conditions is being covered by testing.

Marit Bjorgen, on the other hand, might have three (or more) times the number of skis that Jessie has. But it’s unlikely that her service techs have the resources to test too many more skis than Jason will test for Jessie on a given race day. So a narrower range of selections have to be made simply to get the skis on the snow. Marit’s eight pairs are likely to more closely target the expected range of conditions than Jessie’s eight pairs.

The same thing happens with wax, and hand structure. The more options you’ve got, the more options you’ve got to exclude from the testing, and therefor, the more targeted the testing becomes. This guarantees that, when conditions behave according to expectation, you’ll capture more of the very small range of advantages available in those conditions. Norway is the best service team in the world because they consistently win the war of small margins.

But what happens when conditions don’t behave according to expectation? What if, for some reason, the fully transformed and wet snow inexplicably responds best to skis, structures and waxes that you’d normally use in newer and drier snow? In that case, the systematic work of a large program with huge resources is likely to be focused on the wrong quadrant of the conditions map. While a smaller team like the US might have less chance of winning the tight battle for primacy in the range of expected conditions, it is well poised to pick-up a massive advantage on the rare day when conditions simply don’t behave as they’re supposed to.

The day of the 10K at World Champs was interesting because the testing unfolded pretty much as it normally would. The team always works hard to test as much as they can, and the procedure for the 10K was the same as always. When all the ski prep was done and we were headed out onto the course for the race, somebody got on the radio and said “hey, it’s really starting to snow.” Gus Kaeding was the first guy to reply, and he said “…we’re waxed for that!” at just about the same time that I was thinking the same thing. We didn’t wax in anticipation of the snow, but the wax that tested fastest was really good for the falling snow. If we hadn’t cast as broad a net in ski and wax testing, we wouldn’t have landed on that combination. There is no way I would have bet on the final combo before the testing was finished, even if somebody had proposed it to me. Which is probably why it all worked out so well.

I’ve seen that sort of circumstance before – where a team puts up hugely over-representative results. It’s a rare thing, and most often I’ve been on the wrong side of the break. In general, it’s a better bet to focus on putting the athletes in the race, and to accept the minor disadvantage that comes from a massively uneven playing field in terms of service resources. I feel really lucky to have been present for that 10K race in Falun. The result generated the kind of raw happiness that isn’t normal outside of childhood. It’s not just the happiness of success, it’s the happiness of being smiled-on by amazing good fortune. It’s the opposite of entitlement. And it was all enhanced by the amazing number of congratulations that the staff received from pretty much every team and industry supplier at the event.

Sometimes we lose track of the fact that it’s all sport. It’s good to be reminded that it’s not a war – it’s a game. Your competitors are going to come and give you heartfelt congratulations when you win. Make sure that you’re always prepared to do the same.