Team USA’s Higher Standard

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On January 22, the day selections for Team USA were announced, Sylvan Ellefson received an email. “We regret to inform you,” it read, before adding that he hadn’t made the cut despite “an impressive season.” Ellefson wasn’t shocked – “I was preparing myself for the worst,” he says – but he wasn’t not shocked either. He’d thought a first place finish at the U.S. Cross-Country Championships would count for something.

Unlike most Olympic athletes, who have to have top finishes in qualifying events, American cross-country skiers make the cut by either working their way up the ranks or attracting the attention of coach Chris Grover, who can exercise his own discretion during the selection process. This year, Grover elected to draft only the country’s top ranked International Ski Federation (FIS) and World Cup competitors. What’s more, he opted to leave three spots on the squad empty instead of adding up-and coming skiers like Ellefson and Caitlin Gregg, who crushed the field at the national championship by three and a half minutes.

That means that all Ellefson has to show for beating four Sochi-bound skiers at once is an email and some lingering questions.

“I’m not angry at anyone,” says Ellefson. “I’m just frustrated that all the spots weren’t filled. It was never really stated that we wouldn’t take all of our quota spots. I think we deserve an explanation for that.

Grover’s explanation is simple. “We can only start four men per race, so we have the athletes we need for the Games,” he explains. “Sylvan was not in the top-ranked 17 athletes anyway, so he would not have been named even if we’d taken more athletes.”

The numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story either. There is little difference in FIS point totals among the top- and bottom-ranked members of Team USA. And those totals are in constant flux. The numerical system – so long as the coach decides to strictly adhere to it – is not designed to reward athletes coming into their own.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing to have high standards,” says Ellefson, “but a lot of times the underdogs and the dark horses get left out of the mix.”

Tempting as it is to believe that the best of the best will be in Sochi, that may not actually be the case. Plenty of extremely talented just-missed-it athletes like Ellefson will be watching from their couches – especially in the U.S. The flip side of Olympic glory is their Olympic disappointment. Athletes who lost in qualifying events at least know why they didn’t make the cut.  Ellefson still isn’t sure. When he says “I know how close I was,” he is both wrong – only Coach Grover can really know – and entirely correct. He could feel it.

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