Road to Sochi: U.S. Cross Country Team "Strongest Ever"

Jan 13, 2014

In late December, cross country skier Simi Hamilton had a career first. He claimed victory at a World Cup "stage race."
In late December, cross country skier Simi Hamilton had a career first. He claimed victory at a World Cup "stage race."
Credit nordic.usskiteam.com

History could be made at next month’s Winter Olympics in cross country skiing. Ski experts say the United States’ cross-country skiing team is the strongest it’s ever been. And, two of its members are from Aspen. This month, Noah Hoffman and Simi Hamilton learned they’re heading to Sochi. Hoffman specializes in distance racing. Hamilton excels in sprints. The United States hasn’t picked up a medal in cross-country skiing since 1976. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

More than three decades ago, William “Bill” Koch of Vermont, slid across the finish line at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics. He won the silver medal - the first and last time an American has medaled in cross-country skiing at an Olympics.

Koch was an innovator and helped usher in the “skate” style of skiing into international races. He told the Denver Post earlier this month, Americans haven’t dominated international cross-country skiing events because ”We’re not, as a nation, cross country skiers.”

Aspen ski racer Simi Hamilton agrees.

"In Europe, cross country racing is one of the biggest sports over there. Their best cross country skiers are the equivalent of Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant. It’s that caliber over there," he said.

Hamilton was the first male to win a World Cup competition since Bill Koch. Hamilton won a so-called “stage” race in Switzerland on December 31st.

"I was focusing so hard on not doing anything foolish in the last ten seconds, like putting my pole between my legs, so I didn’t really have time for emotion to set in immediately. I just made sure my foot crossed the line first in front of everyone else."

Hamilton’s not the only shining star on the U.S. team. Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, Alaska, has 10 World Cup victories. And, Aspen’s Noah Hoffman is rising up through the ranks. He found out this month, he qualified to compete in Sochi.

"At these Olympics, I think the challenging course and the altitude play to my strengths. The altitude is a little lower than home, but for most athletes it is really high. It’s up between five and six thousand feet," Hoffman said.

Maria Stuber is Nordic Director at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. She says she's impressed with this season's talent.

"Simi has been on the podium in a World Cup Stage and so has Noah. And, it’s just a really cool time for cross-country skiing, for sure," she said.

She says programs like hers and growing opportunities for athletes to train and ski after college are resulting in better athletes.

"So, skiers are continuing to stick with it older and older, which helps because our sport doesn’t show peak performance until you’re in your early to mid-30’s."

She says, this year, the U.S. is sending its strongest team ever to the Olympics.

"The last Olympics, people said our goal was to get a medal, but realistically, someone would have had to have the day of their life, even hoping for a small miracle to get one. And, now we have several athletes who have a chance to win medals. So, it’s a huge improvement from the last time we competed in the Olympics. And, it the first time it’s been this way in a very, very, very long time."

Even cross-country ski legend Bill Koch said “there’s definitely magic happening again.”

Ski racer Simi Hamilton says the team’s improving despite the odds.

"Every weekend we show up with half the money and half the staff size but twice the work ethic and twice the heart. Our coaches and ski technicians are out there just bustin’ their butts everyday. We compete against these nations that have ten’s of million dollar budgets," Hamilton said.

It remains to be seen whether the team can keep their momentum going into Sochi but so far, the athletes are at the top of their game.