Cross-country news - 5/2/9
By Iain Ballentine
Last month I had the chance to meet up with the GB Cross-Country Ski Team on training camp in Norway, and got a fascinating insight into the workings of the team and the psyche of the athletes as they prepared for the World Junior Championships, Youth Olympics and World Championships.
Think of the GB cross-country ski team and you might put them in the same box as the Jamaican Bobsleigh team or the Russian Cricket team. But make no mistake, these guys are serious. And they have some of the greatest skiing nations on earth scratching their heads and wondering what's going on.
I met up with the team for a week from the end of December to the start of January. The development group (aged 12-16) had just left and the older racers were staying on, some just for the week before heading back to school, others for the long haul. Four of the athletes - Fiona Hughes, Alex Standen, Simon Platt and Andrew Musgrave - are on a gap year, spending their time training and racing against some of the best young skiers in the world under the guidance of coaches Al Dargie and Roy Young.
For them, the experience is the culmination of years of skiing training and dreams of competing on the world stage. I first met most of the team - who are now aged 16-19 - more than half a decade ago, at the British Championships and at rollerski races in England. Although young, they were full of energy, that energy channelled and refined on skis by their then coaches, Bob Lacy and Angharad Evans. Throughout their teenage years, they have rollerskied together on training camps, raced whenever possible on snow and followed training plans laid down by their coaches. While others their age have been looking up to top footballers or pop stars, their heroes have been the world's top skiers and biathletes, who they have followed on Eurosport, hoping one day to be racing alongside them.
It seems almost incredible, but now they are. At the tail end of last season the squad entered a race in Finland, near the Arctic Circle. Racing at sea level, in good conditions, Andrew Musgrave and Andrew Young finished 9.3% and 12.23% behind the winner. This meant that Musgrave not only smashed the 120 FIS points required for World cup selection, but cruised under the 100 point mark with 96.51 FIS points. Equally amazing was Andrew Young’s performance at the tender age of just 16 in his first ever FIS race - just scraping under the qualification bar with 119.94 FIS points. What this meant was that the pair could enter the senior cross-country ski World Cup, and if they did, be among the youngest competitors ever to do so.
So, what to do? Rise to the challenge or leave it for another year? So much would have to be planned, so much to organise, no real experience in the UK of this kind of competition, the expense of it, would other nations take them seriously? Would Snowsport GB or other organisations support them? The hurdles in place looked formidable. On the other hand, they had been handed an opportunity, and would they regret it if they did not seize it? Also, Andrew Musgrave had just finished school (with top grades) and had the chance for a gap year, which doesn't come round all that often. Could now really be the time for it?
In the end the 'now or never' argument won over the 'let's leave it' argument. If there is one thing that is immediately apparent with the squad, it is that they are up for a challenge. And yet once they set their mind to something, they figure out the steps required to achieve it, and in an almost disarmingly matter-of-fact way, they get on with it. It helps that in their coaches, Al Dargie and Roy Young, they have a great resource. Both have thoughtful, analytical minds, both have an intense desire that all the squad fulful their potential. Their management of the athletes is made a good deal easier by the athletes' own self-motivation and discipline. But there has been a lot to do: every detail of the athletes' schedules has to be carefully planned - what training to do, which races to take part in. Also, the different athletes have different programmes and races - so race entries, accommodation, transport, waxing and a great many other, almost overwhelming, logistical considerations have to be taken care of. These are big challenges. Yet just whenever the coaches think the whole programme is too big for them, the athletes deliver yet another unexpected surprise, another shot of adrenalin for the coaches, and another reason to keep on going.
Back at the end of November Andrew Musgrave did his first World Cup races in Kuusamo, Finland. In the 1.2k classic sprint he finished 78th / 83 and in the 15k classic race he finished 82nd / 86. Not results he was all that pleased with, but the ball was rolling. In both races he was the youngest competitor and the occasion marked the first British World Cup entry since 1994.
Andrew Musgrave's next race was on 13th December, where he was joined by teammate Andrew Young, taking time off school to be one of the youngest ever athletes to take part in a World Cup race, the 15k classic in Davos, Switzerland. This time Andrew M. moved up the rankings to finish 68th / 80, with Andrew Y. finishing 77th / 80.
So by the time of our training camp, the two had become fully fledged World Cup skiers. Meanwhile the rest of the team had been busy too: Simon Platt, Alex Standen and Fiona Hughes had all taken part in FIS races in Sweden and Norway, marking big improvements in performance, which had been carefully analysed and recorded by the squad.
So what are the squad's secrets? How has it been achieving the results and, probably more impressively, the athletes' rates of improvement? What I observed was a great attention to detail in training. The video analysis of athletes' technique was particularly impressive, and Al Dargie showed me the tagging software used for observing techique. For each athlete you can chop up footage and tag it as, for example, 'double pole - front view or 'skate 1 - side view'. On the computer you can compare all records for any athlete of double poling from differnt angles, to identify progress - so when a particular athlete has a problem identified, such as a balance issue, you can see if it has been corrected.
More general factors include the degree to which the team has cultivated relationships with others in the sport. The Norwegians have been extremely hospitable, and have been very happy to give advice and help to the team. At the beginning the Norwegians didn't expect much of the Brits, but seeing them do well against Norwegian skiers has changed attitudes. Roy was speaking to a senior Norwegian coach who had seen Andrew Young ski, and mentioned that he was heading back to school the next day. 'He should not be in school' was the Norwegian's response. When I was there, the squad organised competitions against 'Team Sjusjoen', the local 'all stars' team on the weekend they weren't racing, which benefited all. In the past, and especially now in this formative season, the squad have been sponges - absorbing, distilling and learning from any source they can and from every race experience they have, and putting best practice into effect. Perhaps this is the key.
But behind it all lies a hunger to win, and a real David versus Golliath spirit. They are fighters - coaches and athletes alike - and have been so long before this season. Not only have they had to take on the likes of the Norway and Sweden in competition, they have also had to battle the powers that be within British sport. The team survives on a lean budget, and they make the most of any resources they have. While the GB Alpine team enjoys a fleet of Range Rovers - the product of a sponsorship deal between Snowsport GB and Land Rover - the Nordic team has had to fight tooth and nail to get a leased minibus. Although Snowsport GB is supposed to support all the main skiing disciplines, the impression is that it would probably rather the Nordic team didn't exist. The fact that on the Alpine side there are not such promising junior athletes coming up does not help. Andrew Musgrave's attempt to secure National Lottery funding was thwarted by the powers that be on Snowsport GB, depriving the squad of much needed support. But attitudes are changing: Roy tells me the English Institute of Sport have been particularly impressed with their development, and with the emphasis now firmly on funding following results - rather than being determined by the preferences of committee members - the pressure is now on Snowsport GB from various different quarters to lend more support to Nordic. The excuses of Snowsport GB not to support Nordic are looking increasingly thin.
I left the training camp much impressed with what I saw, and full of coaching and technique ideas. The weekend following my departure the team took part in races in Trondheim, which were selection races for the Norwegian Junior World Championships team. I got an email from Roy saying that Andrew Musgrave had come third, and, if he had been Norwegian he would have made it onto the Norwegian Junion World Championship team (he would also have been given a car and 10 pairs of skis). Although what the squad has achieved so far will probably never be fully recognised in the UK, for as long as they remain focused, they look set to impress those in the know. As for the dreams of the athletes involved, anything still looks distincly possible.