Freeman skips nationals to chase World Cup's Red Group

Freeman skips nationals to chase World Cup’s Red Group{mosimage}While another throng of perhaps 400 skiers assembles in Rumford, Maine, for the Chevy Truck U.S. Cross-Country Championships, which run January 3-11, top dog Kris Freeman will be readjusting to life in Europe. He’s skipping the championships — won’t be defending the two titles he won a year ago, also in Rumford — because he’s focusing on the World Cup tour.

“My goals are on the World Cup. I want to be in the Red Group [i.e., top 30] and I want to be on a podium [i.e., top three],” said Freeman, who stood 17th in the points as the tour went on holiday break. The racing resumes January 6 in Falun, Sweden, but Freeman’s first race will be a 30km mass start, classic technique bruiser January 10 in Otepaa, Estonia.

No U.S. skier had been in the Red Group until Freeman, a diabetic who self-injects up to six or seven insulin shots a day, surged with a sixth-place finish in a 30km mass start freestyle race in Toblach, Italy, and then a fifth-place finish before Christmas in Davos, Switzerland. They were the best U.S. results since 1984.

When the World Cup became official with the 1982 season (and a steel-willed Vermonter named Bill Koch upset the charts to win the title in a final-race duel with Swedish great Thomas Wassberg), there were four seeding groups. Nations were allowed to put two skiers in each group. Later, the Red Group was established; the closest any Yank has come to the top 30 was Nina Kemppel, who was 32nd in Winter ’96.

“I think I can win on the World Cup,” Freeman said at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, following a clinic for Fischer Skis during the holidays. “On the right day, with the right wax, I can do it. I’m still learning things but I know I can do it.”

It will be a 10-week sojourn for Freeman, who spent December overseas with Carl Swenson, but he’ll be rejoined by his U.S. teammates after they finish nationals in Rumford, Maine. Swenson, who won the three skating races at the 2003 U.S. championships while Freeman took both classic tests, elected to see if he could add to his pile of eight U.S. titles; he opened the season with an 11th and 13th in December World Cups.

At the same time, European nations haven’t missed a beat as they regroup and start building their own head of steam for the 2005 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, and the 2006 Olympics around Turin, Italy.

Estonian Kristina Smigun, runnerup to retired Norwegian icon Bente Skari a year ago, won four of the seven races she entered and found a new face to duel with this season with the emergence of Valentina Shevchenko from the Ukraine and occasionally with Italian Gabi Paruzzi. Olga Savialova has gotten strong backup from Alena Sidko as Russia regroups and replaces the disgraced Olga Danilova and Larissa Lazhutina.

Among the men, where the top three are 39 points apart, two-time champion Per Elofsson of Sweden hasn’t shown his all-conquering form of 2001 and ’02, but teammates Mathias Fredriksson — the defending World Cup champ and No. 2 in the pre-holiday points parade — and Anders Soedergren are fueling Sweden’s resurgence. Germany’s gotten storybook results from Rene Sommerfeldt, the World Cup leader despite no wins in nine races and only three top-threes, plus Axel Teichmann and Tobias Angerer.

Thomas Alsgaard may have retired but the Norwegian men haven’t gone away. Jens Arne Svartedal is the only one in the top five (at No. 5), but there are two more in the top 10, another three in the top 20.

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