Amid reports of budget cuts and tightened belts throughout the entire U.S. Ski Team, it seems an unlikely time for the Nordic contingent to revive a development team to its structure. But after another successful World Cup season and the deep breath that follows an Olympic year, the U.S. Ski Team nominations for the 2014-15 winter include two additional names below the A and B team regulars: Ben Saxton (SMS T2) and Patrick “Paddy” Caldwell (Dartmouth Ski Team).
Saxton and Caldwell, both Dartmouth students and athletes from the Stratton Mountain School program, fit the ticket for U.S. Ski Team nominations after having breakout domestic and international years. Caldwell now ranks as one of the top-10 juniors in the world while Saxton posted multiple national podium results last season. However, it remains unclear what role the development team has in the Nordic pipeline, and why now is the time to reinstate the program.
“We had two young candidates in Ben Saxton and Patrick Caldwell that clearly demonstrated that they are on the path to potentially be among the best,” said USST Head Cross-Country Coach Chris Grover via email. Men’s team coach Jason Cork added that while the national team’s interest in the two athletes was sparked by their results, it was the positive attitude, long-term goals and commitment to the sport that made them stand out.
“At the end of the day, we needed to be able to go to the higher-ups and say that these guys were objectively ones that should be on the team—they’re young, they’ve had results, they want to get better, the points they have at their age compare well to guys winning World Cups, and they’ll be around for a couple of Olympic cycles,” remarked Cork.
The national team pipeline begins with a U16 summer talent camp and runs through U18 international trips, World Junior Championships, regional summer camps, U23s and the National Training Group (NTG). The idea is that if an athlete hits every step of the pipeline, he or she will have done what is necessary to make the U.S. Ski Team and post top-30 international results. In 2012, the U.S. Ski Team’s development squad was introduced to the pipeline, only to fade out the very next year.
Precisely how Saxton and Caldwell will fit into the structure of the national team remains to be revealed. At the top of the pipeline, NTG athletes are invited to participate in most USST training camps throughout the summer including Eagle Glacier in Alaska, early fall in Lake Placid, N.Y. and late fall in Park City, Utah. The D Team athletes are invited to these camps plus the early spring snow camp in Bend and Rookie Camp in Park City, for which, they must pay their own way.
“Although we unfortunately lack the ability to fund athletes at the D Team level, there are a few resources that we can use to support them that come with USST membership,” said Grover. They have access to the USST support system including training, testing and medical facilities, all of the staff and resources at Park City’s Center of Excellence as well as coaching and support from national team staff.
In terms of coaching, Cork will work with the athletes through coordination with their club coaches, Gus Kaeding and Patrick O’Brien for Saxton and Ruff Patterson for Caldwell.
“I talk to Ben, Paddy, Gus and Pat quite a bit, and we share video and training plans back and forth,” said Cork. “It works pretty well.”
As a step between the NTG and the World Cup level, D Team athletes are not promised anything beyond training opportunities and coaching support and must still earn international starting spots just like any domestic racer. For now, the concentration rests on smoothly transitioning the athletes into the USST culture by setting them up with other athletes to train with and from whom they can learn. For Saxton, that means following SMS T2 teammates Simi Hamilton and Andy Newell for sprinting, while Caldwell will likely train alongside distance skiers Erik Bjornsen and Noah Hoffman.
“As far as World Cups or U23 World Championships go, Ben and Paddy aren’t really getting any special favors,” noted Cork. “They still need to demonstrate that they deserve to go before they’re named to trips.”
Annie Pokorny, SMS T2 elite athlete and Middlebury College philosophy major, is our new Nordic intern who will be delivering SkiRacing.com readers the lowdown from the cross-country circuit this year.