It’s been a few weeks to let the dust settle from the World Cup season and to see which athletes would continue or call it quits. Even with Kristin Størmer-Steira deciding to continue her career for a couple more years, this is one of the strongest retiring classes we’ve seen in a long time. What interests me the most is how young the retirees are getting, the average age of this year is around 29-30 years old. Seems like with advances in training methodologies and equipment, this sport is tending to lean to slightly younger athletes now. Here it goes, an homage to the athletes leaving the World Cup stage…
Petra Majdic (1979) – A Slovenian that captivated the ski world over the past couple years has had her rise and fall (read: Olympic Games spint) recorded closely and has earned the respect of her fellow competitors and the ski world in general. By far and away the happiest athlete on the circuit, she always had a smile on her face when the cameras were on her before the race started.Her career was illustrious and she went out on top winning the final sprint race of the season in Stockholm which earned her the third Sprint Crystal Globe of her career and the third in the past four years.
Her wrap sheet is extremely impressive as she sits in fourth all-time in wins (24) behind Bjørgen, Valbe and Skari and just ahead Belundo; not bad company. She is second all-time in sprint wins, behind Bjørgen. Add 33 World Cup podiums and her most famous medal of all, her bronze from Vancouver and you have a massive talent that is leaving while still one of the best in the world.
Pirjo Muranen (1981) – Another sprinter, another athletes that leaving the game while on top of the world. She won her last race ever at Finnish Nationals and was one of the most consistent sprinters on the world stage during the past decade. She was the World Sprint Champion from 2001 and was always a sure bet to make it past the quarter-finals. In the past couple years, she was never put in the same group as Majdic, Follis, Bjorgen and more recently Randall for best sprinters in the world, but her leaving the stage will leave a decent hole to fill in the talent pool.
Arianna Follis (1977) – A skier that was still in her prime. Follis, a freestyle specialist, finished third in the World Cup Overall and second in the Sprint Cup this year. Talking about leaving with your head held high. It seemed like Follis was aging like a fine wine, and her final year was by far and away her most successful. The Italian has been the backbone of the nations women’s team for numerous years and her presents will be dearly missed. Italy will still have Longa and Genuin to lead the charge, but without Follis, those medals in the team sprint will be extremely hard to come by in the next couple years until new talent comes up. With three World Cup victories and the sprint World Championship from Liberec, Follis is leaving the sport with only an Olympic medal missing from her trophy room.
Lina Andersson (1981) – The Swede hangs up the skis after having a fairly successful career. Her best days are far behind her and was a pioneer of sorts for the Swedish women before the likes of Falk, Ingemarsdotter, Kalla and the next generation athletes came through. She led the way and her career included two victories in 102 World Cup starts, but the career highlight was her silver medal from the 2005 World Champs behind teammate Emelie Öhrstig.
Vincent Vittoz (1975) – Known for his skating prowess, Vittoz had been the face of the French team for 10+ years. He’s been the most decorated French cross-country skier of all time and at the age of 35-years old, still had a couple decent performances in his final year including a third place in the Lahti pursuit. In 179 World Cup starts, Vittoz earned seven victories and added a World Championship gold from Oberstorf in the 30km pursuit.
It’s really too bad that he endured that bad left thigh abductor injury during the relay in Gällivare which saw him miss six crucial weeks of racing and training. A brutal injury to sideline him and minimize his chances going into the World Champs.
In the past couple days, he’s been offered the job of being the new French U23 head coach. It will be interesting to see if he takes the job. If he does, the French youth system just got a massive boost with the amount of knowledge and experience Vittoz has to offer.
Jens Filbrich (1979) – Like Grey, 11 year vet a journeyman for his country. He was never a star and skied in the shadows of his much more illustrious teammates (Sommerfeldt, Teichmann and Angerer all won the World Cup Overall) for his career, but that doesn’t mean that he was a poor skier. The classic specialist was a very good skier in his own right and in 127 World Cup starts, he earned five podiums and helped Germany to five World Championship team medals and earned a bronze medal in Sapporo in the 50km mass start.
Emmanuel Jonnier (1975) – Another stronghold of the French team for many years, Jonnier’s best years were definitely behind him. He was an integral part of the French relay team, but in the past year, Miranda and Duvillard had skipped past him in the pecking order. The majority of the last season was spent on the Alpen Cup circuit with only three World Cup appearances. In 96 World Cup starts, Jonnier earned three World Cup podiums with his best race in Falun in 2007 where he was 0.4 seconds behind Angerer for the win.
Jens Arne Svartedal (1976) – Unlike the majority of the ladies who retired, it’s safe to say that Svartedal’s best years were far behind him. The 35-year old was one of the best classic specialists of his time and his career was highlighted by becoming World Champion at the 2007 World Champs in Sapporo in the classic sprint. Primarily known as a sprinter, Svartedal could throw down distance results too as he showed and five of his 22 World Cup medals came in the 15km classic including his last ever World Cup podium in which he finished 2nd in Val di Dentro in February 2009. He was one of the more consistent skiers of the last decade and scored at least one World Cup medal in every year from 2000-2009. His rap sheet is even more impressive as he stepped on the World Cup podium 22 times in his career and hit the start line 120 times. That’s an average of one podium every six races.
George Grey (1979) – A stalwart for the Canadian team through his 10-year career. He was the man before Kershaw and Harvey took over the show. I remember him coming to a training camp in BC when I was in high school and giving a talk to us younger ones. He told us to never gave up on your dreams; that was in 2003. He told us he was never the fastest in Canada when he was our age and at Nationals would finish 10th-20th. He became fast by making sacrifices. Up to that date, one of his proudest moments was to hang onto Axel Teichmann for 5km after being passed by the U23 standout at a World cup race the year before.
Fast forward to the 2010 Olympics and Grey finishes in 8th place in the 30km pursuit on home snow in the province he grew up in. Easily the race of a lifetime and for that whole season, he skied amongst the best in the world, continually scoring points in every World Cup race he entered.
Unfortunately, his final season on the World Cup is one to forget. A combination of his first child being born and an injury resulted in only five World Cup starts and his best placing was 32nd (78th, 84th, 79th and 68th were the other race finishes). However, while he didn’t finish his World Cup career the way he would have liked, he performances at Canadian Nationals in Canmore wrapped up a career that spanned a decade as he won the 10km free, 15km classic and most importantly the 50km free mass start in the very last race of his competitive career; a story book ending.
Stefan Kuhn (1979) – Kuhn’s ski career is one of the more interesting stories. After being a stand-out junior, he decided to leave the sport in his early 20′s, but came back and skied his way back onto the Canadian National Team as a sprint specialist and in 2005 had his first of 31 World Cup starts. His best World Cup finish was 15th in Kuusamo 2008, but his career highlight was probably qualifying 10th at the 2010 Olympics in front of friends and family to ultimately finish 15th.
Andrus Veerapalu (1971) – Well what can I say, he WAS the big time racer of this generation. Always showed up and threw down when it was necessary. While there was always speculation, now we know for sure. He’s the Johann Muelegg of this decade.
It leaves a bitter tastes in all our mouths especially when we realize that since he “won” the 15km in Liberec, that robbed Kris Freeman of the bronze medal that he truly deserved. Instead, Freeman will never get that recognition thanks to a life-long cheater; and that is a depressing thought.
In addition to Freeman, Veerpalu robbed the Norwegian Erling Jevne a bronze from the 2001 Lahti World Champs and Swede Niklas Jonsson from what would be his only World Champs medal from 1999 in Ramsau. On the Olympic side, it was Anders Aukland from the 15km in 2002 and Rotchev from the 50km and the German Andreas Schlutter in the 15km in Torino. For those athletes, it will be years after until they finally get that medal, long after they can capitalize on potential monetary gains through sponsorships.
These caught dopers have much more repercussion that just their own and their countries tarnished reputation, they helped reduce potential increases in monetary means for those that finished behind them. A very important part of skiing, especially for those athletes that don’t come from traditional ski markets such as Russia, Sweden and Norway.
It reminds me of when Lazutina and Danilova were caught using darbepoetin after the 2002 Olympics which turned Beckie Scott’s bronze medal into the gold. How much more recognition would Scott earned had those two athletes been caught before the Olymics. It took Beckie two and a half years to finally be recognized as an Olympic Champnion. Would she have gotten those big sponsorship deals that Crawford got after her gold in Torino? Likewise, with Freeman winning bronze in Liberec, how much more press and potential sponsors would he have gotten?
Perhaps the FIS could open an escrow account where a certain percentage of medallists reward money from Olympics and World Champs would go until they retire. I know that skiers don’t have the most lavish lifestyles, so instead of an escrow account for those making under a certain amount, perhaps a hefty fine AND suspension which I think should be lengthened to four years. The fine could be redistributed to those athletes that went for the moral high road when competing in the sport they love, but ultimately came up short to said cheater.
I’ve heard and read the defiant attitude of those backing Veerpalu and I’m not convinced. Chris from NCP touches on it a bit, but why would Veerpalu retire right before the World Champs, and keep the positive “A” test quiet instead of fighting the test from the beginning?
So far the Facebook to support Veerpalu has almost 69,000 members, but unfortunately, this situation doesn’t involved a democratic vote so the number of people doesn’t matter. Veerpalu has already tested positive TWICE (A and B samples) and as it stands now, Veerpalu is guilty until proven innocent.
That’s it for me. The Veerpalu story was irregular case, but usually watching for interesting ski news in April and May is like watching snow melt. I’ll be back with a round-up of the on-goings from the rest month for the ski world.
Til then, have a great spring.