In what qualified as a banner year for American skiing, the United States collected 10 top-20 results in individual races at the World Ski Championships last March in Germany.
Alaska’s David Norris supplied two of them.
Yet when the U.S. Ski Team announced its 21-person roster for the 2021-22 season last week, Norris wasn’t on it.
It’s the second straight year that Norris, one of the country’s best distance skiers, was left off the team. And that doesn’t count 2018, when he missed making the Winter Olympics team by a narrow margin.
“It feels like I’ve been on the bubble my whole life,” Norris said. “Unfortunately the past two years when it’s been very close, I’ve thought that objectively my results should get me on the team and they haven’t.
“I guess I’m mature enough at this point to be able to not get discouraged to the point where it actually impacts my training and my motivation.”
That maturity comes with age, and age is one of the things working against Norris. He’s 30 years old, and the U.S. Ski Team has tougher qualifying standards for skiers as they age.
Not making the team matters financially.
“It means a lot. There’s a huge list of benefits by being on the team,” Norris said.
Being on the team means expenses are covered at training camps in the summer and World Cup races in the winter. Norris not only has to pay for his own airfare, room and board, he has to do the same for a wax technician. U.S. Ski Team members have technicians provided for them.
“It trickles down to where it’s easier to gain sponsorship and things like that when you have ‘U.S. Ski Team’ on your resume,” he said.
“It’s more complicated not being on the national team.”
Norris missed the first two months of the season with COVID-19 and didn’t ski a World Cup race — or any other kind of race — until late January.
He hit his stride at the World Championships in March, placing 16th in the 50-kilometer classic race and 17th in the 30K skiathlon.
“I believe he should be on the U.S. team,” said Erik Flora, the head coach of the Alaska Pacific University nordic program that counts Norris as a member. “After returning from COVID, he was able to perform as one of the top distance men at the World Championships.”
Only five other Americans registered top-20 results at the World Championships. One of them, Sadie Maubet Bjornsen, has since retired. All of the others — Jessie Diggins, Rosie Brennan, Scott Patterson and Ben Ogden — were named to the national team.
Team selection was based on either of two objective criteria, and Norris missed both. He either needed to finish in the top 40 of the final world distance rankings (he was 160th). Or he needed a top-6 and a top-12 finish at the World Championships (he was 16th and 17th).
The world rankings are based on FIS points, and improving points can be tough for skiers who race on the World Cup all the time, like Norris does.
“It’s easier to get better points when you race at the domestic level than the international level, because it’s all based on percent-back,” he said, referring to a point system based on how far back a skier finishes behind the winner.
As a result, a skier who wins an FIS race at Kincaid Park can score better points than one who finishes in the top 15 while racing against the best in the world in the World Cup race — even though the Kincaid Park winner has never made it into the top 30 of a World Cup race.
And so you get a case like the one Norris is in: he ranks sixth in FIS points nationally in distance skiing. Yet he’s one of just three active skiers with top-30 results in World Cup distance results.
Of the 21 skiers selected to the team, 14 met the objective criteria. Another seven earned spots based on discretion, including Alaskans Scott Patterson, Logan Hanneman, Hunter Wonders, Kendall Kramer and Hannah Halvorsen.
“Maybe a little side of me was expecting if they did use discretion on a handful of people, maybe it would be appropriate for me as well,” Norris said.
Norris said he thinks he has recovered fully from COVID-19, although it dogged him throughout the season.
“I never felt like I had that top-end gear. I’d feel great and then with a few (kilometers) to go I couldn’t dig deep,” he said. “I couldn’t say if it was because my training was being impacted by COVID, or if it was COVID itself.”
But missing two months with COVID-19 ultimately didn’t make a difference to U.S. Ski Team officials.
“We are for sure sympathetic to the fact that he had Covid in the fall,” Chris Grover, the cross-country program director for the U.S. Ski Team, said by email. “The challenge of course is that his situation was not unique. There were other athletes that had Covid as well.”
The good news for Norris is he’s an Alaskan, and Alaskans understand cross-country skiing better than many Americans.
When Norris asks for support from businesses or individuals, he’s usually asking people who know he’s one of the best in the nation even if he isn’t on the national team. They know he’s a nonfunded athlete who can beat most of the guys on the U.S. Ski Team. They know he’s the record-holder at Mount Marathon and a former American Birkebeiner champion. They know he’s the real deal.
“It’d be way sweeter to not have to ask for support, but it’s panned out,” he said.
Norris does bookkeeping and accounting work in the offseason and said he has a steady flow of work and a flexible employer. Sponsors and donors “have been super generous,” he said, and he will chase a spot on the 2022 Winter Olympic team no matter what.
“I think it’s reasonable to shoot for a top-10 at the Olympics,” Norris said. “It’s just harder being outside (the national team’s) system.
“But I was talking to Erik Flora earlier, and we have everything going for us here in terms of training. They groomed Hatcher Pass (last week) and there were 30 young people up there doing intervals. It’s no surprise Alaskans are doing well, because the culture is here and the training opportunities are good.”