Selection For Team USA At PyeongChang Olympics Runs Gamut From Competition to Committee – And Everything In Between

By Karen Rosen | Jan. 03, 2018, 6:12 p.m. (ET)

Adam Rippon skates his short program to “Let Me Think About It,” which is fitting music for a sport whose U.S. Olympic team is chosen entirely by committee.

If Rippon performs well at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week, does he foresee any argument against making him one of the three Team USA men’s singles skaters?

“No,” Rippon said. “I think the only argument is if the other competitors’ mothers are on the selection committee.”

He can rest assured that won’t happen. But Rippon could just as easily be skating to Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”

Selection for Team USA is based on results from more than a dozen competitions over the past year, each weighed by officials during closed-door deliberations. While the 2018 nationals is one of the three most important events in the criteria, a bad outing is not necessarily a deal-breaker.

But a great performance doesn’t guarantee a ticket to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 either.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier know that even if they defend their title in San Jose, California, they might not be the sole pairs team chosen to represent the United States.

“Whether we agree or disagree, our federation has every right to make their decisions,” Frazier said. “They have been so supportive and do so much for us. It is completely out of our control.”

Four years ago, they finished fifth.

“We’re going to give everything we’ve got,” Frazier said. “Obviously it’s tough to always say, ‘Well, we’ll try it again in four years.’ But this isn’t like, ‘OK, our world’s going to come crashing down.’ We know our potential.”

Figure skating selections are some of the most scrutinized by the public. In 2006, Michelle Kwan received an injury waiver onto Team USA, then withdrew with a groin injury and was replaced by Emily Hughes.

In 2014, the most controversial selection for the Sochi Games was Ashley Wagner, who placed fourth, instead of 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, who finished third.

Nagasu was upset by the decision, but she respected it.  Going into this Olympic year, she said, “I feel like I’m going into a job interview and I train every day. And it’s like all of my friends are going in and they say, ‘Sometimes a job interview just doesn’t go well,’ but I go back to the drawing board and I keep at it. I keep building my resume and building myself as a person so that when the next job interview comes I’m ready for it.”

The women’s free skate will be Friday afternoon and the announcement of the Olympic team is not expected until Saturday morning.

Wagner learned that she’d been placed on the 2014 team via text message as she watched a friend practice.

"I'm happy that my federation was able to see beyond one bad skate,” she said.

One bad skate could doom the athletes competing this week at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Long Track Speedskating in Milwaukee. Most races will be decided strictly by the clock. Although various athletes qualified Team USA for a maximum of 16 Olympic quota spots, they have to claim their berth on the oval.

The third of three qualification races will be held for mass start, a new Olympic event, with the top two overall point-scorers going to the Games.

By The Numbers: An estimated 234 athletes will be named to Team USA for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, which begin Feb. 9, while up to 70 will be compete at the Winter Paralympic Games in March.

Prior to today, curling, ice hockey, sled hockey, luge, short track speedskating and wheelchair curling are the only sports that have completely nominated their Olympic or Paralympic teams. Some athletes in alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, long track speedskating, Nordic combined, ski jumping and snowboarding also have punched their tickets and are awaiting the announcement of teammates.

Here are some other selection stories:

 

Lowell Bailey, Biathlon

Bailey has nearly a one-year head start on his fourth Games. On Feb. 11, he became the first member of Team USA with a fourth-place finish in the 10-kilometer sprint at the IBU World Championships. Five days later, Bailey became the first American to win a world championship, capturing gold in the men’s 20-kilometer. On the women’s side, Susan Dunklee made her second Olympic team by earning a silver in the 12.5K mass start. Lowell Bailey, Sean Doherty and Clare Egan joined them on the team last month. Two women and one man will qualify based on IBU Cup results the next two weekends, and on Jan. 15, one man and one woman will be discretionary picks added to Team USA depending on results of international competitions.

Bailey said that “incredibly fortunate” does not begin to describe how he feels about pre-qualifying for the Olympics, “because I’ve been on the other side of having to qualify. This just took away that anxiety and the stress. Can you imagine if you knew that your job was on the line and you could come home one day with the knowledge that ‘Yep! My job’s fine and I’m continuing for the next year,’ or the knowledge that, ‘Shoot, I tried really hard, but my job’s not there any more’? And that’s what we have to live through and be OK with.”

Bailey, who missed qualifying for the Games in 2002, said being pre-qualified allowed him to put all of his effort and focus into preparing for PyeongChang.

“I don’t have to be distracted by the various different trials or qualification races that I still participate in,” he said. “I still use them as a training mechanism or a training tool, but I can tell you from past experience, if you have a critical Olympic trials race in December and if you don’t perform well at that race, you won’t have a chance at making the Olympic team. So which race are you going to put your focus and time into? That’s the advantage of pre-qualifying.”

However, he said that if the entire team were selected in February of the previous year, “there would be distraught biathletes.”

 

USA Hockey

The federation kicked off the new year on Jan. 1 by announcing its selections for the men’s, women’s and sled hockey teams, which were determined by coaches and staff.

The women’s team appeared set on May 5 when 23 players – the same number allowed on the Olympic roster – were named to the residency program in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Then college freshman Cayla Barnes was added in late October.

“I don’t think it’s (more) tension; I think it’s healthy,” defenseman Kacey Bellamy said in November after Barnes joined the team. “You come to the rink every day and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you battle and try to do the best you can.”

After a four-month evaluation period that included exhibition games and the Four Nations Cup tournament, Bellamy made her third straight Olympic team while Barnes qualified for her first. Sidney Morin and Haley Skarupa, who were added to the U.S. women’s national team on Nov. 27, made their first Olympic team a little more than a month later.

On the men’s side, officials evaluated talent by fielding a team of players from the European hockey leagues in the Deutschland Cup. The final roster includes 15 athletes who play professionally in Europe and four who are still in college. Two goaltenders will be added by mid-January.

 

Elana Meyers Taylor, Bobsled

“The selection process is probably one of the hardest things in sports and it’s one of the things I dread more than anything,” said Meyers Taylor, a driver who has won Olympic silver and bronze medals, “because we have such great athletes and it comes down to literally hundredths of a second.”

And that, she said, is why she moved from brakeman to driver. “I can select myself so to speak,” Meyers Taylor said. “I get a lot of anxiety centered around who’s going to be the best brakeman for me at the Games. Because if I make the wrong decision, that’s it, we’re not going to win the gold medal. So it’s a long process, and it’s going to come down to the wire this year, the same as every other year.”

The U.S can qualify up to three sleds in each gender based on points earned during the qualification period that ends Jan. 14.

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The top-ranked pilot on the world ranking list qualifies for Team USA, while the second is either discretionary or is based on world ranking if the U.S. has three sleds; the third sled is discretionary.

Push athletes are all discretionary.

Like the other pilots, Meyers Taylor competes with various brakemen throughout the world cup season. The selection panel includes the USA Bobsled CEO and high performance director, and Meyers Taylor has some input. “I’ll go in and say what I think,” she said, “but at the end of the day, the coaches will make the final decision.”

Meyers Taylor has to prove she belongs in the driver’s seat.  “I still have to go out there day in and day out and earn my spot on this Olympic team,” she said. “Nothing’s going to be given to me, the same as nothing’s going to be given to any bobsled athlete. And that’s the beauty of it. When I walk on the line at the Olympics, I’ll know I’ve earned my right to be there.”

 

Evan Weinstock, Bobsled

An Olympic candidate as a push athlete, Weinstock said the selection process is “kind of stressful just because it always kind of keeps you at the top of your game. You have to realize that at any moment you can get moved around or not get selected.”

Weinstock said athletes also must fend off well-meaning inquiries from family and friends. “Not finding out if we’re on the Olympic team until a month before, they’re asking you and you go, ‘I’m not sure…I hope so.’ You’re just crossing your fingers.”

 

Aaron Pike, Para Nordic Skiing

Pike, a 2012, 2014 and 2016 U.S. Paralympian in Nordic skiing and track and field, said athletes who make the national A team or B team can assume they will make the Paralympic team.

He said that once he is invited to training camps in New Zealand, “You know you’re on. You’ve got the ticket and you’re on your way. It’s nice to just focus on getting better and improving and not peaking for some kind of trials, but just making sure you’re peaked for the Games.”

 

Matt Antoine, Skeleton

The Olympic bronze medalist said the competition begins with races to choose the world cup team.

“There’s a lot of nerves for that,” he said, “because you go into that first race and everyone’s on an equal playing field, so you’ve got to perform right off the bat.”

On the world cup circuit, athletes accumulate points to qualify for the Games.

“That can definitely be cutthroat,” Antoine said. “If you have a bad result you feel like you’re playing catch-up the whole time. You have to be on your game from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. It’s not like you can just show up for one race, do well and then you’re on.”

Like bobsled, the highest world ranking will determine the first member of Team USA, while the second and potentially third sled are discretionary.

Antoine said he envied biathlete Bailey’s early qualification for the Games.

“That would be a different mindset, but at the same time I think it’s good to have that pressure for you to be good on Olympic year,” he said.

 

Tucker West, Luge

The two-time Olympian called the luge selection process “nervewracking.”

He said the process for making the Olympic Games in luge starts during springtime of the previous year with seeding races that are open to everyone. “So junior national athletes, senior athletes,” he said. “Even if you wanted to show up, you could show up.”

A pool of 10 sliders for each discipline is reduced during team trials, and then the Olympians are determined according to world cup points. West is one of three men who made the team.

 

Nina Roth, Curling

Roth and John Shuster were the winning skips at the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling in November, while Matt and Becca Hamilton won mixed doubles in December. Roth said she liked the format of a triple round robin and then a best-of-three games showdown between the final two teams. “I think it gives us the best shot of getting our best team to the Olympics,” she said.  Then we have a bunch of time to prep and actually get ready for the Olympics. “

 

Jackie Wiles, Alpine Skiing

Wiles said that competing on the world cup circuit in an Olympic year can give people the wrong impression. “It’s tough because I think a lot of people assume that you’re just going to the Olympics,” she said. “I don’t think they realize that there’s an actual process of races leading up to it.”

Mikaela Shiffrin, the youngest slalom champion in Olympic history when she won the gold medal in 2014, qualified for the 2018 team in giant slalom in December by building a world cup lead that no U.S. skier can catch.

Wiles said she’s glad there isn’t only one Olympic qualifier. “We have a bunch of races leading up so if we have a bad race, it’s OK,” she said. “You just have to regroup and know that you will have more that can help you qualify.”

Up to three athletes for each alpine skiing event will nominated to the team based on their world cup results, with the announcement coming Jan. 22 immediately after world cup races in Cortina, Italy, and Kitzbuehel, Austria.

The pecking order is top three finishes, then top fives, top 10s and total world cup points, then possible discretionary picks, to field a team with a maximum size of 22.

Before the Sochi Games, Wiles, who was in her first year on the world cup circuit, didn’t make Team USA until the final race before the Olympics. “I was really young and I was just excited to be on tour,” she said. “I was really grateful that I had an amazing run my last chance. I knew I had a pretty good chance (to make the team) after I came down, but I didn’t know right away.”

That night Wiles found out during a team meeting that she was an Olympian. “After everything I had been through, it was really cool,” Wiles said. “I called my dad and we both kind of cried a little bit.”