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FasterSkier’s Cross Country Skiers of the Year: Liz Stephen and Alex Harvey
Liz Stephen is FasterSkier's female cross country skier of the year. (Photo: Marcel Hilger)

Liz Stephen is FasterSkier’s female cross country skier of the year. (Photo: Marcel Hilger)

With the 2014/2015 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S. and Canada, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review.

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Liz Stephen, U.S. Ski Team, Burke Mountain Academy

Liz Stephen is a lot of things. She’s a world class athlete, the “glue” of the U.S. Ski Team, one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, and FasterSkier’s female cross country skier of 2015.

Stephen entered the 2014/2015 season with the goal making it to the ‘next level’ of competition. Disappointed with an Olympics that fell short of the her expectations, the 27-year-old hit the pavement hard in the summer – winning the acclaimed Blink Festival rollerski hill climb in addition to Climb to the Castle in Lake Placid.

Once on snow Stephen took some time ramp up, but when she reached her peak there was no stopping her. Her best result from the first period of the World Cup season in the Davos, Switzerland 10 k freestyle where she finished 12th. But the Vermont native was just warming up, and in the first stage of the Tour de Ski she finished an impressive eighth. Throughout the following races of the Tour, Stephen fought to stay near the top of the rankings. After the penultimate race she sat in sixth position and ready to tackle her best event: the 9 k climb up Alpe Cermis.

Stephen aggressively attacked the climb, passing Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and catching Norway’s Haga Ragnhild. While it appeared that Stephen had the edge on Ragnhild in the middle of the race, the Norwegian powered in the final meters to best Stephen by roughly 10 seconds.

Although she was meters away from fourth, Stephen’s fifth-place finish marked the best placement by an American in the Tour de Ski and was lauded by the domestic and international ski community.

More success was on the horizon for Stephen. In Rybinsk, Russia she rocketed to a second-place finish in the 10 k freestyle — the best distance result on the World Cup by an American female.

After her podium in Russia, Stephen explained that her results were not just a product of her individual abilities, but also the support of her team. Pointing to her fellow American skiers and coaches, Stephen said that everyone, especially women’s team coach Matt Whitcomb who taught Stephen how to ski at Burke Mountain Academy, played a role in both historic results.

It means a lot to be with this team, having this result, and knowing that you’re never ever out there by yourself. Good days, bad days, great days, this team forms around you,” she said.

Riding the momentum into the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, Stephen finished 11th in both the skiathlon and the 30 k mass start. In her signature event – the 10 k freestyle – Stephen battled heavy snow and a slow track to place 10th.

Before the 10 k, Stephen was seen as a U.S. favorite for a distance medal. At the end of the day, however, it was Jessie Diggins and Caitlin Gregg who had claimed two spots on the podium for the U.S. Despite missing her goal by 20 seconds, Stephen was upbeat, humble, and ready to celebrate the successes of her team.

“Certainly it’s not the podium I put down on my goal sheet and that was in my brain when I started the race but I’m really happy with the effort. My day was in Russia this year and it will come again. I’m just so happy for the U.S. Ski Team,” she said, smiling.

“I’ve always skied for the effort and the team and the love I have for the sport, and today was a perfect representation of all of those,” Stephen added. “The podium is just a gold star you get at the end. The people and the sport are why I do it.”

U.S. Ski Team women’s coach Whitcomb was impressed with Stephen’s skiing in the 10 k and said it was the best he had seen from the 27-year-old team veteran.

“I’ve never seen Liz ski so perfectly as she did today. It’s the best I’ve ever seen out of her,” he said.

To finish the World Cup season, Stephen placed an impressive ninth in the Holmenkollen 30 k. She will return to competition in the 2015/2016 season, leading the USST with her warm smile and impressive athleticism.

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Ale Harvey is FasterSkier's male cross country skier of the year. (Photo: flyingpointroad)

Ale Harvey is FasterSkier’s male cross country skier of the year. (Photo: flyingpointroad)

Alex Harvey, Canadian National Team, Club Nordique Mont St. Anne

If you’re not rooting for Alex Harvey, maybe it’s time to start.

The 26-year-old has already earned male cross country performance of the year for his collective results at the 2015 World Championships. At the event he garnered silver and bronze in the classic sprint and skiathlon, skied the fastest first leg of the men’s relay, and finished fifth in the 50 k classic mass start.

“I had two medals in my career in World Championships, and now I have two in three days,” he added after achieving his fourth medal. “It’s crazy.”

The podiums had more significance than personal achievement, as much of Canadian funding is tied to high performance results. Canadian Head Coach Wadsworth noted the impact the medals had on the program after Canada took home one medal between the last two previous championships (2013 World Championships and the 2014 Olympics).

“To have two medals [in Falun], it’s more [about] showing that we do have one of the best programs for waxing and we’ve invested a lot in it,” he said. “We’ve also done things that are a little bit different than other teams or the U.S. by having a little bit smaller team. We’re here to get medals and this is what’s going to help our program in the long run, where we can put it back into development and other things. We have to go for it at these big events like this.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Harvey finished ninth overall in the World Cup standings after several standout performances, including taking silver in both the second stage of the Tour de Ski and the Østersund sprint. While it wasn’t the third place ranking he achieved in 2014, ninth marked Harvey’s third highest season ranking in his career.

When you factor in the physical challenges Harvey faced over the course of the winter, his results become even more impressive. Although he appeared to be on top of his game in the 2014/2015 season, the 26-year-old was struggling with debilitating pain in his legs.

Due to friction on his iliac arteries Harvey had difficulty skiing to his full capacity in both training and racing. In training, the problem was was made worse when he ran. “In training and running, when my heart rate goes above 150/155 I can’t go any further and they completely shut down,” Harvey said, referring to his legs.

While classic skiing was easier due to the increased use of upper body, the injury was especially painful when skating on steep, long hills. Due to the injury, Harvey has not competed in the Tour de Ski’s final climb since 2013.

“In skating, already you’re using your legs a little more on the flats than in classic, and then on the climbs you can’t use your upper body as much,” Harvey explained. “When it was an effort that was longer than three to four minutes on a steady climb, in skating that’s when the problem started to appear.”

Immediately after the end of the 2015 World Cup season Harvey returned to his home in Quebec to undergo surgery on both his iliac arteries. The procedures, which took place on March 20 and April 1, give Harvey the chance to ski without the painful symptoms for the rest of his career.

Harvey returned to training May 1 and will look to be at the top of the international circuit for yet another season. If he can earn such impressive results with a painful injury, we’re excited to see what he can do without hinderance in 2015/2016.

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Other 2015 FS Awards: Junior | Collegiate | Nordic Combined | Biathlon | Para Nordic | Breakthrough | Coach | Continental | International Performance | Cross Country Performance | Biathlon Performance | Nordic Combined Performance | International Skier

WADA Sets Priorities for $12 Million Research Pot: Using Chemistry and Omics to Study Doping

With almost $12 million pledged for a 12 different countries and the International Olympic Committee for a new fund for anti-doping research, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has released some of its priorities for what the fund will address.

Among the first action items are autologous blood transfusions: when an athlete removes some of their blood, stores it, and then re-infuses it before a competition to boost their oxygen-carrying capacity. Although Lance Armstrong is now famous for using an actual drug, erythropoietin, blood transfusions were also described in gory detail in Tyler Hamilton’s cycling exposé, The Secret Race.

Such transfusions are hard to detect because they do not involve any chemicals or drugs – only the athlete’s own blood. They are also dangerous, but because of their undetectability may be a major strategy in doping in endurance sports. WADA understandably wants to prioritize research in this area.

According to a press release, several of WADA’s other proposed focuses are extensions their current program. The first is an emphasis on the Athlete Biological Passport program, which tests athletes repeatedly to get baseline readings on different biological parameters; if a variable, for instance hemoglobin, then spikes in a later test, this may be evidence of doping. (For a great illustration of typical and atypical biological passports, see here.)

WADA also seeks research on the prevalence of doping in general and in specific sports. As has been previously discussed on this site, it is difficult to say exactly how much doping is happening because testing does not detect all doping offenses and athletes do not admit their activities.

And perhaps to help with this, part of the funds will go to developing lower-cost and less-invasive tests so that more athletes can be tested. One idea mentioned in the press release was to develop blood tests that can be based on a finger prick, like lactate testing in exercise science.

Finally, the funding will be directed to several scientifically sophisticated areas:

  • Genomics: the field of genomics upscales from genetics and instead of considering genes, considers whole genomes. Genomics could be used to, for instance, match a bag of blood found in an anti-doping sting to an athlete whose DNA profile is on record (WADA has not suggested this use, and did not describe how they wish to use genomics). Through genomics, researchers can also examine RNA, double- or single-stranded genetic material that comes in many functions. MicroRNAs, or miRNAs, for instance, have only around 22 nucleotides and regulate gene expression. Importantly, there are many different miRNA’s – and in 2013 a team published a (free, open-access) paper showing that some were much more prevalent after an autologous blood transfusion. This tool could be used to detect blood doping.
  • Proteomics: the field of proteomics considers not genes, but their products – proteins. The kinds and abundances of all proteins expressed in the body can tell scientists what kinds of genes are turned “on”, and this may provide clues to whether athletes are doing something to boost their oxygen-carrying capacity. For instance, some proteins expressed within red blood cells change their abundances over the lifespan of the cell, meaning that old cells – like those taken out of the body and stored in a refrigerator for six weeks – have a different signature than new ones.
  • Metabolomics: metabolites are the intermediate products when the body processes any kind of molecule. While many doping tests focus exclusively on the banned substance itself, metabolomics could go one step further by detecting some of these intermediate byproducts. For instance, clostebol, a testosterone derivative sometimes used for doping, has at least fourteen different metabolites as its structure shifts during these reactions. One of the metabolites can currently be detected for up to 25 days.
  • Detecting doping through hair samples: there is considerable scientific literature discussing the possibility of using hair samples to detect drug use, primarily anabolic steroids and testosterone in a doping context. This method is not appropriate for substances that are banned only in competition (but not in training), because time of use cannot be determined. On the contrary, however, it could be very useful for detecting the use of substances which quickly clear the body and may have a short time window for detection through blood or urine tests, but which (like steroids) improve performance for a much longer period of time.
  • Detecting doping through wastewater: a 2010 paper in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry tested using mass spectroscopy to detect steroids, stimulants, and other drugs in sewage. Some doping drugs have very short half-lives in the human body, but that means that they are excreted in urine or other bodily waste. In the 2010 paper, a team worked at fitness centers in Aachen, Germany, and found traces of testosterone, ephedrine, and amphetamines in the sites’ wastewater. It will be interesting to see how WADA would use this in actual doping investigations.

The research will be performed in laboratories around the world, and scientific teams can apply for funding by laying out their proposed questions.

WADA will also devote a portion of the funding to research in the social sciences, with specific research focuses to be announced later.

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