2018 National Junior Program Update

We are going into year six of the national junior program. It’s been quite a journey so far, and I am excited to be working with a second coach, Greg Ahlswede. Between the two of us I believe the program will be able to evolve to a much higher level. With growth and change there are always pain points as adjustments are made.

In this article I am hoping to give a better picture of the various levels of the junior program and what it takes to reach the highest levels; and answer questions about JWOC selection. To start with I would like to better differentiate between the Junior Development Team (JDT) and Junior National Team (JNT).

Junior Development Team

Up till this year the JDT existed very roughly and was generally combined with JNT. When I first started out as the coach the goal was to get juniors involved who were interested in improving regardless of the level. We have consistently had twenty to thirty juniors involved in the program. With a second coach we are able to more clearly define the JDT as a separate team from JNT. The JDT now is able to serve two purposes: get juniors involved in the national program and get them connected to the national community. The expectation is that juniors want to improve regardless of their level.

The JDT can provide the stepping stone for juniors to reach the national team and/or give them the tools and experiences to be lifelong participants in orienteering. The coaching for the JDT is tailored to the athlete’s interest level, and those that want to pursue the highest levels will be guided towards those goals. Athletes interested in improving and being part of the community will be guided at the level they are willing and able to commit to. In the junior national program we approach the coaching process by looking at the whole athlete, their personality, their level of commitment, their future, their past, where they are at currently in physical fitness, and navigational skill. Because we have the luxury of two team coaches and two formed levels of teams we are able to take more time to help develop the juniors in the fundamental stages before sending them to races such as JWOC. We believe that this approach will develop greater long term success for our team in international competition, a stronger, better-rounded athlete, and keep the competition and development fun for all involved.

As we transition to this structure there are certainly pain points, in the sense that the expectations in the past focused on making the JNT and ultimately going to JWOC. Now, the focus is on great development to be ready to pursue top-fifty results at JWOC at the older junior ages. Our goal will continue to be to get juniors at all levels on the teams to receive national and international racing experiences at races, such as NAOC, Junior Nationals, EYOC, Jukola, and international training camps. We are also strongly encouraging juniors and clubs to start training more in their local area so that this becomes a trend around the country and we continue to see improved results.

Selected Junior Development Team member profiles

Keegan Harkavy: An active JDT member who trains with his track team while also participating in orienteering training sessions in the Boston area. He is currently making the transition to red courses. His goals include not only going to JWOC, but being competitive there, while also enjoying orienteering as a life-long sport.

Sam Loustaunau: At 13, he’s one of the younger members on the JDT, but also one of the most enthusiastic! Sam started orienteering during the past year and is already successfully transitioning from yellow to orange and looking for more in the future! Sam plays indoor soccer and attends the Mid-Atlantic team’s training in and around the QOC area.

Diana Aleksieva: Diana has joined the JDT with an extensive background of experience in races around the U.S., in addition to the public races at JWOC 2014 in Bulgaria. She runs with her school’s cross country team and is very competitive in green courses at National Meets around the country. Her goals include making the JNT and attending JWOC.

Jessica Colleran: In talking with Jessica, it is very clear that she enjoys this sport quite a lot and wants to learn more. She also plays on her school’s basketball team while enthusiastically taking part in all team activities. She’s so dedicated, she’ll even orienteer in jeans!

Junior National Team

The JNT is transitioning to be a much more highly competitive program with training expectations and commitment that could be compared to the last two years of high school and the first two years of varsity collegiate sports. To be placed automatically on the JNT when applying to the program, a junior must meet both a physical and a navigational standard. In cases where an athlete meets only one standard the coaches and JTESC discuss their experience level and needs. We place them on the team that we think will be most effective in getting them to their highest goals.

Athletes are expected to have the development under their belt so that they can start stretching their capacities to higher levels. As this transition occurs I expect that many of the juniors will be on the older side in the 17-20 range, with exceptions. On the JNT, athletes will be focusing on refining their technique, maximizing their mental and physical output, and starting or continuing to train intensely on the physical side. Athletes will be learning to tune more into their bodies and become more aware of the subtle parts of themselves, their habits, attitudes, approaches, and refine their strengths and develop the weaknesses. Their main focus will be on winning national events, such as junior nationals, NAOC making the team and competing at JWOC, being competitive in races such as Jukola, and being prepared with a base that could carry them to the senior level. Compared to what it has been the past few years, the JNT is becoming a much more specialized and focused team. With this in mind there will a lot of collaboration of both JNT and JDT at training camps, races, and international travel to build a cohesive, fun junior environment that breeds working together, connection and mentorship between the younger and older juniors.

Selected Junior National Team member profiles

Martin Heir: Trains roughly 80-100km a week, is top 15 in Norway for M-20, runs a 3k in 9:30, has been to multiple international training camps, has competed at JWOC once, competed at Jukola and Tiomila multiple times and many national races in Norway.

Thomas Laraia: Trains roughly 40 miles a week, plays varsity soccer, has competed on two JWOC teams including two 18th place relay finishes, traveled to Europe and competed in multiple international races and training camps for the past 3-4 years. He has been to many national events and finished top three in M-20 in his last three national events.

Siri Christopherson: Trains roughly 40-50 miles a week, competes on her track and cross country teams, has PR’s of 5:30 in the mile and 11:50 in the two mile, competed at JWOC once, attended multiple national events in the U.S., competed with the senior team on the sprint relay at NAOC.

Sarah Petersen: Trains for orienteering roughly 4 hours a week, has been to Europe for racing and training for two summers, including running both a Venla and Jukola leg in one day. She has attended multiple national events and has been orienteering for many years.

JWOC Team Selection

This brings us to the premiere race for the juniors, the Junior World Orienteering Championship (JWOC) and the selection process for the team. To better understand the selection process I think it’s important to understand a little bit of what juniors are up against at JWOC. First of all, they are competing against the best in the world, athletes from countries where orienteering is a high level sport and who later go on to succeed at the senior level. These athletes are typically 18-20 years old and have been training very hard for orienteering for many years.

The competition is five races over six days. This requires physical strength, mental fortitude, and a high level of fitness to put five good races together, an almost impossible task. As is clear, our juniors are at a distinct disadvantage going into this race. In the U.S., our competitive fields are sparse, regularity of training is inconsistent, our juniors are typically a lot younger than the other competitors, and the type of fitness needed to be fast in terrain is different than what most other sports will give you.

With this in mind, on the national level we are working hard to bridge this gap. I will also say that the juniors have been moving up well in terms of their results at JWOC and we have made huge progress in consistency and top results. We also dream in the long run to get to a place where we could make a podium. This will take a lot of hard work and local support to accomplish.

Therefore, the JWOC selection process is based on six scores.

  • First, three races: a sprint, middle, and long, which simulate pressure, having to perform when it counts and evaluates the mental toughness necessary to put three good races together.
  • Fourth is a consistency score, which is currently based on the U.S. rankings. However, in the near future we hope to evolve the way we score this. Its goal is to measure consistency over time and to track progress of orienteering success.
  • The fifth score is for hitting a 3k time, awarded as bonus points.  While these points are not a lot in the scoring system, in a tight race they can give one athlete an edge over another. It’s important to understand that orienteering is both a naviational sport and a physical sport and typically our athletes have PRs 1-3 minutes slower than the competition at JWOC. Navigation is primary but our physical fitness needs to improve and the 3k score is there to incentivize athletes to improve in this field.
  • The final score is the most controversial, the 100 points for being on JNT, which effectively rules out anyone from the competition who does not submit a petition. This was decided on by JTESC as a way to ensure that athletes are part of the U.S. junior orienteering community and are giving back for the benefits they receive going to JWOC.

    With a more defined JDT we will be reviewing this score for 2019 but as of now it is still in place. It was decided to make it a score rather than a hard standard so that we could build in the possibility of a person not on JNT to petition and have a good chance of making the JWOC team. I would like to highlight what has always been the message from the selection committee: in close cases juniors at the trials will be given priority; and juniors who prove themselves at trials and have a strong petition for not having been on JNT have a very good chance to make the JWOC team.

I would encourage anyone with further questions to read through the selection process carefully and write to the junior program if your questions are not answered here. As always, no system is perfect. Our goal is to send the best athletes to JWOC regardless of JNT status.

I am excited to say that between the JNT and JDT we have more athletes involved in the program than ever before. Orienteering is a needed activity for kids in today’s world; they need nature and movement and we have an established remedy. It builds life long skills that can take those learning them well very far in life.

We also need new fresh blood in our community, as well as innovation and ideas. I started as the coach five years ago because I wanted to see a bright future for orienteering in the U.S. This future is based in getting more youth activities going, providing more training opportunities, and evolving our sport. The junior national program is one of many paths to accomplish this goal by providing solid educational approaches to learning the sport of orienteering that give them a great base to grow while providing a forum for them to push their limits. I see the junior program as the spearhead for this shift in the U.S.  As more and more people become involved, the vision expressed above will be actualized and perhaps we will see a USA athlete on the podium one day soon.

Here's to a bright future. It starts at home!

posted 16 March 2018