Less than a week after racing in Germany last December, Alysson Marshall smiled as she soaked up her surroundings at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre in Vernon, British Columbia.
The Canadian senior development team member had just completed the first four World Cups of her career and left Europe on an extremely high note. With national team skier Dasha Gaiazova, she placed 21st in the team sprint in Düsseldorf, Germany. Six days later, Marshall won a NorAm sprint qualifier and went on to take second to American Jessie Diggins.
After the final, Marshall beamed as she talked about her thought process. It didn’t matter where she was, her mind was still on the World Cup.
““I just wanted to take what I learned and bring it here,” Marshall said. “The speed of the girls there, and realizing how much faster you have to go.”
That kind of attitude was exactly what the decision makers at Cross Country Canada (CCC) wanted to hear. By February, Marshall was back in Europe, first in a few Scandinavian Cup races and later in a string of World Cups.
She wrapped up her season abroad in mid March, cracking the top 30 in a World Cup in Stockholm. There, she notched 28th in a classic sprint, which CCC took careful note of.
Of about five development skiers that took part in Canada’s convergence program last year, Marshall was the poster child. Others, such as Kevin Sandau and Graham Nishikawa, came close to making the individual top-30 benchmark throughout the 2011/2012 season. According to CCC’s high-performance director Tom Holland, that meant the master plan was working.
“The main thing is really to convert people that have probably been in our system; there’s not many people in this convergence area,” Holland said in a phone interview from the national team headquarters in Canmore, Alberta.
“By getting these World Cup opportunities, you’re building confidence and experience,” he added. “If they have that potential, you’re gonna test them out and hopefully they can convert to World Cup skiers.”
That’s where the term “convergence” comes in. After several years of inviting top development athletes to fill quota spots and race with their national-team idols on the World Cup, CCC made the program official last spring.
By definition, to converge means to move toward one point or another, to come together and unite in a common interest or focus. In practice, CCC is helping skiers reach the highest level of international racing by awarding them World Cup starts at the beginning and end of each season. Racers are generally selected for the first period based on input from national-team coaches and officials as well as development-centre coaches, Holland said.
Picking a couple of skiers to tag along with the national team in fall FIS races and the first World Cups isn’t easy, he added. Sometimes, coaches factor in results from the previous season or how summer training went.
By March, athletes typically weed themselves out. The NorAm male and female winners guarantee themselves World Cup starts, and a few others that stand out in mid-season domestic races can also earn a trip out of the country.
Last year, seven Canadian development skiers raced in OPA and Scandinavian Cup races in Switzerland, Latvia and Estonia. They did so under the umbrella and on the dime of CCC, which organized the two-week trip and subsidized all but $1,000 dollars of each athlete’s total cost.
That’s the most a development skier would pay to go abroad, Holland said. Depending on the trip, CCC often takes care of all their expenses.
Thoughts and Assessments
Before earning a position on the Alberta World Cup Academy this spring, Alana Thomas (formerly of Nakkertok) was one of the seven invited to the OPA/convergence trip in February. For Thomas, 24, that was her first time competing in Europe.
“The biggest and most important thing I took away from the experience was simply seeing the next level of racing,” she wrote in an email. “I tried hard to take note of how the European girls were skiing technically, how they were racing, pacing and warming up.”
After a few races, Thomas started to make friends, some of which were Norwegian.
“It turns out they are pretty regular, they just come from a strong ski culture,” she wrote. “It made the idea of racing with them and being able to challenge them seem doable, they aren’t superheroes or anything!”
Next season, Thomas will try to secure a start in her first World Cup. With Canada hosting five World Cup races between Québec City and Canmore in early December, development skiers like Thomas have their sights set on capitalizing on that convergence opportunity at home.
Meanwhile, CCC higher-ups are still stressing top 30.
“The athletes that we’re looking at are coming from the senior -development level that can be in the top 30 or 40 on the World Cup,” said Justin Wadsworth, head coach of the Canadian national team.
“It’s not just convergence meaning the next group down,” he added. “If the next group down really isn’t ready to make that step into solid World Cup level racing, then we need to start to either make those trips smaller or place them in area where we’re going to get the best bang for our buck development-wise.”
When convergence trips became official last spring, FasterSkier reported CCC’s High Performance Committee budgeted more than $100,000 dollars for the program. Broken down, the money wasn’t quite enough, Holland said. He wished he could take more athletes, especially in the second period in March.
Because of the 2012/2013 World Cup schedule, with two Canadian World Cups from Dec. 7-16 and the FIS World Championships in late February/early March, Holland said they wouldn’t bring athletes to OPA races (Europe’s equivalent of the NorAm) this season.
“Putting on an OPA trip, you need a coach and a tech; there’s a big expense in doing that,” Holland said. “If you can get a few people to the World Cup piggybacking on what we already have … it’s a better bang for your buck.”
He stressed that World Cups were the priority. As long as Canada had quota spots available, they’d send people capable of top-30 results there. That said, he didn’t rule out OPA trips down the road.
This season, the upcoming world championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, will serve as a convergence opportunity. A chosen few will first join the national team at FIS races in November, then all the elite Canadians will return for the Québec and Canmore World Cups. The second convergence period will likely start in mid February in Davos, right before world championships (Feb. 20-March 3).
Holland said they were hoping for two to four additional quota spots at worlds. After that, he hoped they could keep some of development skiers in Europe. Typically, skiers are given two weeks in Europe. After that, the length of their stay is largely based on results.
“We’re really looking hard at trips this year that we want to set up,” Wadsworth said. “We don’t want to set up trips for the sake of having trips. We want to make sure that the timing is right and that the athletes are in the convergence zone.”
Last year, Wadsworth said the first period in November was a success, but the second trip wasn’t attended as well. Several skiers declined an opportunity to race on the Scandinavian and OPA circuits because of scheduling conflicts, such as the U23 World Championships at the end of February. Out of the U23 age bracket, Marshall, now 24, started with the Scando Cups and stayed in Europe to race five more World Cups.
“It worked our really well for me,” Marshall said in a recent phone interview. “Just the opportunity to get over there in November was really good. In March, it was a great experience to be able to start so many World Cups and get some experience there. It provided opportunities that weren’t there before so I was a big fan of the new program.”
She had nine starts last season, the most of any Canadian development skier. If she’s lucky, Marshall could be following the tracks of national-team member Lenny Valjas, who made it to the World Cup a similar way two years ago.
Back then, convergence trips just weren’t called that.
“He was a success story that kind of came out of systematically providing opportunities, but then we coined this term ‘convergence,’ ” Holland said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to converge the development athletes and give them opportunities, add to our World Cup skier pool.”
Perhaps most importantly, the people earning those racing opportunities also get to live and train with national team members. Holland said that’s invaluable.
“There’s the whole thing about confidence on the World Cup,” he said. “They’re learning not only about the racing, but about the lifestyle and how to take care of themselves and all of that. It’s just the experience. [Some of] the ones that got the most starts last year, like Kevin Sandau and Alysson Marshall, it was just tremendous and I expect them to settle in more this year and focus on the results page.”