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Canadian NorAm Preview: Peaking for Pre-Olympic Trials

Canadian Jesse Cockney of the Alberta World Cup Academy and Senior Development Team (2) leads Finland's Anssi Pentsinen (12) and the rest of his quarterfinal in Saturday's World Cup 1.3 k skate sprint in Canmore, Alberta. Cockney won the heat and went on to place ninth overall for a personal best in his fifth World Cup start.

Canadian Jesse Cockney of the Alberta World Cup Academy and Senior Development Team (2) leading his quarterfinal in the Alberta World Cup 1.3 k skate sprint in Canmore on Dec. 15, 2012. Cockney won the heat and went on to place ninth overall for a personal best in his fifth World Cup start. He finished the season as the overall NorAm winner and is starting 2013/2014 on the World Cup in Europe as a result.

Because the Olympics only come around every four years, domestic races hold even more value in the months leading up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. In Canada, they’ll determine who will fill approximately four remaining spots on the Olympic nordic team.

 The NorAm calendar has been reduced this season, with fewer races in the middle of winter when most will be focussed on what’s happening in Russia. This explains why there’s a heavy concentration of events early in the season, starting this weekend.

Canadian nordic skiers getting some early on-snow time at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre on Nov. 7 in Vernon, B.C., the first NorAm stop of the season.

Canadian nordic skiers getting some early on-snow time at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre on Nov. 7 in Vernon, B.C., the first NorAm stop of the season.

Sovereign and Black Jack

Following the trend of the last several years, many of North America’s best skiers will meet at Sovereign Lake in Vernon, B.C., for the first NorAm races of the season on Saturday and Sunday, which will be the first “real” races for most Canadians. The next weekend, the circuit heads south to Rossland, B.C., for two more races Dec. 14-15 before the holiday break. Normally, several American skiers make the trip up north to British Columbia for the NorAm openers, deepening the field, and Sovereign Lake’s powder conditions likely enticed many this year.

These two weekends of races will be an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the shape of the skiers and identify those that might be capable of Olympic selection by mid January.

For Heidi Widmer, an Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and Canadian Senior Development (NST) skier, it is important to find her marks and have fun during the first part of the season.

“The NorAms in Silver Star and Rossland before Christmas are a way to get back into the racing scene and build back that routine,” Widmer wrote in an email. “Also, we usually make gingerbread houses or cookies in Rossland and I missed that last year, so definitely looking forward to that.”

“Having done the work, I am confident there will be some very good moments for me this upcoming winter,” Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST) wrote in an email. “The trick is to make those moments line up with the important races.”

Olympics Trials in Canmore

Ivan Babikov (l) leads fellow Canadian Graham Nishikawa (r) of the Alberta World Cup Academy during Wednesday's 15 k freestyle individual start at 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

Graham Nishikawa (44) follows Canadian World Cup vetera Ivan Babikov (69) in the 15 k freestyle individual start at 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Babikov went on to place fourth, the best ever by a Canadian man in the event, and Nishikawa finished 39th for his best result at World Championships.

Anyone with even the slightest chance of qualifying for Sochi has probably circled the Canadian Olympics Trials dates on their calendars: Jan 8-12 in Canmore, Alberta.

Graham Nishikawa is certainly one of them. Four years after he narrowly missed his nation’s home Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., the 30-year-old Senior National Team member, who’s been working with Canada’s Para Nordic squad throughout the offseason, is ready for redemption.

“My goal is to qualify for Sochi,” Nishikawa said in a phone interview. “The selection races are very important, whatever I need in those races to be in the best shape is what I’ll focus on. If I need more training and that means that I have to skip some NorAms, I will do that.”

Veterans will certainly have some pressure on to perform, while many young skiers could catapult themselves into the mix. However, there are only about four Olympic spots available as all six World Cup Team members (Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, Ivan Babikov, Len Valjas, Dasha Gaiazova, and Perianne Jones) have already satisfied the Sochi-selection criterias with their results last season.

Third in a FIS skate sprint in Idre, Sweden, on Nov. 30, Chandra Crawford (r) celebrates on the podium with Swedish winner Hanna Falk and runner-up Jennie Öberg (l). (Photo: Cross Country Canada)

Third in a FIS skate sprint in Idre, Sweden, on Nov. 30, Chandra Crawford (r) celebrates on the podium with Swedish winner Hanna Falk and runner-up Jennie Öberg (l). (Photo: Cross Country Canada)

Last weekend, Chandra Crawford, who declined her nomination to the team in April, earned her spot back on the World Cup team with third place in a FIS skate sprint in Idre, Sweden (which likely secured her Olympic prequalification as well).

“We are taking a team size of 11,” Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth said in a phone interview last month. “That can be any combination; it can be six men, five women. It can be seven men, four women. It can be six women, five guys. We’ll just see how everybody’s racing and where our strengths and weakness are.”

Many skiers will compete for the remaining tickets, which should be a close fight.

“I expect my performance level to be reasonably consistent throughout the winter, however I will be aiming to peak for the Olympic Trials at the beginning of January,” Somppi explained.

Note that these races also act as trials for the Junior and U23 World Championships in late January in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Needless to say, any skier who’s shooting for international starts will likely be in the best shape possible.

“I have a chance to qualify for U23 Championships and the Olympic team based on domestic results so yep, I want to be racing well, especially at Olympic trials in Canmore,” Widmer wrote. “U23 Championships are a skate sprint this year, so that gets me really fired up and I know I have a good chance to perform well provided I do the work to get there.”

The Rest of the Season

For the rest of the best Canadian seniors not quite at the Olympic level, there are opportunities to race in Europe, either on the OPA Cup Tour with the national team in February, or by earning World Cup starts late in the season as NorAm leaders. Both options require skiers to excel on the domestic circuit first.

The traditional mid-season meeting, the Eastern Canadian Championships at Nakkertok Ski Club near Ottawa, falls on the first weekend of February and remains the fourth and final NorAm stop before nationals. Top skiers will need to travel East for those races to contend for some important points.

“I’m still going to fight for the place of NorAm leader, because my Plan B is to race in Europe,” Somppi explained.

Nationals in Newfoundland

Heidi Widmer 2013 Canadian Nationals 30 k freestyle mass start (Photo: Martin Kaiser)

Heidi Widmer racing to fourth overall (and a Canadian bronze) in the 30 k freestyle mass start at nationals in Whistler, B.C. (Photo: Martin Kaiser)

For the first time in over 10 years, Canadian Nationals will be held on the Atlantic Coast in mid-March. This will be a new destination for most skiers and certainly a new race site that will bring novelty and freshness to the annual event which concludes the Canadian domestic season.

The races will be held at the Blow Me Down Trails in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, the site of the 1999 Canada Games.

“I love the East Coast and am really looking forward to the races at the end of the season,” Kevin Sandau (AWCA/NST) wrote. “I think they will really be a unique experience for National Champs.”

“I’m excited!” Widmer wrote. “I think it’s important to have the competition in different parts of the country to promote the sport in that area as well as save travel costs for those coming from the far-East for races all the time. I’ve never been to Newfoundland before but with a name like Blow Me Down, it’s gotta be a unique place!”

It will require some long travel for athletes coming from West, but offers a chance for everyone to discover the skiing community in this part of the country.

“I actually visited Newfoundland for the first time this past spring,” Somppi wrote. “My girlfriend spent a year at Memorial University in St. John’s, so I went out to visit her. The Newfoundlanders I met along the way were friendly and welcoming, so I’m expecting a warm reception for competitors at this year’s Nationals. I am very much looking forward to my second trip to Newfoundland!”

Skiers to Watch 

The reigning NorAm champions, Jesse Cockney (AWCA/NST) and Amanda Ammar (Team Ninja) have chosen to start their season differently from one another, with Cockney taking advantage of the early World Cup starts and Ammar opting to start racing at home in Canada while recovering from injuries in her back and foot.

Jesse Cockney (Alberta World Cup Academy/Canadian Senior Development Team) after placing second in the Alberta World Cup 1.3 k skate sprint qualifier on Saturday in Canmore.

Jess Cockney after finishing second in the Alberta World Cup 1.3 k skate sprint qualifier last December in Canmore. He went on to finish ninth for his best World Cup result.

“My main focus is Olympic trials this year, and I want to do everything I can to be prepared and confident when I hit that start line, which for me, was staying here, doing the Canadian circuit, and getting in some prime training, ” Ammar, a 2006 Olympian, wrote in an email. “I would of missed all the Norams leading into trials, and this was not ideal for me. I want to know where I stand … during trials.”

Last December, Cockney made a World Cup impression on home soil in Canmore, qualifying second and placing ninth in the freestyle sprint at the Alberta World Cup. With that result, the 24 year old is halfway to making the Olympic team. Starting the season on the World Cup will give him the opportunity secure his spot and gain more international racing experience. 

Some top skiers will not return to the NorAm circuit after retiring at the end of last season, including Brent McMurtry, David Greer and Kate Brennan.

The NorAm runner-up last season, Graham Nishikawa is best known as a distance racer, but can notch solid sprint results as well. Married in July, this could be his last push for the Olympics.

Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST) racing to 48th in the World Cup classic sprint qualifier in Stockholm, Sweden, last season. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST) racing to 48th in the World Cup classic sprint qualifier in Stockholm, Sweden, last season. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

Somppi finished third at the end of last season and is better at skating, but said he worked on his classic to make sure he was in fighting form for the 15 k classic at Olympic Trials.

A little off his game last year, Sandau, a distance specialist and typical domestic favourite, is back to his old training routine that produced good results for him previously. He’s confident that his training will pay off and is one to keep an eye on in distance races.

Making the Senior National Team as a first-year senior, Raphaël Couturier of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) is an all-round skier that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Alysson Marshall (AWCA/NST) placed third overall last season despite missing the first part of the NorAm season to participate in the opening World Cups. She is a sprint favourite and could be a podium contender for distances races as well.

Like her older brother, Emily Nishikawa (AWCA/NST) was a member of the Canada’s World Championships team last winter in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and started several World Cups throughout the 2012/2013 season. She is certainly one of the women in the running for a position the Olympic distance team.

In her first full season back racing, Brittany Webster (Highland Trailblazers) also made it to 2013 World Championships, but sickness kept her from performing at her best in Italy. She ended the season with a fourth-place finish in the 30 k freestyle at Canadian Nationals and was the third Canadian behind Swiss winner Bettina Gruber, Canadian biathlete Zina Kocher, and Heidi Widmer.

Considering that result, Widmer, known as a dangerous and talented sprinter, can clearly get top results in distance – even after rebounding from head injuries.

Alana Thomas (Team Ninja) is an all-around skier who’s had consistently good results in the past couple years. She’s suffered some setbacks with injuries, but with the “Ninja” spirit, anything can happen!

Keep an eye on Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (Rocky Mountain Racers) as well. At 21, she’s arguably one of Canada’s most promising up-and-comers.

While most of the favourites come from national training centres, there are a few skiers from other clubs that could produce top results in NorAm sprint and distance races this season.

2013/2014 NorAm Schedule

1. Sovereign Lake: Vernon, British Columbia: Dec. 7-8

10/15 k freestyle & classic sprint

2. Black Jack: Rossland, British Columbia : Dec. 14-15

10/15 k classic & freestyle sprint

3. Canmore, Alberta: Jan. 8-12 (Trials for Olympics, Junior and U23 World Championships)

15/30 k skiathlon, freestyle sprint x 2, 10/15 k classic

4. Eastern Canadian Championships: hosted by Nakkertok Nordic in Cantley, Québec: Jan-Feb. 31-2

Freestyle sprint, 10/15 k Freestyle, 15/20 k Classic mass start

5.Haywood Ski Nationals: at Blow Me Down Trails in Corner Brook, Newfoundland: March 15-22

Team sprint, 5/10 k Classic, 10/15 k freestyle, freestyle sprint, 30/50 k classic mass start

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