Without a doubt, the Canadian World Cup team faced some challenges last season even though its results didn’t really show it. Sure, every team has its ups and downs and occasional tizzy, but Canada generally kept it under wraps.
Devon Kershaw continued to podium one weekend after the next and ended up second overall in the World Cup. Simultaneously, most of his teammates also notched personal bests: Alex Harvey finished sixth overall, Lenny Valjas tallied three podiums in a month and each of the three women (Chandra Crawford, Perianne Jones and Dasha Gaiazova) finished the season with career-best sprint rankings.
According to head coach Justin Wadsworth, it was a successful season by all measures, but they needed to make some changes at the end of it. Before the start of the 2012/2013 training season, the Cross Country Canada (CCC) coaching and high-development staff decided to split the team in two – into men and women – to devote more resources and attention to each.
“When things go pretty well you don’t want to make radical, radical changes,” Wadsworth said in a phone interview from Canmore before the team left for Sweden last week. “At the same time, we had a good season, but I think we can do better.”
Wadsworth remained head coach, but also took the role of men’s coach. He hired Louis Bouchard of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre as the assistant men’s coach, and former assistant Eric de Nys became the women’s coach. Torbjørn Karlsen came on as a consultant to the women’s team.
Then, they got to work. Above all, Wadsworth and de Nys said they tried to instill a sense of professionalism in their athletes. If they wanted to keep improving and be the world’s best, they had to believe it. Moreover, they had to get along.
“We’re becoming, as a team, more respectful of each other and more professional,” Wadsworth said on the phone from Canmore before leaving for Sweden last week. “The results are great, blah, blah, blah, but the team itself, we’ve had our share of difficulties and challenges, and I think our team has continued to keep rising above those and be professional. A good example is Devon and Chandra’s breakup last year and stuff, those are really hard things to internalize as a team when we’re traveling together and we’re in the same hotel and same vans all the time.”
For North American skiers and staff, it’s especially tough to spend most of November through March overseas without much alone time.
“It’s a lot different when you’re with a team from Sweden or Switzerland that are racing for a week or two weeks together and then they go home and everyone takes a break and it’s kind of fun to be back on the road with each other,” Wadsworth said. “We’re more or less on the road with each other for five months out of the year. I think that managing that is a lot harder than it might seem on the outside.”
Yet once again, they’re heading into the season full-steam ahead, and Wadsworth said the athletes’ overall spirits are as high as ever. With that final piece in place, they should be able to top last season’s results, he reasoned.
“We just have to be smart, but I think every weekend could provide us an opportunity,” he said. “Last year, there was only one weekend we didn’t have a top five and that was a weekend where Devon scored more World Cup points in Nove Mesto than he would’ve if he would’ve finished second. Essentially we scored a top five every weekend, and if we do that again this year I’d be really pleased. It just shows consistency and kind of depth.”
With a series of what Wadsworth called “peaks” on the race schedule to look forward to, there’s one big event the team is emphasizing: FIS World Championships from Feb. 20-March 3.
“I’ll just say I’ll be disappointed if we don’t come away with a couple medals there,” he said. “I think we have so many opportunities between our men and our women and some of the different races there that I expect more than that. With that said, though, it’s one 10-day period out of the year where you’ve got to be firing on all cylinders.”
Beyond that, he wants to increase the team’s tally of 15 World Cup podiums last season to 20. That’s why they’ve been focusing on individuals. On the women’s side, de Nys has made a point to push his three skiers – specifically Crawford and Jones, who train together in Canmore – harder than ever. He asks that all his athletes show up to work ready to go and he’s tried to explain what it takes to be the best.
“It’s not necessarily that we want to be as good as, we want to be better than whoever’s leading the charge,” de Nys said in a phone interview from Canmore two weeks ago. “We have a good idea of what we have to do and we’re gonna try damn hard to get there, and if we fail in our attempts at least we know we tried really, really hard.”
But failure doesn’t exactly fit in their agenda. De Nys said he’s expecting at least one medal at World Championships from his group of veterans, most of which made measurable strides in testing this summer and fall.
“Everyone had a pretty good season, but we want to really build on the consistency so we’re not having so many peaks and valleys in performance,” he said. “We want to get some medals on the World Cup.”
The women’s training group has been effective, but also presented unique challenges with varying levels of experience, de Nys said. Two Senior Development Team members from the Alberta World Cup Academy, Alysson Marshall and Emily Nishikawa, joined the team at camps.
“So we have Emily who’s 23 and has very limited World Cup experience to Chandra Crawford who has a gold medal at the Olympics,” de Nys said. “It’s a very diverse dichotomy, I guess, of skiing talent and trying to bring those five ladies together to work hard and build off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and at the same time, challenging them to do things and push themselves to places they’ve never been before. That’s been the real focus.”
About 90 percent of the time, Crawford and Jones trained together with one of their close friends, Amanda Ammar of the Canmore Nordic Centre. De Nys considered those three the core training group in Canmore, which he’d like to see grow to at least half a dozen next year. Gaiazova followed a slightly different plan in Québec with Bouchard as her personal coach, but when they all got together, the overarching goals were the same.
“In July we were already way further ahead then we were last year in October,” de Nys said. “Really encouraged by what we’ve done, and we’ll just have to see how it plays out on the snow.”
Women’s World Cup Team
Age: 29 on Nov. 19
2011/2012 World Cup sprint rank: 7th (tied best-ever in 2008); 29th overall
Number of World Cup podiums last season: 2 (second at Rogla skate sprint, 3rd at Milan team sprint)
Personal best: Olympic gold medal (2006 in skate sprint)
Personal goal: Podiums at Canadian World Cups in mid-December and World Championships
“I would like to stand on some of those podiums they’re building over in Québec and one in Canmore,” Crawford said. “But it is early season so we’ll see what can happen. Then there’s world champs in Italy; I love racing in Italy. My classic sprinting is feeling better than ever, and Val di Fiemme is pulling me, I’m already feeling how good that finish line is going to feel to cross after a sweet classic sprint.”
2011/2012 World Cup sprint rank: 26th (personal best); 46th overall
Number of World Cup podiums last season: 0
Personal best: 8th in two World classic sprints (Drammen and Otepää) and 9th at Rogla skate sprint last season; 20th in skate sprint at 2011 World Championships
Personal goal: Canada World Cup sprints and World Championships
“I’m really looking forward to racing in Québec, it’s a sprint so it’s going to be perfect for me,” Gaiazova said. “It’s always such a treat to be back in Canmore and race in front of old friends and supporters and family. … And then of course the World Championships, the sprint and the classic. I love classic skiing and I love Italy so it should be a good match for me.”
2011/2012 World Cup sprint rank: 47th (personal best); 72nd overall
Number of World Cup podiums last season: 1 (3rd at Milan team sprint)
Personal best: 12th at Milan World Cup skate sprint (2012); 29th in skate sprint at 2011 World Championships
Personal goals: “World championships and the Canadian World Cups are the focus,” Jones wrote in an email. “We are now an even stronger women’s team so we are looking forward to sprint relaying together. I have some more distance goals after a couple 30th places last year I’d like to be more solidly in the points while sprinting will still be my main focus.”
Spoiler alert: “I think you’re going to see different things from the women this year,” she said after placing second to Crawford at last month’s Frozen Thunder sprint time trial. “We’ve done different training and I think more effective training than in the past, and I’m excited to see our distance results also, not just our sprint results.”
Men’s World Cup Team
2011/2012 World Cup overall rank: 2nd
Number of World Cup podiums last season: 6
Personal best: 2011 world champion in classic team sprint; won Szklarska Poreba World Cup skate sprint and Rybinsk 15 k skate (2012); 5th in 50 k classic at 2010 Olympics
Personal goal: Primarily World Championships, where he hopes to defend the team sprint title he won with Alex Harvey in 2011
“Last year everyone was going for the overall, everyone was going for the Tour de Ski, but this year World Champs will be the bulk of the focus,” he said in an October interview. “It’s been a dream of mine for ten years now to be on the podium at a championship with our men’s relay. We were close in 2009 [Canada was fifth], and I believe if we are all healthy and in decent shape that 2013 could pose a great chance to show the skiing world on the big stage what we are capable of as a team. That’s a dream I’d like to see accomplished before I retire.”
While he’s not focused on an overall World Cup title this year, he didn’t rule out trying to win the Tour di Ski.
“The Tour is my favorite race of the season, one that I hold so close to my heart,” Kershaw said. “But Alex and I and the North Americans will be the only skiers that will be racing in Canada, nobody else that’s of any note will come over, so I don’t know how the Tour will go, but I’m hoping good.”
Coach’s comment: When Kershaw spoke to FasterSkier last month, he talked about the team flying under the radar, with the exception of Alex Harvey in Québec. But after Kershaw finished second overall on the World Cup last year, are they still the underdogs? Sort of, Wadsworth said.
“We just do our own thing,” he said. “We’re so far out of the mix with the world media and the attention that’s on the rest of the ski world, it’s kind of nice. … If you look at anything on the FIS website, there’s very few things on our team for the level of the team we have. I think it’s a good place to be. I still don’t think people respect, maybe, our team like they should, but we’re only going to keep getting better and winning more races so it’s a good place to be.”
2011/2012 World Cup overall rank: 6th
Number of World Cup podiums last season: 3
Personal best: 2011 world champion in classic team sprint; won 2012 World Cup Finals 3.3 k skate prologue and 2nd in 15 k skate pursuit in Falun; 3rd at Lahti World Cup skiathlon (2012)
Personal goal: More than one medal at World Championships
“We wanted to defend our world championships title, that’s in the team sprint, but also we want individual medals,” Harvey said. “The team sprints will be huge, and after that I think I’ll do [most] all the races unless things change dramatically this year. Fifteen-kilometer skate hasn’t been my strength so … that’ll be the event that I probably skip.
“After that, I think there’s a good shot at all the other races: the 50 k, I like the course there, the last two years have been really good for me. I was second last year and fifth the year before on that course in a classic race. The 30 k should be good, too, and we’re looking forward to the relay. I think we’re going to be firing at all the races. I think they’re all good opportunities.”
Age: 24 on Nov. 21
2011/2012 World Cup sprint rank: 12th (28th overall)
Number of World Cup podiums last season: 3
Personal best: 2nd at Drammen World Cup classic sprint, 3rd at Stockholm classic sprint, 3rd at World Cup Finals 15 k classic in Falun (all in March 2012)
Personal goal: “The main goal is World Champs,” he said last week, two days after breaking a bone in his hand near his pinky finger. “That’s so far away, I’m not worried about that at all. The goal would be to get on the podium there, is the team goal for everybody, just get a few podiums at that championship.”
In an email update on Tuesday, Valjas said the swelling had gone down, but he would continue to train with one pole for at least another week.
“It is still pretty tender but the good news is the pole strap does not sit close to the broken part of my hand,” he wrote. “I can’t wait to use two poles again. Uni-poling sucks!”
Coach’s comment: “He won’t be racing in the first races in Bruksvallarna,” Wadsworth said. “But I think after two weeks in the place it is, it should be fairly stable and I think with the way the ski strap goes around his wrist it shouldn’t bother him too much. After we give it a little period of time here it should be good to go. I don’t think he should have any problems with it.”
As for all his training leading up to the fluke injury, which occurred when Valjas tried to catch a football last week, Wadsworth said he had taken it to the next level, bumping up the quality and workload at camps.
2011/2012 World Cup distance rank: 34th (52nd overall)
Number of World Cup podiums last season: 0
Personal best: Won Tour de Ski stage (10 k skate pursuit) in 2009; 5th in 30 k pursuit at 2010 Olympics; 4th in 15 k skate at Canmore World Cup (2005)
Personal goal: Alberta World Cup, Tour de Ski and World Championships
“For me, it’s a pretty exciting season. First of all it’s a pre-Olympic season and it’s pretty cool to see how much I’ve done [since] the year before,” Babikov said. “But also, we have a World Cup in Canmore this year and there’s a pursuit race that I love and I’m really looking forward to. The Canmore trails are my favorite in the world. The uphills are really hard and the altitude and stuff, and it’s home, of course; friends and family are going to be there. That’s kind of my goal, to do well here.
“For the second part, the Tour is always big for me, and this year it’s shorter. There’s one less sprint race, which is good for me. I think it’s going to be tighter this year. For the end of season, there’s the World Championship in February in Val di Fiemme where I won my only World Cup so far at the hill climb. I love those trails, they’re hard, and I love Italy. Our team’s been so strong and the relay and the individual races, of course, it’s gonna be awesome.”
Coach’s comment: “We definitely tweaked [Ivan] harder than anybody else because the first part of the year was really good for him, but he kind of faded after that,” Wadsworth said. “And his wife did have a baby and stuff so it was a lot of stress at home and traveling back and fourth. This year we tried to learn from the things that worked well for him last year, and now we’re trying to increase them and get him to ski fast all year. Right now all the indicators are really that he’s made probably the biggest jump up of anyone on the team.”
Also racing Period 1 on the World Cup: last season’s NorAm winners
Team: Alberta World Cup Academy/Senior Development Team
Number of individual World Cup starts: 11
Personal best: 33rd at Otepää World Cup classic sprint (Jan. 2011)
Personal goal: “The major events that I am focusing on this year are the Canadian World Cups and World Champs,” Marshall wrote in an email. “I am hoping to race well in the Scandinavian WCs but my main focus is to perform in Canada. After Christmas my goal will be to qualify for the World Champs and set myself up for good results there.”
Team: Alberta World Cup Academy/Senior Development Team
Number of individual World Cup starts: 6
Personal best: 37th in 35 k mass start at World Cup Finals in Falun (March 2012)
Personal goal: “I hope to apply what I learnt from last seasons WC trips in terms of travel and race preparation as I start transition to racing more and more world cup races. I want to be racing at a speed in Gällivare and Kuusamo to what I think will progress to a top-12 in Canmore. I think a good start would be a PB finish in one of these races.”