(Note: This recap has been updated to include comments from Scott Hill.)
In her first trip to Europe, Katherine Stewart-Jones of Ottawa’s Nakkertok ski club is still soaking up her hotel, let alone Liberec.
Not long ago, she and the rest of the Canadian juniors trained 500 kilometers north in Ramsau, Austria, leading up to the Nordic Junior World Ski Championships in the Czech Republic.
Now in Liberec for a week of racing at the highest-junior level, Stewart-Jones, 17, is absorbing her first Junior World experience. She started off strong Monday, leading all Canadians with a top result of 25th in the 1.3-kilometer classic sprint.
After nabbing the last qualifying spot in 30th (20.66 seconds behind Russian Evgenia Oschepkova, who qualified first in 3:26.6), Stewart-Jones went on to place fifth in her quarterfinal.
“I’m extremely satisfied with my first international level race and was not expecting to place that well,” Stewart-Jones wrote in an email, adding that the tough course played to her strengths in striding.
Throughout the qualifier, she told herself every second counted.
“When I finished, I knew it had gone well,” Stewart-Jones wrote. Heading into the quarterfinal, she aimed to move up from 30th.
“The words that helped me focus were: anything can happen!” she added. “I had super fast skis in the quarterfinal and passed two girls so I was very happy about the wax technician’s job! The rest of the race I just tried to hold on to the third place girl. On the flat at the end I didn’t have much to give but I still finished 5th which placed me 25th overall.”
She told Cross Country Canada her goal was to qualify, and her strategy for the heats was to ski even better. “I did that today,” she said.
Outside of racing, Stewart-Jones was also excited about the team’s accommodations at Hotel Babylon. She described it as “a huge hotel with every kind of entertainment you could think of. What I really like about it is that almost all the ski teams are staying in our hotel, which makes it exciting because the racing atmosphere is not just present at the race site.”
Just 3.7 seconds out of qualifying, Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers) placed 36th in her debut Junior Worlds. In an email, the 17-year-old described the course as “a lot of fun, with some tough climbs and a long finishing stretch.”
Conditions were tricky, warm and with about 5 centimeters of fresh snow, but MacIsaac-Jones thanked Canada’s wax techs for good skis.
“I was definitely hoping to qualify today, so my results were a bit disappointing,” she wrote. “However, it was great to get some international racing experience, and I think that this will motivate me to train even harder!”
As for her take on Liberec so far, MacIsaac-Jones wrote: “This is my first time coming to the Czech Republic, and I am really impressed with how friendly everyone is. … I am really looking forward to the upcoming races, and it will be exciting to see what Canada can do. Watch out for our red and white racing suits!”
After placing 41st in the qualifier, Frédérique Vézina of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) wrote in an email that she told MacIsaac-Jones to write that last part about the suits. All in their first Junior Worlds, the four Canadian women in Monday’s sprint (including CNEPH’s Cendrine Brown, who was 42nd out of 68) were enjoying themselves.
“Everything is going super well here in Liberec. With a team like ours, it cannot be boring!” Vézina, 18, wrote. “Today’s race went really well. I wasn’t expecting anything really, all I wanted was to have fun and push as hard as I can on the course. I felt surprisingly good for a distance specialist. Today was definitely a good preparation for Wednesday. I’m really looking forward to the distance races!!”
Turgeon Leads Canadian Men
In the junior men’s 1.3 k race, Alexis Turgeon (CNEPH) was the lone Canadian to qualify in 30th (11.99 seconds behind Russian Vadim Korolev, the top qualifier in 2:54.81). Turgeon, 19, made it through by one-hundredth of a second over Sweden’s Karl Johan Dyvik in 31st.
Considering himself lucky after what he considered a sub-par qualifier, Turgeon went on to place sixth in his quarterfinal for 30th overall. He wasn’t happy with his qualifier, in which he wrote he struggled to stay in control of his skis and stride up the hills, and wanted more out of his quarterfinal.
“I was feeling tired and didn’t have the energy I usually have to push up the last hill and into the stadium,” Turgeon wrote after finishing the quarterfinal 9.6 seconds back in sixth. “Some days are better than others.
“Overall I expected a lot more from today then a 30th place,” he added. “I felt like my sprint racing so far could have put me up in the A or B final. Goal for now is to be able to take my home racing level up in the international racing field! Looking forward to the skiathlon later this week.”
At last year’s Junior Worlds in Erzurum, Turkey, Turgeon had a best finish of 31st in the skiathlon. He was 33rd in the skate sprint and 10th in the 4 x 5 k relay.
The second Canadian man in 46th on Monday, Nakkertok’s Ezekiel “Zeke” Williams was slightly disappointed with his result even though classic sprinting isn’t his strength, he wrote.
“I felt like I pushed hard but was maybe not quite as relaxed as I should’ve been,” Williams explained. “When I crossed the finish line I could tell that the guy who started behind me had made up some time on me. All in all, I think I didn’t quite race to my potential today.”
As for the experience on the whole, Williams wrote that this was his first time in Europe.
“I’m finding the whole experience to be really cool. The atmosphere around the event is really awesome too,” he wrote. “It’s cool when you’re out skiing your warm up and there are people from all over the world skiing with you. Even our lodgings, the Hotel Babylon, are an experience per se. If you’re not familiar with the place I totally recommend googling it – it’s ridiculous.”
Also for Canada, Raphaël Couturier (CNEPH) and Scott Hill (Thunder Bay National Development Centre) placed 51st and 58th, respectively, out of 81 finishers.
“Although I am not usually the strongest sprinter, I think this course suited me well with three significant hills on the course that were all good for striding,” Hill wrote in an email. “The finishing straight was also very tough with it starting at the top of the last uphill and it being very long, probably the longest finish I have ever skied on.
“I think [my qualifier] was a better race than I give myself credit for but when I was in the last third of the field and 25 seconds off the winner, it is hard to be satisfied,” he added. “It was my first international race and I still have one more year as a junior so overall I am happy with the race especially since I was feeling good too. … If everything goes as planned I will be hoping for a top thirty finish [Wednesday in the 10 k skate].”