Cross Country Canada’s Olympic selection trials begin on Friday (rescheduled from Saturday due to below-race-legal temperature forecasts), and in the past few weeks it has become even more clear what the national team is looking for in future Olympians.
Canada has a number of cross-country skiers already qualified for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea: Alex Harvey, Len Valjas, Devon Kershaw, Knute Johnsgaard, Jesse Cockney, Graeme Killick, Emily Nishikawa, and Dahria Beatty.
But in fact, that might be too many. Cross Country Canada (CCC) learned that they currently stand to receive a quota of nine team members (men and women combined) for PyeongChang, based on Canada’s recent international results. That is two quota spots less than at the similar time before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The quota is likely to increase, as some of the teams given the largest roster possibilities will probably not use all of their roster space. If that happens, the free quota spots will be redistributed, although just how many additional spots Canada will receive depends completely on the actions of other teams.
Regardless, the current small roster size means that qualification will shake out differently than the national team had thought it would, CCC High Performance Director Thomas Holland said in a recent phone interview.
“We based our criteria on what we had in Sochi,” Holland said of designing CCC’s selection process. “In Sochi, we had 11 [athletes initially], and with the reallocation we ended up with 13, so we kind of used that [to develop] the criteria. I guess our results aren’t where we would like them to be [this year] so we have nine, less than we expected.”
As a result, a revision of the Olympic qualification criteria has specified who is guaranteed a spot, which types of athletes will be picked at trials, and which athletes will be added later if Canada benefits from quota reallocation.
Specifically, Harvey, Valjas, Kershaw, Johnsgaard, and Cockney are definitely going, as they have met the “Primary Qualifying Criteria” by dint of a third-place World Cup relay or, in Cockney’s case, two 10th-place finishes in sprints, or in Harvey’s case, a whole lot of different top results.
The next priority is to field a four-woman team, so Nishikawa and Beatty are in, as the only two women to have achieved “Alternative Qualifying Criteria A” of three top-30 results. The trials will determine who will join them. The new amendment specifies that one female sprinter and one female distance skier will be selected.
That brings the team size to nine. If an additional quota spot materializes, Killick will get the call; he met “Alternative Qualifying Criteria A,” the only Canadian man to do so aside from those who met the primary criteria.
Should even more quota spots arrive, they would go to, in order, a male sprinter and a female distance skier. CCC has said for months that team size would be capped at 12 no matter how many quota spots are allocated to the team.
Race Formats and Qualification Scoring
The Olympic selection races will be held this Friday through next Tuesday, Jan. 9, in Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec, as part of major competitions with NorAm points on the line and selections being made for Junior and U23 World Championships teams being done at the same time.
Some of the athletes already qualified for the Games will also be there competing as a tune-up: only one athlete, Harvey, is currently competing in the Tour de Ski, with Kershaw having intended to but falling sick after the first stage. Killick and Nishikawa are racing in Continental Cup races in Europe.
For the rest of the hopefuls, classic sprints will be contested on Friday, Jan. 5; 10/15 k classic interval starts on Sunday, Jan. 7; and 15/30 k skiathlons on Tuesday, Jan. 9.
(There will be an additional skate sprint on Monday, Jan. 8, but it will not figure into Olympic qualification. And a forecast of cold weather for Sunday means that more modifications still may come, although the organizing committee is sticking to the planned distance races on Sunday for now.)
While the distance interval-start race at the Olympics will be skating, Holland said that it would be a classic competition at the upcoming trials for several reasons, the main one being a time constraint that prevented the staging of every possible kind of race.
“We have a couple things going on at the same time,” he explained. “We have probably 18 athletes who will qualify for the World Juniors/U23 teams. We couldn’t get that [series] in any earlier, so we have about four days to do all the races… there is classic racing at the Olympics in the relay, in the 30k, that kind of thing, so that was the best scenario we could come up with.”
That is definitely a blow to skate-specialist athletes looking for an Olympic berth – in particular Zina Kocher, a former biathlete who currently leads the NorAm series (more on that later). But Holland says there hasn’t been much pushback on the classic-heavy schedule.
“I think they have known, and accepted it,” he said. “You have to ski both techniques at the Games, if you want to maximize the the number of races [an athlete can do]… It’s not ideal, but I guess, you know, we get to look at the skate race in the skiathlon.”
Sprint and distance ranking lists will be kept separately for men and women, although the distance list for men is something of a moot point as there are no additional male distance skiers set to be added to the team.
In each case, the list will be made up of only the athletes who have not met qualification criteria in that discipline – so, for example, Johnsgaard, who has met the distance but not the sprint qualification criteria, can be scored on the sprint list, while Cockney, who has met the sprint but not the distance qualification criteria, could be scored on the distance list.
“[If Johnsgaard qualified] for the sprint spot… the outcome would be that we would have four sprinters (Harvey, Valjas, Cockney, Johnsgaard) and the sprint quota would be full at four athletes,” Holland wrote in an email. “We would move onto a distance athlete as per the ranking in Amendment #2.”
That said, once at the Olympics, any team member could start any race regardless of whether they qualified via sprint or distance results.
“Once the athletes are at the Games it is the purview of the coaches and High Performance Director as to who starts in which races – there are no limitations; we will try to fill start positions,” Holland wrote. “Meeting the nomination procedures/criteria is another matter. Qualifying in a distance or relay event should not give an athlete the automatic right to take a sprint quota spot at the Games.”
For the female sprinter and the potential additional male sprinter to be selected in Mont Sainte-Anne, the requirement is clearly to “win” the classic sprint on Jan. 6, or at least be the top athlete who wasn’t already qualified for PyeongChang.
But winning is a bit complicated: with only one spot up for grabs, CCC wants to consider both qualifying speed and final placement at the end of the heats. Thus, a combined score will be made, with 50 percent of points coming from qualifier position and 50 percent of points from final position. For each, one point will be given to the winner, two to the second-place finisher, three to the third-place finisher, etc. The athlete with the lowest combined point score from the day “wins”.
For female distance skiers, both the 10 k classic interval start and the 15 k skiathlon will be scored. If they are won by the same athlete, then it is clear that this woman will be named to the Olympic team. If two different women win the two races, then the woman with the better result in the race she didn’t win will be picked.
And if the same athlete tops both the sprint and distance list, then they will be given the designated sprint spot, and the second-ranked distance skier will also be selected for the team.
An “alternate” sprinter and “alternate” distance skier for both men and women will be named, who will go to the Games only if one of the qualified athletes becomes sick or injured and can’t compete.
Canada has a scary preview of that at the moment, as Valjas – who stood on the World Cup podium several times last season – returned to Canada in December to deal with injury issues.
“He injured his shoulder, but it’s an injury that he had last year at the World Championships and it goes much deeper. It really felt like a shoulder injury, but until he came back this time and had an MRI, spent more time with doctors, we really got to the root of the cause,” Holland said. “It’s something that’s going to be there and has to be managed now. At least he knows what it is, and with therapy he can keep it under control. We’re just playing it safe at this point.”
He anticipates that Valjas will be back in more than enough time for PyeongChang.
“Now that we know what it is and that he knows how to treat it, with the exercises he has to do on an ongoing basis, and just the right therapy on an ongoing basis, he should be fine,” Holland said. “He’s pretty confident.”
Who To Watch For
Depending on quota reallocation, it’s not clear that any more men will be added to the Canadian Olympic team. From that perspective, some attention will be on who wins the men’s sprint – with Julien Locke and Bob Thompson perhaps the favorites to earn it if that quota spot opens up.
And for both men and women, it’s also an opportunity to see how the athletes who returned from World Cup Period 1 with somewhat disappointing results compete, as Holland expects their race fitness to be improving. Beatty, Cockney, Valjas, and Johnsgaard are all registered for the races, as are Locke and Russell Kennedy, who raced Period 1 via a Frozen Thunder sprint win and NorAm leader status, respectively. Finally, there’s Brian McKeever racing, who is always a possibility of shaking up the podium as he prepares for the PyeongChang Paralympics.
But in the selection races, most of the attention will be on the women.
Returning from the World Cup are Cendrine Browne, who was two-thirds of the way to her “Alternative Qualifying Criteria A” selection but never notched her third top-30, and Katherine Stewart-Jones. Browne finished 45th in both the 15 k skiathlon in Lillehammer, Norway, and the 10 k skate in Davos, Switzerland, in December.
“I think she didn’t race to her potential in December for whatever reason, but I expect her to come around here in Mont Sainte-Anne and be off to the Olympics,” Holland said of Browne.
Then there is fellow 2017 World Championships team member Stewart-Jones, who suffered a concussion in mid-September and had to miss more than a month of training. She jumped back onto the World Cup in Lillehammer and had a top finish of 55th in the Davos sprint.
“With the concussion she had — sometimes you have to make a decision,” Holland said of her return to racing. “Maybe it was too soon for the World Cup, but you know, [she had a] good training season, and there are more races. I expect her to come around. She has goals for the Olympics, but she’s still a U23 so she has some goals/objectives there as well. We’ll see what she does at the trials.”
Then there is Kocher, who has rarely competed against the previous two. A several-time Olympian for Biathlon Canada and previous World Cup podium finisher in biathlon, she also won the 5k skate at Canadian Ski Nationals last season and finished second to Nishikawa in the 30 k skate. She was the Canadian champion in the same event in 2013, where she finished behind Switzerland’s Bettina Gruber in the race.
Kocher is the current NorAm leader, but that has come on the strength of her skating: the top Canadian (in eighth) in the 10 k skate at the Sovereign Lakes NorAm, third in the skate sprint in Rossland, second in the overall minitour after a strong skate pursuit. But in the 5 k classic at the Rossland NorAm, she finished just 12th. A major question is whether he 20 k skiathlon gives her enough room to make up for her classic skiing, and whether she can do well enough in the 10 k classic compared to, say, Stewart-Jones, to earn a nod.
Second place in the NorAm standings belongs to Andrea Dupont, who finished second, and the top Canadian, in the Rossland skate sprint. She also won the qualifier there, which is an important skill given the sprint scoring system at Olympic trials.
Annika Hicks was the first Canadian in the classic race in Rossland, and finished third overall in the minitour. She has had a strong start to the season and is currently third in the NorAm rankings, just a few points behind Dupont.
Sophie Carrier-Laforte, Frédérique Vézina, Maya MacIsaac-Jones, Laura Leclair, Anne-Marie Comeau, Alannah MacLean, and juniors Hannah Mehain and Lisle Compton also have top-five Canadian finishes from individual NorAm races.
“Maya MacIsaac-Jones, she’s had a rough time with injuries over the last year, but she might surprise us at trials, in sprinting,” Holland said.
Another racer who has had a tough time with injuries: 2015 World Championships team member Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt, who hasn’t competed since sustaining a serious neck injury in February. But she’s on the start list for the trials races.
In the joint NorAm/SuperTour weekend in Sovereign Lake, Carrier-Laforte was the only Canadian to make the sprint final, surrounded by five Americans, after having qualified fourth (again the top Canadian); Dupont was the only other Canadian to finish in the top 10. The pair, along with MacIsaac-Jones, are perhaps the favorites to go up against Stewart-Jones in the classic sprint.
— Gerry Furseth contributed