Countless times, Chandra Crawford relied on her upbeat attitude and incredible self-motivation to rise to the occasion. When it came to racing, there were no bad days, just a genuine love of the sport.
At the age of 22, the always-smiling, wide-eyed girl from Canmore, Alberta, won gold in the freestyle sprint at the 2006 Olympics. She notched her first World Cup victory the following season in her hometown and won another gold in a World Cup skate sprint a few months later in March 2008 in Lahti, Finland.
Now 29, Crawford’s no longer a girl, yet she still thrives off that same optimistic adrenaline that’s fueled her for the last 13 years. For instance, take the Canmore World Cup. Heading into the races two months ago, Canada’s leading national-team female hadn’t cracked the top 30 this season. In her signature event in front of thousands of fans, she qualified in third in Canmore and went on to place sixth in the World Cup final.
After the holiday break, in which she spent time with her two teammates – Dasha Gaiazova and Perianne Jones – training and racing Alpen Cups in Germany, Crawford struggled to get back near the top. In mid-January at a World Cup skate sprint in Liberec, Czech Republic, she was 29th. She didn’t finish her next race, a 10 k classic mass start in La Clusaz, France.
That’s when Crawford knew something was wrong. And unlike all the other times she had buried the bad feelings and triumphed, she took a hard look at the root of the cause.
“I spend a lot of time with my training logs, analyzing a lot of what I’ve been up to and how I’ve been feeling over the last year, and there were just so many strong reasons in there for the state I’m in,” Crawford said on the phone Wednesday. “It just seemed clear to me that I was in a pretty good hole.”
She wasn’t burnt out, sick of the sport or tired of racing, she said. Rather, Crawford realized she had done too much in the last year, which culminated into an overwhelming sense of mental and physical fatigue. Stress in the last year was a contributing factor, but moreover, that paired with a “super-hard” training sessions took a toll on her body.
“I’ve been hammering for a lot of years now so to take a breather after 13 solid years of full-time training and racing at as high a level as my body can at all times, I don’t feel too bad about it,” Crawford said.
On Tuesday, Cross Country Canada (CCC) issued a press release stating Crawford decided to end her season early to recover for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. After prequalifying for the 2014 Games with her Canmore result, Crawford appeared to be in a safe spot. But what was next for Canada’s golden child? And what would become of the nation’s World Championships hopes with just two World Cup females racing in Val di Fiemme, Italy, later this month?
A Little R & R
According to Crawford, who flew home from Sochi on Monday, she’ll take some off before resuming training. She formulated a loose plan with Canadian women’s coach Eric de Nys before leaving after breaking the news to him last week.
Nervous about the conversation, Crawford said she waited until she saw him in person to discuss it. After spending time with his family in Canmore, de Nys rejoined his team on the flight to Sochi for the pre-Olympic World Cup.
“We were sitting on the plane together for a couple hours and then finally I just said, ‘I’m thinking about stopping the season,’ ” Crawford recalled. “And he said, ‘We’re on the same page,’ so then I was completely calm and I knew it was the right thing.”
According to de Nys, Crawford’s only obligation is to be ready to go in May when the team starts training for the 2013/2014 season. He said her situation is much like that of a season-ending injury; she’s going to take time to recover, recuperate and follow a training plan in doing so.
“We know she’s a performer so I don’t have any worries about her getting back into shape,” de Nys said on the phone from Valdidentro, Italy, where Gaiazova and Jones are training before the Davos World Cup.
“Sometimes things go awry,” he added. “It might seem drastic midway through the season, but it happens quite often where athletes have to miss a couple months of racing.”
De Nys used Lukáš Bauer, the Czech Republic’s famous World Cup skier, as an example. Bauer’s season was cut short in February last year when he discovered a fracture in his heel.
“He couldn’t walk anymore,” de Nys said. “That’s not what he wanted to do, but in this situation it’s the same thing. Of course, Chandra wants to try to finish the season, but when we really thought about it, talked about it, it doesn’t make sense. I think she’s going to come back stronger from this.”
Crawford does, too, but she’s a little unsure of the timeline required to get there.
“I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “I don’t know how long this is supposed to take, but that’s why we’ve shied away a little bit from trying to put timeframes on it. In the past, when I make a goal I am going to do everything in my power to achieve it, which can sometimes lead to forcing it or maybe trying to fabricate a state that might not actually be happening.”
Moving forward, she said there are two scenarios she’ll try to avoid. One, disappointment when she doesn’t meet her goals. And two, “acting fine because I decided I want to be fine at a certain time,” she said.
“We’ve seen this past year that, although I have tremendous abilities to create an optimal state and that’s why I’ve raced well in the past, the system is overtaxed now and I need to be more honest about my skiing level and listen to my body better,” Crawford said.
Making the decision to stop racing three weeks before World Championships wasn’t easy, especially given Crawford’s love of Italy. According to de Nys, it was better to make it sooner rather than later.
“It’s no fun when you know you can be on the podium and you’re finishing 40th or 50th, you know something’s not going right,” he said. “When you just kind of get in the water and you’re spinning your wheels, you know that’s time to take a break and re-gather everything and come back fighting stronger.”
Crawford said another factor in her decision was her experience with previous Olympic years – and the media attention leading up to it. Upon returning to Canada, she had four interviews on Tuesday and two that she moved to Wednesday.
“The first question of the first interview of the Olympic countdown was, ‘Do you feel the weight of the nation’s expectations on you to win gold?’ ” Crawford said. “If I get drilled with that question the entire year, even with all my media training and whatever I do to deflect it or focus on the process, it’s still a thought that just comes up so much more often with the media presence.”
After envisioning herself coming home and “crumpling onto the couch,” Crawford said she’s exhausted but happy. And while she was considering a two-week yoga retreat in Mexico to take her away from the temptation to ski, she wrote in an email Thursday that she might cancel the trip.
“Just looking at enjoying home life and not running around so much,” Crawford explained.
Whatever she ends up doing to unwind, Crawford said she doesn’t take anything for granted – not a vacation, her team or all the racing opportunities she’s been given.
“I’m definitely spoiled rotten and I really appreciate everyone being behind me because I’m definitely putting my all into my pursuit of skiing,” she said. “It’s interesting that this time putting my all into it means taking a step back.”
The founder of Fast and Female, Crawford will continue with her less-involved role, attending about two events per year and delegating responsibilities to her board and a new executive director. As the movement of empowering young girls keeps spreading across North America, Crawford said she’s thankful for the athletes, volunteers and regional coordinators behind it, especially Kikkan Randall and other US Ski Team members. Ultimately, Crawford wants to make more appearances in the future, but reasons, “my chance to pursue my dreams to the best of my abilities on the racing side is just a short time window right now.”
As she embarks on a fresh start in racing, she’s looking forward to feeling regenerated for next season.
“I’m just preparing to go into the Olympic year so rested and so calm from this time I took to step back and center myself and become so healthy and energized,” Crawford said. “There are just so many things I pour energy into that I really have to be really disciplined and prioritize for the Olympic year.”
World Champs Outlook
In Crawford’s absence at the upcoming World Championships, an additional female sprinter will not be selected, according to CCC High Performance Director Thomas Holland.
When the team was named a week and a half ago, the selection committee extended its 11-person maximum for one additional distance woman on the squad. Without Crawford, the team was back to 11. Of the five women, three are sprinters.
With the opportunity for one team sprint and one relay per gender at World Championships, Canada’s women appear to be in a good position for the former. Last weekend, Gaiazova and Jones teamed up to win bronze in the classic team sprint in Sochi. The Canadians will also field a women’s relay.
“This is not an event we have done well in,” Holland wrote in an email, pointing out their 16th-place finish at the 2007 World Championships. They didn’t have a relay in 2009 and placed 14th two years ago. “It would be nice to see an upward improvement from the last 3 [World Championships].”
De Nys explained Canada has been working to rebuild its women’s program for the last several years since Beckie Scott and Sara Renner captured silver in the team sprint at the 2006 Olympics.
“Now, we’re very strong, but just in sprint so we’re trying to get some momentum behind distance skiing in Canada as well,” de Nys said. “Sometimes it takes a little while before you have the right horses in the stables, you know?”