Canada’s Olympic Trials kicked off on Wednesday at the Canmore Nordic Centre with the first of two freestyle sprint races. With perhaps only two spots per gender on the Olympic team up for grabs, there is little room for errors for racers wanting to qualify for the Olympics.
Chandra Crawford of Team Ninja and the Canadian National Team was dominant in the finishing stretch of the women’s final, taking the win with a 2.4 second gap on the rest of the field. Crawford is prequalified for the Olympic team, but has struggled with health issues over the past year. She told Cross Country Canada that,
“To be able to put it all out there and charge your way to the finish line is what it is all about. It has been a huge effort this year for me to this point, and I’m excited with how today went. I just love racing and it is fun to win today.”
Finishing behind Crawford was Heidi Widmer of the Alberta World Cup Team (AWCA) and the Canadian National Team (NST). Widmer qualified in first, and looked strong in finishing. Canada is planning to choose one athlete solely off of sprint results, and one from distance results. Crawford’s prequalification puts Widmer in strong position going into the second round of freestyle sprinting on Saturday.
Rounding things up for the women’s podium was biathlete Zina Kocher of Red Deer, Alberta. Kocher has already qualified for Sochi in biathlon, but is also trying to qualify for the cross-country team. Incredibly, she finished in third in an event that she has rarely, if ever, competed in. In an email, she wrote that,
“For my first experience, my heats went great. I love hill climbing so this course is fantastic for me!
My strategy was really just to completely enjoy the day, be challenged by a new experience and do intervals with fast skiers [and] friends! Every heat required a little bit different mindset before starting and thinking about what strategy was needed. I didn’t have any expectations since this was new for me so I just focused on givin’er!”
On the men’s side of things, the results were equally interesting. Up-and-comer Bob Thompson of Thunder Bay had a stellar day to take the win after qualifying in 18th place.
According to Jesse Cockney (AWCA-NST), the heats were slow on the day, and coming down the finishing stretch all the racers were in a big pack. A tangle in the last 100 meters between Cockney and Phil Widmer (AWCA-NST) left the win up for grabs, and Thompson snagged it. Cockney held on for second, and Graham Nishikawa (NST) ended up in third.
Classic 15/10 K
Racing continued on Thursday with 15/10 k interval start classic racing for the men and women, respectively.
Brian McKeever of the National Para-Nordic Ski Team eked out the win for the men, starting slowly and building into the four lap race.
“I could see my splits throughout the race and knew what I had to do. My strategy going in was this is a four-lap race. It is not over after two,” McKeever told Cross Country Canada. “I wanted to get into a good rhythm and keep the pace throughout all four laps. I like to be the guy moving up as the race goes along rather than falling back. It feels very rewarding to know I was able to stick to the plan and it worked out. ”
McKeever is legally blind and, in 2010, was a member of both the Paralympic and Olympic team for Canada in Vancouver. However, he did not get to start any races at the Olympic Games.
Following closely behind McKeever were Graeme Killick (AWCA) and Kevin Sandau (AWCA-NST), 1.5 seconds and 18 seconds back, respectively. Both racers were strong early in the race and then faded a bit as McKeever made his surge. Sandau wrote in an email that,
“Since only race winners are only considered in the final selection, everything is on the line for Sunday[‘s distance race]. But the top [five] from today were relatively tight so anything could happen in the skiathlon. For me, the longer the better so looking forward to Sunday!”
The women’s race, on the other hand, was not nearly as close. Emily Nishikawa (AWCA-NST) showed early on that she was in top form, dominating the race throughout to win by nearly a minute. Keeping her enthusiasm in check, she told Cross Country Canada that,
“I have put in the work and now put it together for the races and that feels incredible,” said Nishikawa. “The wax was amazing and my skis were incredible today. I’m not going to celebrate just yet. I am going to recover and get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Runner-up Brittany Webster (Mito Canada) was jubilant, however, after being hobbled last season by sickness and early this season by a training plan designed to produce better mid-to-late season results. Using a race strategy that focused on skiing her own race, Webster wrote that,
“Whoo, I am not gonna lie it is nice to have that over with! Honestly, I am not even sure where the time went on that course. I remember every second of it and yet I remember nothing of it too. Is that even possible?” She added, “Emily skied fantastic. She started quite [far] back from me so I had no idea what my back splits were to her. All I focused on was keeping it together and standing up on my skis, and the finish result was the finish result.”
Rounding out the podium for the women was Ninja Zoe Roy. After using the qualifier of Wednesday’s freestyle race as a warm-up for today’s race, Roy skied to a strong third place finish, 1:23 back from Nishikawa.
The Canadian Olympic Trials, which also serve as selection races for U23 World Championships and World Junior Championships, will continue on Saturday with a second round of freestyle sprinting.