WHISTLER, B.C. – Heidi Widmer of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) didn’t win Sunday’s 5-kilometre freestyle individual start at Canadian Nationals outright, but she took home her first individual national championship at the age of 22.
American Caitlin Gregg of Central Cross Country (CXC) made the trip to Canada and took the overall win in 12:02.9 on a fast-and-warm day at Whistler Olympic Park. She was happy with her race and is feeling that this event will be good preparation for the U.S. SuperTour Finals in April.
University of Colorado-Boulder senior Eliska Hajkova took second place, 10.9 seconds behind Gregg. Along with some Colorado teammates, she decided to celebrate spring break in Canada this year. A Sochi hopeful, she wanted to test herself against an international field before returning home.
Hajkova was excited by her race, particularly enjoying the fast snow and low elevation (900 metres compared to Boulder’s elevation of 1,650 m).
“The [course] has hard uphills and tricky downhills, but it is so fun to race,” she said. “The trails here, oh my God, this is really a heaven for skiing.”
The fastest Canadian, Widmer was third overall, 22.4 seconds behind Gregg.
“It was definitely a lung burner, but I am very happy and ecstatic,” she a day after winning the team sprint with Marlis Kromm. “It is my first Canadian championship, so I am really happy with that.”
“It was a really fast course today and good conditions, but different than we expected,” she added. “I wanted to finish stronger than I started. Five k is about pushing right from the beginning and trying to hold off that blow up as long as possible.”
Nakkertok’s Alana Thomas was second Canadian and fourth overall (+32.7) and Alysson Marshall (AWCA) brought some upside to a rough season, collecting the bronze less than two seconds behind Thomas.
“It was a pretty decent distance race for me,” Marshall said. “I am happy with how it turned out.”
Asked what her season highlight was, she responded “Later this week!” A sprint specialist, she is looking forward to the classic sprints on Thursday and the classic interval start on Tuesday to provide that highlight.
Julia Ransom (Biathlon Alberta) was the top Junior Woman in eighth (+48.9). She was not the top biathlete on the day, edged out by Canadian national-team biathlete Rosanna Crawford, also from Canmore.
Fresh off Sochi, McKeever notches first Canadian title
In the men’s 10 k freestyle individual start, Canadian Para-Nordic Ski Team member Brian McKeever collected his first national title in 21:18.1.
A perennial winner in International Paralympic Committee (IPC) events with 10 Paralympic medals and an unbeaten streak on the World Cup this season, the 33-year-old visually-impaired skier started fast on Sunday. He posted one of the fastest splits up the opening climb and kept up the tempo.
Graeme Killick (AWCA) started faster, but faded on the second lap to concede the silver medal to teammate Graham Nishikawa, who was 14 seconds behind on the first climb.
“You never really know how you are going to feel after getting off the plane from Russia,” McKeever said after flying from IPC World Cup Finals in Sochi just 48 hours prior.
“First national championship win in my career,” he said. “I am really happy about that.”
About 10 seconds behind with three kilometers remaining, Nishikawa finished strong, 11.6 seconds behind McKeever.
The 5 k ‘blue’ loop, best known as the second loop of the 2010 Olympic 50 k course, has a testing final kilometre, with the steep climb from ‘Way Out’ followed by a rolling section into the Hermodt’s hill before the drop into the stadium. Many racers bled time on the apparently easy Hermodt’s on the second lap, Killick included. With 3 k remaining, Killick was close to McKeever.
“I lost a lot of it probably coming to the stadium here,” Killick said.
Hearing how McKeever one-skated the final climb, Killick laughed and said that wasn’t an option for him. Killick held on for bronze, 23.0 seconds out of first.
“It was super-fast conditions,” Nishikawa said. “Just go from the gun and a lot of pain. I usually start slow and hopefully pick it up. I am happy with my effort, it hurt a lot so that’s a good thing.”
Nishikawa’s also coming off some intense racing at World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, but said he’s recovering.
“[Today] feels better than yesterday, so I am looking forward to Tuesday a lot,” he said.
Killick was also upbeat, saying “it was good for a skate race.” In a 10 k individual start, “you have to keep your speed up all the time, and I think I was almost there, but not quite.”
Like the others, Killick enjoyed the conditions, describing them as “nice and fast, good speed. It held up better than when we were testing yesterday.”
While the men’s podium was all-Canadian, the U.S. took fourth and sixth with Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown) and Bryan Gregg (CXC), respectively.
Marc-André Bédard (Biathlon Canada) led a good showing of biathletes, placing fifth overall and fourth Canadian (+30.4) to match his result at Canadian Nationals last year, where he was fourth in Quebec.