For the second time this season, the Nishikawa siblings – Emily and her older brother Graham – pulled out NorAm victories on the same day at the NorAm World Junior/U23 Trials in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Emily won the women’s 15 k skiathlon by 9.1 seconds in 45:30.5.
The first time the Nishikawas both topped the podium was at an interval start skate Dec. 9 at Sovereign Lake with a few top domestic racers away at a sprint World Cup in Quebec City. On Thursday, the skiathlon field was slightly stronger as those missing skiers were back to chase points toward a World Championships start opportunity in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Combined with U23 Worlds and Junior Worlds start places going to the first finishers in those categories, this weekend has been highlighted on most domestic athletes’ calendars.
The weather has not cooperated with very little snow falling in the last month. Only a huge effort from Lappe Nordic and volunteers in the local ski community has allowed the race to proceed. The course had to be shortened, which changed both the number of laps and the shape of the races. The senior women did three laps of 2.5 k classic and three laps of 2.6 k skate. The junior women did two laps of each.
While the skate loop remained challenging, the shortened 2.5 k classic loop took on a very different character. “The classic course had long downhill and double pole sections with just one climb near the end of the 2.5k loop,” women’s runner-up Alana Thomas (Nakkertok/XC Ottawa) wrote in an email. At least three of the favourites tried and failed to make a split on that small climb.
The flatter classic loop resulted in an unusually large group of 13 women arriving at the transition together. Brittany Webster (Highlands Nordic), who was fourth, already struggling with the cold, got tangled “with another athlete who lost her ski box. Can’t blame her, I’ve done things like that before,” she wrote.
Webster left the transition zone in seventh place, only 7 seconds behind the leading Thomas, but was not able to close the gap. Thomas, one of those who had tried to split field in the classic loop, wasn’t waiting.
“[I] tried to string it out again starting the skate portion and got a gap with Emily Nishikawa and Zoe [Roy],” Thomas said of the third-place finisher from Rocky Mountain Racers. “We skied together switching leads and eating up the big hills on the skate course. Emily gapped us a bit in the last k but it sure was an exciting day!”
Race winner Emily Nishikawa of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) had a similar view of the racing. “I’m happy with today’s race, and I felt good,” she wrote. “The classic course was pretty easy with a lot of downhill and flat sections so the pack really stayed together, it was hard to break away in that part. Then in the skate course, I was skiing with Zoe and Alana for the whole time until the last lap where I was able to get a bit of a gap and hold it until the finish. I was confident I could win, and I’m really glad I was able to do that today.”
Thomas was satisfied with her second place. “The race was really fun today and especially satisfying after a slow start to the season so far,” she wrote.
Andrea Lee (NDC Thunder Bay) in seventh led the U23 athletes and qualified for the U23 Worlds. “I was really happy with the way I felt today,” she wrote. “After having a tough time in the races before Christmas, I finally felt like I had my energy back. I struggled a bit in the classic leg, but once I transitioned to skate, I felt much better.”
Frédérique Vezina of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) dominated the Junior Women’s category to earn her JW berth and continue her strong run of results from December. Katherine Stewart-Jones (Nakkertok) and Cendrine Brown (CNEPH) came in together for second and third places after spending much of the race in a chase group with Dahria Beatty (Yukon Ski Team) and Maya MacIsaac-Jones (RMR). Anne-Marie Comeau (CNEPH), ranked second after her world cup successes, did not start.
Some of the athletes struggled in the -13C conditions, like Webster, who explained she “felt good warming up today, but the cold really got to me out there, and even at the start of the race I could feel my body contracting slower and slower. By the end, of course , you don’t really notice it, but I didn’t ski or feel like I had much punch. Just cold limbs and frost bite on the toes!!”
Other athletes didn’t mention the cold. One thing almost every racer mentioned was the work of the volunteers. Thomas wrote, “I’ve got to mention how impressed I was with the course, T-Bay really loves skiing and volunteers spent hours and hours shoveling snow onto the race loops to make today possible – all worthwhile and much appreciated!”
Graham Nishikawa (AWCA) continued what his sister started, winning the men’s 30 k skiathlon at Lappe Nordic by 3.7 seconds in 1:15:51.9. As with the women’s race, all the top domestic racers were there to earn points towards a World Championships start, or U23 or Junior Worlds trips.
The lack of snow in the last month forced the use of shortened courses, with even more laps for the men. Nishikawa wrote that “the course was 12 laps of 2.5km. The classic side was gentle and the skate side was challenging. The organizers did an amazing job getting the course together – there is very little snow here!”
At the end of the 15 k classic, there was a pack of 23 skiers in the transition zone. While it is typical for the men to ski in packs, this was larger than usual. Second-place finisher Kevin Sandau (AWCA) said the shortened classic course “was sort of good and bad – easier to ski easy and relaxed but at the same time there was too much congestion just cause it was harder to break into a smaller lead pack.”
The ‘good’ for Sandau, who was “a bit nervous about the classic leg of the race as I haven’t been as strong in classic this season”, was ‘bad’ for some of the other racers who were stronger in classic. Skiathlons usually slightly favour the better skaters, this course was just a little more skewed that direction.
Sandau was one of the skiers pushing the pace early in the skate leg. “I felt pretty good in the skate leg, and for the first couple laps tried to speed the pace up to thin it out a bit,” he wrote. “Near the 25km mark I knew it was going to come down to the final climb before the stadium for the win, as the four of us in the lead were skiing pretty strong.”
Graeme Killick (AWCA), who was third, Michael Somppi (AWCA) in fourth, Brian McKeever (Para Nordic National Team) in fifth, and Jesse Cockney (AWCA) in sixth also spent time on the front pushing the pace.
Racing on his home trails, Somppi slid back into “seventh or eighth place” after the exchange, he explained. “With the trails not being overly wide, it was difficult to pass and the yo-yo effect made it impossible to get into any sort of rhythm,” Somppi wrote. “I was able to move up to 4th as other skiers faded, unfortunately I didn’t have the energy left for a sprint to the finish line.”
Nishikawa used his experience in the final. “I know the skate course well from previous years- and made my attack on the final climb,” he wrote. “Got a gap and maintained.”
Sandau was happy with his second place: “On the very last climb, Nishikawa attacked and I couldn’t respond, but was able to just edge out Killick after getting in his draft before the finishing lanes.”
Somppi’s lack of energy gave him the best view of the finish. “Graham Nishikawa played it well with a strong surge up the final big climb to secure the victory while Kevin and Graeme fought for silver,” he wrote. Personally, he was also fairly pleased. “[I] am happy to have finished with the leaders, however 4th place is always a tough place to finish.”
Cockney, who was sixth just 2.5 seconds behind McKeever, felt good about his race and is “really looking forward to Saturdays sprint as today shows I have good shape for the weekend,” he wrote. “The last couple laps were just a bit too much for me but I’m happy with the improvement from past years results.”
Andy Shields (NDC Thunder Bay) used his hometown advantage to finish seventh, good for first in U23 and a trip to U23 Worlds.
“My goal was to win the U23 category today and that’s what I did so I’m very happy with how things played out,” Shields wrote. “Skis were superb, both ski selection and wax, so I didn’t have to work very hard in the classic leg – which went out slow anyway. I was able to stay with the lead pack for most of the classic but got into the exchange further back than I wanted to. I was able to catch back up to the lead pack in the first half of the skate and in the process ended up dropping all the U23’s.
“It feels great to qualify for Worlds on the first day of trials. Now I can just concentrate on enjoying the rest of the races by skiing as fast as I can.”
Raphael Couturier (CNEPH) won the Junior Men’s 20 k skiathlon ahead of Alexis Turgeon (CNEPH) and Ezekiel Williams (Nakkertok) to book his ticket to Junior Worlds. Jack Carlyle (Soo Finnish), David Palmer (Black Jack) and Scott Hill (Team Hardwood) completed the group of six that skied the last 5 k together.
Full results at zone4.ca