Since March of last year, Cendrine Browne has been waiting and trying, with all her might, for another top 30. She achieved it twice last season, placing 26th in the World Championships 30-kilometer mass start and 35th in the World Cup 10 k skate in Ulricehamn, Sweden (30th with Olympic-style scoring, which counts the top-four athletes for each nation in a given race).
To meet Cross Country Canada’s (CCC) alternate qualifying criteria for the 2018 Olympics, Browne, who turned 24 this past September, needed one more top 30 at the World Cup with the same type of scoring.
She had four weekends to give it her all in late November and December.
Browne, of the Canadian National U25 Team and Centre National d’Entraînement Pierre Harvey (CNEPH), a.k.a. Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, finished the 2017/2018 season-opening World Cup mini tour in 72nd overall with the 62nd-ranked pursuit time in Kuusamo, Finland.
“That was my first [weekend of racing] so it was tough,” Browne recalled on the phone in early January. “But the last race of the mini tour went much better. I started to have good race feelings so I knew I was going in the right direction. The next weekend was Lillehammer [Norway] and I performed pretty well there in the skiathlon.”
She finished 45th to lead two Canadian women finishers. With Olympic-style scoring, she was 31st.
“To qualify for the Olympics I had to do a top 30 so 31st was a little frustrating, but I knew I was able to do a top 30,” Browne said. “I knew I could do a real top 30, not only a four per nation top 30. But I only had four weekends to do a top 30 and I was down to two.”
In Davos, Switzerland, she tied her season best of 45th in the 10-kilometer freestyle and led four Canadian women, but she was still outside the top 30 with Olympic scoring. Her result at altitude (about 1,560 meters above sea level) was promising, she said, but still not quite there in terms of what she needed.
One weekend later, it all came down to two races in Toblach, Italy. There, she finished 55th in the 10 k skate and 66th in the 10 k classic pursuit.
“Maybe I had put some pressure on myself, but I felt pressure from my federation and pressure to do that top 30, and I don’t work very well with pressure,” she said. “So unfortunately when we went to Toblach, I didn’t perform at all. I was so stressed out that I didn’t even have fun racing, and I just felt awful the whole skate race. I cried a lot.”
With Period 1 of the World Cup behind her and Christmas break on the horizon, she told herself it wasn’t over yet. But she was still disappointed.
“I was supposed to stay [in Europe] for Christmas … I was so focused on Plan A that I didn’t even think about Plan B,” she said.
On the bright side, “Plan B” involved races in her home province of Quebec at Mont Sainte-Anne (MSA), where she trains with CNEPH. And she got to spent time with her family and boyfriend in her hometown of St-Jérôme, about 50 kilometers northwest of Montreal, as well as reset mentally for NorAm Olympic trials starting Jan. 5.
“I was so focused on Plan A that I didn’t even think about Plan B.” — Cendrine Browne, Canadian National U25 Team and Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, on qualifying for the Olympics
“I was really really stressed out the week before the first race [at trials] and I was feeling the pressure again, and I really didn’t want to react the the same way as I did in Toblach so I went to see my sports psychologist,” Browne said. “She explained some stuff to me, like instead of thinking that the pressure is bad and instead of trying to run away from it, she said I have to try to accept it, and if I accept it, it would help me to go faster.”
With that in mind, Browne tried to keep everything in perspective. Then, she came out at full steam for the classic sprint on Jan. 5, the first day of MSA NorAm trials.
“I think it really worked well because I managed to sleep better the night before the race, and the morning of the race I was feeling like myself again,” she said. “I was skiing and just loving the glide as I usually do when I’m having a good day. I was smiling … and I felt free and I felt like myself. I feel like when I’m stressed out, I’m not having fun any more and that day I was having fun again.”
A self-described freestyle distance specialist, she placed second in the classic-sprint qualifier then fourth overall in the final. As the top-performing woman between the qualifier and final, excluding fellow national-team member Dahria Beatty (who had previously met Canada’s alternate qualifying criteria for the Olympics), Browne effectively secured one of Canada’s coveted quota spots at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
While that wasn’t a done deal until a few weeks later, when CCC named its 11-athlete Olympic team, that result put Browne in the best place any Canadian Olympic hopeful would want to be.
“I can’t say I’m qualified yet because it’s kind of complicated,” Browne said on Jan. 7. “… We can only say, like Daria, Emily [Nishikawa] and I, that we have reached an Olympic criteria and that we’re in good position to go to the Olympics.”
Beatty and Emily Nishikawa, members of Canada’s World Cup Team, met CCC’s “Alternate Qualifying Criteria A” (three top-30 results) last season. According to CCC’s Olympic selection criteria, one female sprinter and one female distance skier would be selected to the Olympic team based on trials. So Browne effectively secured the female sprint spot, and as the rest of the week at MSA played out, she ended up being the top distance skier at trials as well.
On Jan. 8, Browne won the women’s 15 k skiathlon on Day 2 of the trials. Two days later, she won the 10 k classic interval start as well. In the event that the trials sprint leader was the top distance skier as well, as was Browne, the criteria was written so that the second-ranked distance skier in those two distance races would be selected.
That spot went to Anne-Marie Comeau, Browne’s former teammate. The two trained together at CNEPH three years ago, before Comeau left skiing due to an injury and concentrated on running. At last month’s trials, Comeau placed second in the skiathlon, about 12 seconds behind Browne, and third in the 10 k classic, about a minute and 5 seconds back. Browne won the classic individual start by 39 seconds over Katherine Stewart-Jones, who had previously placed fifth in the skiathlon.
“I know she has a huge VO2 max,” Browne said of Comeau, a student at the Université Laval. “She has a huge cardio and these courses were perfect for her, so I knew she could do well, but I’m really surprised that she could actually be on the Olympic team, just because she wasn’t sure she wanted to ski anymore, so that’s really a big surprise for everybody. She trained for running for two years almost, and we didn’t think she would be such a big comeback.”
(Browne is also enrolled at Laval, where she takes classes toward a bachelor’s degree in sports intervention in the fall, as well as HEC Montréal, a university business school where Browne is pursuing a certificate in administration during the summer and winter terms. “It’s important to prepare my post-career now,” she said during another interview this summer.)
While both Browne and Comeau were named to the Olympic team on Jan. 29, along with Beatty and Nishikawa on the women’s side, Browne said her results at trials gave her confidence moving forward.
“I was surprised because classic sprints usually are not my best race at all,” she said of her result in the classic-sprint qualifier to start the trials. “But I think I’m in good shape right now and that’s why I managed to do so well. Also the sprint course is really hard here, it’s like a World Cup course, so it’s made for distance skiers, I would say. Pure sprinters get tired on that course, it’s so hard. So I think it was a good course for me.”
Going into the races at MSA, Browne had been on the NorAm podium 12 times since 2013. Two of those races were sprints (both in 2015).
“I’m definitely more of a distance skate skier, without a doubt,” she said.
Four Races, Four Big Results
The MSA classic sprint marked Browne’s first time skiing heats since last year’s U.S. nationals in Utah, where she qualified fifth in the classic sprint and went on to finish 22nd after being eliminated in the quarterfinals.
On Jan. 5, she clocked the second-fastest qualifying time on MSA’s 1.2 k course, 3.13 seconds behind Beatty, who won the qualifier in 3:41.55. Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt, of Rocky Mountain Racers (RMR), qualified third (+8.08) and Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Canadian U25 Team/RMR) qualified fourth (+8.49). Taking Beatty out of the equation, that meant Browne needed to place fourth or better in the final to lock up that women’s sprint spot. According to the CCC sprint selection process, a given athlete’s result in the qualifier and final were scored equally (one point per place, lowest points win). So Browne had 2 points after qualifying and MacIsaac-Jones had 4. In the final, MacIsaac-Jones placed second to Beatty and Browne finished fourth, bringing both of their point totals to 6. The tiebreaker, according to the criteria, was the top qualifying result, which Browne had.
Asked about home-course advantage on the trails she’s skied on for the last six years with CNEPH, Browne said the sprint course was brand new and specifically designed for the 2018 trials.
“I hadn’t tried those yet, but they’re great. They’re really hard,” she said.
In the heats, she made a point to lead early in her quarterfinal and semifinal in order to set the pace.
“The course was so hard that you couldn’t start too fast, so I went in front of everybody and didn’t go too fast on the first uphill,” Browne recalled. “My race really started at the top of the first huge pitch, and at the top of that big uphill, that’s when I started to go faster and that’s where I created a little gap.”
She won both her quarterfinal and semifinal to advance with ease to the heats, 1.5 seconds ahead of Annika Hicks, of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) in the quarter and 2.81 seconds ahead of Hicks again in the semifinal.
In the final, Browne found herself behind Beatty (also of AWCA) and Stewart-Jones, of the Canadian U25 Team and National Team Development Centre (NTDC) Thunder Bay, at the top of the last major climb. They jumped in the tracks on either side of her, and Browne found herself without a track for the downhill.
Beatty crossed the finish line first once more (after winning both her quarterfinal and semifinal as well), finishing in 3:45.02, while MacIsaac-Jones followed 0.64 seconds later in second place. Stewart-Jones was 1.2 seconds back in third, and Browne 4.5 seconds behind in fourth. Hicks placed fifth (+10.21) and Andrea Dupont (RMR) rounded out the women’s final in sixth (+12.18).
Going into the final, Browne wasn’t aware she needed to finish fourth or better.
“I don’t really like thinking about criteria before I go into a race so I had no idea what I had just done,” she recalled. “A friend [Alexis Turgeon] told me when I crossed the finish line, he said, ’I think you got that Olympic spot!’ I was like, ‘What?’ and then the rumors started to spread and then my coaches told me it was true, I had made it. It was pretty great.”
One of those coaches was her coach, Louis Bouchard, head coach at CNEPH, also a Canadian World Cup coach and Alex Harvey’s personal coach, who attended the classic sprint at NorAm trials then left for Europe on Sunday.
“He said he was almost as stressed out as I was and he didn’t sleep before the first race,” Browne said. “It’s a relief for him as well.”
As for the distance races at trials, Browne said she had been targeting both.
“I really didn’t expect to qualify in a sprint race,” she said on Jan. 7. “I was hoping to win those [distance] races and do a spectacular criteria, so I still want to do really well in those races. I don’t want to think about the result because I only want to think about what I can control, which is my movements and how I ski, but I want to have great feelings during this race and ski really well.”
On Monday, Jan. 8, she went on to win the 15 k skiathlon by almost 12 seconds after leaving the pack toward the end of the first 7.5 k classic leg.
“My goal was to start really hard and try to break away right at the start,” Browne recalled.
But she wasn’t able to shake skiers such as Beatty, MacIsaac-Jones, Comeau, or Stewart-Jones as quickly as she’d hoped. She built a small gap on the others around 6 k, but Comeau caught her before the transition to skate and Browne fell on the final climb before the exchange.
“I fell right before the downhill so I lost my gap,” Browne recalled. “And then we headed towards the ski exchange and I had some trouble with my binding and I couldn’t clip it on. It didn’t work, so I lost like another five seconds there. Anne-Marie was at the ski exchange before [me], and it took me like 2.5 k to catch up to her.”
After catching Comeau about a third of the way into the skate leg, Browne said she took the lead in an effort to drop Comeau over the next 2.5 k.
“I thought I could gap her, but I couldn’t,” Browne said. “And so on the last 2.5 k, I thought about my tactic. I saw how she skied, and I saw where I could pass her, so I stayed behind her and waited for the last big uphill, and I passed here there. … I knew I had faster skis and I knew I’m better on sections that need more power.”
With about a kilometer to go, Browne skied away to an 11.9-second victory. The next day, she raced to second in the freestyle sprint (a NorAm race but not an Olympic trials event) after qualifying in third.
She hadn’t planned on racing that second sprint of trials (and her third race in five days), but her coach, Bouchard, encouraged her to use it as intensity training before the Olympics.
“At first I wasn’t supposed to do that sprint, but … I had to race as much as I could before leaving [for Europe],” she said. “After the qualifier, I asked Louie, ‘I’m feeling really tired. Should I race in the heats?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you should.’ … I didn’t know how it would turn out, but it turned out pretty well.”
The next day, she woke up for her fourth race of the week, the 10 k classic, not feeling as fatigued as she had on some of the previous days.
“Of course, I was tired, but I was telling myself everybody’s really tired,” Browne recalled. “My goal was to push as hard as I could during the whole race because I had to prepare as well as I could for the Olympics.”
Despite being one of the last starters in that race, she said she wasn’t quite sure where she stood during it, so she simply pushed as hard as she could.
“It was like, I don’t wanna be second … and then it turned out that I had a really big gap,” she said. “I felt so good during that race. You don’t feel that good that often in races during the year, so I think I’m in really good shape leading towards the Olympics so that’s really exciting and it’s great news.”
Before leaving Quebec for a mid-January training camp in Livigno, Italy, Browne summarized her trials performance.
“I really wanted to show that I deserved my spot,” she said. “I qualified in a sprint race, but I really wanted to show that I was that I was good in distance racing, too, because I am a distance racer. … I guess you could say I qualified in all the events, but I just wanted to show Cross Country Canada that I that I deserved my spot and I really wanted to be safe. I think that’s what kept me going.”
And while qualifying domestically was her last resort to get to her first Olympics, Browne said it all worked out in the end.
“‘Actually I’m kind of happy I was in Mont Sainte-Anne; it gave me confidence that I really deserve my place and it was really nice to ski at home, well, kind of at home,” she said. “My boyfriend was there, my family was there, and lots of friends and everybody was cheering … it was really fun. Great atmosphere and the races were really well-organized.”
“You don’t feel that good that often in races during the year, so I think I’m in really good shape leading towards the Olympics so that’s really exciting…” — Browne
Browne and the rest of the Canadian World Cup team returned to World Cup racing Jan. 27-28 in Seefeld, Austria. There, she placed 54th in the freestyle sprint then 37th in the 10 k freestyle mass start. She was the second Canadian in the 10 k, after Nishikawa in 35th, and with Olympic-style scoring, Browne would’ve been 33rd.
“I think us three girls did really well today, considering we are just coming back from a training camp,” Browne said after the mass start, referring to Nishikawa, herself, and Beatty, who placed 45th. “So it’s really looking good for the Olympics.”
Path to PyeongChang
Last summer, Browne worked to rehab back tension and knee tendonitis. Those injuries only set her back about two weeks in July, she said, and she attended all training camps, including the Canadian women’s team camp in New Zealand in late July and early August.
“I did a total of 60 hours of training in just under three weeks and realized that despite my small injuries my shape was intact; I was as much in my place as before among these girls,” Browne said in August.
As of early January, she said she was injury free.
With more than 40 World Cup starts currently behind her, Browne said she’s reached a new level with her racing. Last year was about understanding “the importance of self-confidence,” she said last summer, “but also that the most important thing is to have fun.
“It’s easy to forget when you’re at the top level,” she continued. “When I was stressed before the start of a race, I would ask myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Because I like it.”
Initially, it was lining up against the best skiers in the world that intimidated her.
“In the beginning, you reach the highest level, you face the best in the world. It’s intimidating being new to the field, but I’ve learned to master this stress throughout the season,” she said. “At the end, I felt in my place.”
— François Léger Dionne, Andrea Potyondy-Smith and Gabby Naranja contributed