DAVOS, Switzerland — Aside from Alex Harvey’s 10th- and 23rd-place finishes in the men’s race, the Canadian National Ski Team at first glance didn’t have many other standout results in the last weekend of racing.
But looks can be deceiving, they would tell you. Julien Locke finished 36th in the skate sprint qualifier on Saturday, his second-best World Cup result ever and mystically close to the “fake top 30”, as the Canadians call the results used for Olympic qualifying, which cut the results sheet down to only the top four athletes per country.
The men’s team seemed to be trending on the way up, with Russell Kennedy’s 48th, Knute Johnsgaard’s 52nd, and Jesse Cockney’s 54th in the sprint their best results of the season so far.
“For me especially, like I tend to get better the more I race,” said Graeme Killick, who finished 59th in the 15 k skate on Sunday. “So a lot of these races are kind of tune-up races that I hope to do well in, but I definitely start to feel better as the season goes on. And I think that’s one of the things — it’s a little bit hard to be fast off the start in North America. The Americans go and do the Norwegian roller ski races sometimes and stuff. For us, we don’t do a lot of racing in the summer, and so, these races are super important, even just to get back into being able to push yourself and being able to dig deep when you need to.”
On the women’s side, Katherine Stewart-Jones finished 55th in the sprint qualifier and 79th in the 10 k skate on just her second weekend on the World Cup this season. She missed a substantial amount of training while recovering from a concussion, and did not finish the 15 k skiathlon in Lillehammer last weekend.
“It’s my second weekend of racing at all, too, so it was definitely a lot after taking a good six weeks off ,” she said on Sunday. “I kind of did month of training, but it was more volume focused just because I wanted to gain back that fitness. So I didn’t do a lot of intensity. I was expecting this to be rough.
“Last weekend was pretty rough,” she continued. “But I already feel so much better this weekend. The sprint yesterday, I actually felt like I could push really hard. I think for distance racing I still have that extra gear to build. Right now I feel like my technique has come a long way but I don’t feel like I’m actually racing. I think that is just going to come with more intensity.”
Cendrine Browne’s 45th-place finish was the best result of the weekend for the women’s team, and tied her result from the skiathlon last weekend in Lillehammer.
“We have to consider that the first few World Cups are really, really hard,” Browne said. “The field is really deep and all the Scandinavians are peaking at the beginning of the season to get their spot on their Olympic teams. Knowing that I wasn’t peaking and that the others were — I know it looks not so great, but I think we’re getting there. I think it will just go better and better from now on.”
“I think all the girls on our team, we’re pretty new on the World Cup,” agreed Stewart-Jones. “We want to really well at the Olympics and we want to have a strong team at the Olympics and we’re really building into the season. So I think that there’s a lot more to come for us.”
Meanwhile, Dahria Beatty led the team in the sprint with a 53rd-place finish, also her best of the season. It has been a season start that she isn’t happy with, but she is trying to keep things in perspective.
“I haven’t been feeling great starting off the season,” Beatty said on Sunday. “It has been pretty hard for me. I didn’t quite have the same build this summer as I had in the past few years, so I did expect a slower start to the season, but it still has been hard not feeling like myself. But today, the result wasn’t amazing, but I was the happiest with how I skied today out of all the races so far. I’ve blown up in every other race, so I took it out easier today and just tried to pace myself and build through the race.”
Beatty and Emily Nishikawa are already qualified for the 2018 Olympics, set to take place in February. That is what they are focusing on.
“It’s never super fun to not perform to what you’re hoping to,” said Nishikawa, who has finished in the World Cup points in Davos before but placed 50th in the 10 k skate on Sunday. “I think we just have to keep perspective. It’s a long season. It will come. I’m confident that we have done good training but it will just take some time to get consistency… Every event is getting better and better. This is definitely my best race of the year.”
Killick is in the same boat.
“I’ve been a little disappointed the first few weekends,” he said of the World Cup season so far. “I’m just still trying to find my speed. My main goal is to have good races at the Olympics, so I’m not too worried yet, and I just want to keep on slowly improving every weekend and hopefully just keep building towards the Games… I always hope to start with decent speed, but for sure when we laid out the plan, the goals are to build into the training camp for the Olympics and then have the best races there that I can there. As long as that happens, I’ll be happy.”
Johnsgaard and Devon Kershaw (who has three top-30’s already this season but finished 63rd in the sprint and 44th in the 15 k in Davos) are also already qualified for the Games, as is Harvey.
Browne remains one “fake top 30” away.
“I’m feeling pretty confident,” she said. “I have one more top-30 to do to be officially qualified… Last weekend in Lillehammer in the 15 k skiathlon I was fake-31st. So close! But it means that I’m really close and I’m in good shape. Toblach is going to be great. Skating, low altitude, perfect for me. I’m looking forward to it.”
And for Stewart-Jones, the plan has for some time now been to try to qualify for the Games at Canada’s domestic Olympic qualifying races in Mont Sainte Anne in January.
“The plan all along was to go back and race trials,” she said. “And hopefully be at my – not at my fittest, because I’d like to be better later in the season, but be ready to race.”
At trials, she will face competition from the likes of three-time Olympic biathlete Zina Kocher, who was the top Canadian in the NorAm 10 k skate at Sovereign Lake this past weekend, and Sophie Carrier-Laforte, who was the top Canadian in sixth place in the classic sprint. Both are formats that will be contested at the Olympics.
First up, she has one more weekend of World Cup racing, which she hopes can also help get her back towards race speed.
“I think my biggest goal is that I want to do distance races where I really feel like I can push the whole way, where you can hit that extra gear and feel good, and if someone catches me and I’m able to try to stick with them,” Stewart-Jones said on Sunday. “Today was already better. And especially the classic race – classic distance races are kind of my favorite race, so I’m really looking forward to that one.”
— Andrea Potyodny-Smith contributed