CANMORE, Alberta — Four racers made claims to berths on Canada’s Olympic team this weekend in the freestyle sprints and 15- and 30-kilometer skiathlon on the last two days of Olympic Trials at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
Heidi Widmer of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and Canadian National Team (NST), and Jesse Cockney (AWCA/NST) took top honors in Saturday’s freestyle sprint, while Graeme Killick (AWCA/NST) and Amanda Ammar (Team Ninja) won Sunday’s skiathlon.
Cross Country Canada (CCC) intends to name one sprinter and one distance racer per gender to the Olympic team based on this past week’s races at the Canmore Nordic Centre. The team will be announced Tuesday morning in Calgary.
“I didn’t want to be one of those Olympiczillas getting caught up in it all. … This is a dream come true, but I have only completed part one. Now the real journey and work begins.” — Heidi Widmer, 2014 Canadian Olympic Trials skate-sprint winner
Heidi Widmer all but guaranteed her selection to the Olympic team on Saturday with a win in the 1.3 k freestyle sprint. This backs up her second-place finish in Wednesday’s freestyle sprint to Chandra Crawford (Team Ninja/NST), who is already prequalified for the Olympics. Although Crawford did not race on Saturday, Widmer wrote in an email that she used the lessons she had learned from racing Crawford to help her take the win on Saturday.
“I have raced these trails and trained on them so many times, but this just feels so surreal,” Widmer told CCC. “I was on a mission for this. I didn’t want to be one of those Olympiczillas getting caught up in it all. There are so many ups and downs. I just wanted to stay focused on the process and not look back or ahead of myself. This is a dream come true, but I have only completed part one. Now the real journey and work begins.”
Behind her, the women’s field showed remarkable consistency from Wednesday’s freestyle sprint. In the absence of Crawford, the women’s top-four finishers from Wednesday simply became Saturday’s top three.
Biathlete Zina Kocher showed that her third place on Wednesday (in her first-ever sprint) was no fluke by finishing second in the trials on Saturday. Despite her strong finishes, she has no intention of switching over to cross country. Kocher is proud, however, of representing biathletes well.
“I know biathletes get a rep for not being as fast [and] strong as xc skiers, but I hope I have started to prove otherwise!” Kocher wrote in an email. “But I’m not going to make a complete switch [to cross country]. Biathlon has another element to it that I love [and] that makes it incredibly exciting and it would be hard to give that up!”
Andrea Dupont of Rocky Mountain Racers rounded out the podium in third.
For the men, Jesse Cockney moved up to top spot on the podium after finishing second on Wednesday and, along with Widmer, will almost certainly be named to the Olympic team.
Skiing tactically within the pack until the finishing stretch, Cockney moved alongside Phil Widmer (NST) in the finishing stretch and threw the hammer down to win the 1.7 k skate-sprint final by two seconds.
Widmer finished second and young-gun Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA) followed in third. Cockney described his finishing strategy to CCC:
“I just kept telling myself to get to the line. … Phil has been so strong, and I took that outside lane for the finish. I didn’t know what else to do, but I just wanted to get to the line. It has been years of hard work. I don’t know if it is official. I did all that I can do and I just want to enjoy this moment.”
15/30 k Skiathlon
With the qualification wrapped up for the sprint racers, the last chance for the distance racers was Sunday’s skiathlon.
Killick, who finished second to Brian McKeever (Canadian Para-Nordic World Cup Team) in the 15 k classic on Thursday, was a strong favorite heading into the men’s race and he delivered.
“My initial strategy was to try and break with someone in the classic and work together to hold off the group,” Killick wrote in an email. “I tried a few times to go the classic but was pulled in on the downhill and never really got away with anyone. On the last lap I was finally able to respond to an attack by Graham Nishikawa and keep pushing past to get a little gap on the field. Jess [Cockney] bridged to me and we were able to work together into the first lap of the skate.”
After that, Killick, who had not raced the previous day’s sprint race, started to pull away.
“I just tried to keep a good pace going and managed to stay strong through the last couple laps,” he explained.
By the end of the race, Killick had extended his lead to just under a minute to take the win. He joins Cockney and Heidi Widmer as another almost shoe-in for the Olympic team.
Cockney faded somewhat towards the end of the race and was caught by the rest of the pack, but he regrouped to win a sprint finish with Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST) for second place. Already having secured a vital win during the week’s trials, Cockney entered the day with a relaxed attitude.
“The day was really fun,” he wrote in an email. “Tactically I just wanted to conserve energy and ski near the front for a podium. I’m happy with the result and thrilled with the week of racing.”
Somppi wrote in an email that he was happy with the day, but overall unsatisfied with his fitness thus far this season. Though the Olympic team is likely out of his reach for this season, he wrote:
“I still don’t feel I am racing at my best, but today was a good step forward. I will take some much needed rest and recovery now and hopefully I can find my top racing form for the second half of the season.”
McKeever, winner of Thursday’s distance race, ended up in eighth and is likely out of the running for Olympic qualification — but the visually impaired skier is a gold-medal favorite at the Paralympics in early March.
On the women’s side, Ammar gritted out a huge win for herself after finishing sixth on Thursday. Although she wrote in an email that she didn’t feel great energy-wise on the day, she tried to simply “hold on” for as long as possible. Her strategy worked, as the pack was whittled down to three skiers, two of whom Ammar thought she could out-sprint in the end (the other being herself).
However coming into the last few kilometres, she decided to start her sprint with 1 k remaining in the race, and it was all over for the other racers.
Ammar crossed the finish line in 49:16, with Brittany Webster (Mito Canada) five seconds back and junior Anne-Marie Comeau (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre) at 30 seconds back. All three were over a minute ahead of the fourth-place finisher.
Ammar, while thrilled with her result, is circumspect.
“No matter what happens with the Olympic decision, I will now know that I am just as fast and as fit as the girls going, and I’m at that top level. It’s been a long hard journey for us, and I’m just so proud.”
Webster is equally happy with the week of racing, although disappointed to have finished second on both days of distance racing. She wrote in an email to Fasterskier that,
“I feel great about my [two] efforts, and I know that the way I have trained this year, it should only keep getting better. Of course I am bummed I didn’t have what it took to win on either day, but hey that is racing, and I am really looking forward to working on it for the rest of the season.”
According to a Cross Country Canada press-release, the 2014 Olympic Team selections will be announced Tuesday morning in Calgary, Alberta.
— Gerry Furseth contributed reporting