At just twenty years old, Canadian Alex Harvey had a breakout year in 2008-2009 with two World Cup podium finishes: third in the team sprint in Whistler, and another third in the 50 kilometer classic in Trondheim, Norway. FasterSkier caught up with him just after he finished his afternoon massage at a National Team camp in Canmore.
FS: You’re out in Canmore right now training with the National Team. It seems like you have a pretty tight group there. Do you spend a lot of time together?
AH: Even the older guys—George [Grey], Ivan [Babikov]—and more experienced guys like Devon [Kershaw]—we all hang out together between workouts. We go for coffee or lunch—everyone is really close together, especially the men’s team, so it makes for a good training environment. I think it’s one of the reasons why the men’s team has progressed so much over the last few years.
FS: Are there any other French speakers around? Is it tough being one of the few Francophones on the team?
AH: On the B Team, there’s Frederic Touchette. It’s his fifth year with the Quebec Training Center (QTC)—he’s the same age as me; we’re from the same club and the same town. He’s on the B Team, but he’s the only Francophone really. But my first World Junior Championships at 16 years old, I was the only Francophone on the trip, so I started practicing English, and every year I’ve gotten better and better. It’s never been a big deal for me speaking English—I don’t really care about it. Also, George speaks French, Devon speaks French, and Chandra [Crawford] speaks French, and sometimes we’re talking and we’ll start speaking in French just for fun. So every once in a while I get some French in, but it’s never been an issue for me.
FS: What does the rest of your summer look like?
AH: I’m here [in Canmore] for June and July; after that I’ll be home for a week and a half or two weeks, for some easier training and to see my friends and family. Then I go to New Zealand for a three-week camp with both the A and B national teams, along with the rest of the QTC guys, too. After that I’ll be home for September, and then in October I’ll have three weeks in Austria, skiing on the Dachstein [Glacier], which is kind of the same planning as last year. After coming back from Austria, I get a bit of training at home, and then I’m going to go to Europe right away with George, Ivan and Devon for the first World Cup, and maybe do the Scandinavian Cup a week before Beitostolen—it will happen fast.
FS: You’ve got a new coach for the National Team this year, Inge Braten. Has he taken a different approach?
AH: My main coach is still Louis Bouchard, the QTC coach. I’m in my fifth year with him—he’s the one writing my plan, and I’m doing the day-to-day follow-up with him. Inge is really good at bringing everyone together—he’s a super good motivator, super good for team spirits, and that was one of the biggest issue with the old coach. He was really good with the A Team, but he wasn’t talking to other people. Inge is really good at bringing everyone together—everyone feels they’re part of the national team, not the A Team or the B Team. He really tries to get the best out of each of us. For example, if Ivan is the best with one specific workout, then he makes sure Ivan is there for the workout.
FS: Is the controversy with Cross Country Canada behind you now?
AH: There was nothing really personal, it was just the way they saw the Olympic Team—they wanted everyone to be doing the same things, and everyone to be in Canmore for the whole summer. But they understood that I know what works well for me, and I didn’t want to risk trying too many new things. It’s good it’s settled.
FS: You wrote on your Web site that you were surprised by the amount of media attention when you got home. Did it keep up?
AH: For sure—it kept up for most of April. I don’t know how many interviews I gave or how many photographers or TV cameras came into my house, but it was more than I’d ever experienced. I think it’s a mix between the Olympics and the results I’ve had. Mainly it was in April, and then the conflict with the CCC attracted other types of media coverage. Since then it has been pretty good. I’ve been in a very good program—it’s called B210—that supports a lot of athletes in Canada from private donations, and we had a retreat in Banff last weekend where a couple of media members came to do some media training with us.
FS: Do you know what your schedule will be leading up to the Olympics?
AH: I’m starting with Beitostol and Kuusamo. I’ll see about Dusseldorf, then Davos and Rogla, Slovenia. Then, for the Tour de Ski—I won’t do the whole tour, but now this year you can keep you points even if you drop out three races in. It’s something that I’m thinking about, because it’s quite a long time if the last World Cup you do is Rogla, and then the next one you do is the week before the Olympics [in Canmore]. It’s like a month, maybe more. I still need to talk to the coaches about that.
Then, I’m going back home, and there’s going to be a NorAm at Mt. Sainte Anne. I’ll do those, and then we have a camp in Mt. Washington, in British Columbia, an altitude camp two weeks before the games. Then we do the Canmore World Cup, and after that the Olympics start, so that’s going to be the lead-up.
FS: Do you know what races you’ll be doing at the Olympics?
AH: I know I’m not doing the classic sprint, that’s for sure. It’s the day before the team sprint, and I don’t know if I’m on the team sprint team, but I hope I am and I think that’s one of the best chances for Canada for to medal. And the relay—nobody knows for sure what races we’re doing, but I hope I’m doing the relay. Last year at World Championships we kind of surprised ourselves, and now we’re expecting an even bigger result for the Olympics. Since it’s the last race and there’s nothing to lose I’d like to do the 50 kilometer classic. The 15 kilometer skate, we’ll see—it’s still up in the air.
FS: Were you surprised to be racing in the top ten at the end of last World Cup season?
AH: Last year I had, for sure I was really surprised—I didn’t expect to make that big of a jump. But last year I had a leg injury, a blood flow problem, and in my left leg there wasn’t enough blood going through the artery. I got surgery in March, and that fixed the problem totally. Even if over the summer I did not progress, if I had the same fitness I knew I’d be going faster in distance races because I know how fast I can go and I know what race pain is, and that pain [last year] was just in the leg, and the rest of the body was not like I was going all out. So I knew I could go faster than that. So when the surgery was a success, I knew that I’d already progressed.
Then, during the World Cup season, my goals were to get World Cup points, to be in the top thirty. Whistler was a small field, and I came in 12th in the pursuit, but the team sprint was a pretty big surprise [he and teammate George Grey came in third]. We beat both Russian teams, and there were some other big teams that we beat—it was still a good World Cup field, so I was really surprised with that result, and after that the momentum just kept going.
At the U-23 World Championships, we traveled right after the Whistler World Cups, and I got sick. I went to see a doctor in France, and he gave me antibiotics, I still raced well— 4th in the pursuit, 5thin the sprint, and I knew my shape was there. At that point it just kept getting better and better, being in the points in Valdidentro, and in the World Championships we had some issues with the skis, but we still had some good results.
Lahti we were a bit down with the whole team, and then Trondheim [third place in the 50 kilometer classic] was amazing. It was a really strong end of the season, but I was surprised for sure. I didn’t expect going from the forties two years ago to being in the tens this year.
FS: Psychologically, that finish at Trondheim must have given you a lot of confidence for the upcoming year.
It’s given me a lot of confidence. I know what I’m doing is obviously good because I can challenge for podium finishes—I was challenging a couple times. I know I’m on the right path, but I don’t take anything for granted—I know at the Olympics, most of the guys will be in the best shape of their season. The main goal for me is to try to get in the best shape in February, and that’s going to be a bit of a challenge, because I tend to be in better shape as the season goes on. I am usually faster in March than I am in February, so I’ll try to be a month early this year.
FS: What are you doing differently to make that happen?
AH: The summer and fall training is more or less the same. Some people will do a little less volume in the Olympic year, but I’m still doing more and more every year because I’m still maturing. I’m doing just a bit more training than last year, but the main framework is really similar.
Instead of starting on the World Cup circuit in January, I’ll start in November—racing at the top level right from the gun. I’m hoping that it will make me step my game up a bit faster than last year. It seemed like last year I was racing well in the NorAms, and then when I went to race the World Cups in Europe, it took me a couple of weekends and then I was able to gain another notch just by racing faster people. Starting racing those fast guys right away will make my race shape be better earlier—that’s the plan.
FS: Your dad, Pierre, was an amazing athlete in his own right—he competed in the summer and winter Olympics in the same year (for skiing and road cycling), and also won numerous World Cup medals. How has he influenced your career? Do you guys ever get to train together?
AH: I don’t get to train with him that much, just because last winter I was only home for seven days, and I skied at home for just five days. The influence he has on me was that at first, he brought me to the sport. Where I live, everyone is a skier, either downhill or cross country. When I was young I’d downhill ski on Saturdays, and cross country on Sundays. I started really young with cross country skiing on the baby glider—I’d ski for twenty minutes and then get in the baby glider and he’d pull me around.
As I grew up I started racing, but then I chose myself to quit downhill skiing and to do more cross country. I was better at cross country skiing, and I liked it more. So then the influence is knowing that this guy is not anything really special, that the best in the world at cross country skiing is a normal guy. He worked hard, for sure, and he had talent, for sure, but he’s not really different from me. The confidence, and knowing that it’s achievable—knowing that he has been the best in the world and that it’s your dad and you live with him—obviously you need to have something to start with to show it’s really possible.
FS: You were a competitive mountain biker up until the last couple of years. What led you to go to skiing full time? Do you still do any bike racing?
AH: Last year I did one race. I probably will do one or two races this year, but really just for fun—I race only when it fits with the training schedule. I have two sisters, and my youngest sister still mountain bike races a lot, so if I have to drive her to a race I might do it.
Even when I raced mountain bikes I was missing one or two races a summer to go to training camps, so at 15 years old skiing was already a bit more of a priority than biking. I was still able to train enough on the bike to be competitive—I went to World Junior Championships twice. After my last summer as a junior, I won my first medal at cross country skiing World Junior Championships, and that was a good point to let cycling go, because I knew I could be one of the best in the world [at skiing]. Mountain bike races are up over two hours in the senior category, so if I wanted to be competitive I would have had to spend quite a bit more time on the bike. Then there’s not as much time for rollerskiing, and I would have had to lose some muscle on my upper body. So it was an easy choice for me, because of the timing with mountain biking, and because I was getting better at skiing.
FS: You wrote on your Web site that when you came back from racing in Europe this spring, you still had to take some exams. Are you in college right now?
AH: In Quebec there is no college. You go to high school, and then you go to CEGEP [a sort of post-graduate year to prepare for university], and if you have good enough marks in CEGEP, you can get in right away to medical school or law school or any other program.
So, I’m in law school—I got accepted into law school right away from CEGEP. I’m not full time—I’m taking one class per semester. It’s different for everyone. I read a couple of articles about some skiers not on the U.S, ski team any more because they’re in school, but for me, just having one class, it’s not too hard to attend your exams and study—it’s just something to get your mind off skiing. When I was in high school I was in a sport program, so I learned to deal with travel and doing exams a bit later or earlier, not attending every class but finding a way to get the notes or do stuff on the road. I’m used to that type of thing, so it’s not too hard for me to study on the road, or write an exam when I come back from a trip. When I’m done skiing I would like to become a lawyer. I plan on skiing until I’m maybe 30 years old, and if I’m halfway through the process it’s better than starting from nothing. Skiing is my number one priority, but I think having one class makes me better, just thinking about other stuff for a couple hours a day.
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Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.