Team Canada: In good health, could be the most successful season yet.
When asked if he thought he had the “strongest team ever” coach Dave Wood paused and said that, in 2006, Becky Scott and Sara Renner were two of the strongest athletes he had seen on the Canadian Team. The difference coming into this season, Wood says, is that Canada not only has athletes with medal-winning potential, but a larger number of them. With four men and three women currently named to the Senior National Team, he says it is definitely the “deepest” team he has coached.
The Coaches: Dave Wood and Inge Braten.
Dave Wood started with the Canadian National Team in 1995. Under his leadership the Canadian team has gone from being an unrecognized entity to becoming an internationally medal-winning team. Building a strong development program, Wood has been able to watch the juniors he first coached who had potential transform into potential medal winners.
This is the first year with the Canadian team for Inge Braten, a former Norwegian National Team skier who has more than thirty years of racing, commentating, and coaching experience. He has been a trainer to some top athletes, such as Bjorn Daehlie, and most recently coached the Swedish team to a five medal win at the Olympics in Torino.
“To have the best Olympics ever”, says Wood, clarifying that would mean Canada would have to grab at least two medals.
A majority of the team – Kershaw, Gray, Babikov, Harvey, and Renner – will race the WC circuit through the end of the Tour de Ski before returning back to Canada for the Canmore WCs and begin their Olympic preparations. The team is looking to build on their history of past successes at the Tour; last year Babikov took 1st in the 10km pursuit and Kershaw placed 3rd and 5th for an overall standing of 21st. As an all-around skier who can race all techniques and distances, Renner should be able to race well at this event.
Adding excitement to this year’s prospects is the fact that there is enough strength on the men’s team to put together a competitive relay. In Liberec last year the team of Devon Kershaw, George Grey, Alex Harvey, and Ivan Babikov took 5th, which was the best a Canadian team had ever placed at a World Championship (WCh) event. This year that mens team is back, and all have high hopes for another stellar relay at the Olympics. The only preview relay before the Olympics will be this weekend in Beitostollen. As Grey is healing an injured foot, teammate Graham Nishikawa will take his place.
Both men’s and women’s teams will also be competitive at the sprint relay event. Sara Renner and Chandra Crawford have both had podium success in sprinting, and if they both find their top sprinting form this winter, together they could be major contenders for the relay podium. Perianne Jones, part of the 6th place sprint relay team with Renner during last year’s WChs, could also be a possibility. On the men’s team Kershaw, Grey, and Harvey have all had very good performances on sprint relay, Kershaw and Gray taking 6th at the ’05 WChs in Sapporo and Harvey and Grey recently taking third in the ’09 Whistler World Cup (WC). Their will be just one team sprint before the Olympics, the skate sprint relay on December 6th at Dusseldorf.
With a good mix of sprinters and distance racers, the team is looking to be competitive in every race that they enter this season.
In her first full season back after having a daughter in February of 2007, Renner is looking to come back in full form, with “consistent top 10 results in distance racing” and “a return of my sprinting form”. As Dave Wood points out, Renner has always been an all-around skier, excelling in distance and sprint events alike. But some of her strongest performances have been in the sprint events, such as Canada’s first WCh medal that she earned in the ’05 classic sprint and the silver that she teamed up with Beckie Scott to win at the ’06 Olympics. After her daughter was born Renner felt that her strengths were shifting away from sprinting toward middle distance racing but, she says, “This summer, I worked on more power so hopefully that will translate on the race course”.
Renner will be missing this first weekend in Beitostollen but racing soon after disembarking the plane in Kuusumo. She will remain in Europe until after the Tour de Ski. Her family will join her in Rogla, Slovenia for the WC races and Christmas holiday.
At his first Olympic games in 2006, Kershaw showed the nordic community his potential by winning the opening leg of the men’s relay. Following that he took bronze in a WC sprint and silver in the ’07 Tour de Ski sprint. Last season Devon did not give up steam; After a 3rd and 5th in the 15km and prologue landed him an overall 21st place in the Tour de Ski, a 5th place at a WC in Kuusamo highlighted a successful season which also netted him a 21st WC overall final.
As the most successful sprinter on the team, Kershaw will likely pair with either Harvey or Gray for the team sprint.
Kershaw raced last weekend in the Bruksvallarna FIS races and his first place finish over Anders Sodergren and Johann Olsson in the 15km skate bodes well for his season. He will not return to Canada until after the finish of the Tour de Ski, mid-January.
In his 10th year with the team, Grey has never skied in an Olympic year with such a strong men’s team. He is excited for the depth of the team and the prospects for team events. His focus being on the relays in the Olympics, he states “I want nothing more than to race a super 10km at the Olympics in the 4x10km relay.” He also adds that, although he may be third man right now for the sprint relay, he is still training to be strong in this event, should he be named to this team.
A slight set back occurred this fall with a foot injury that curtailed Grey for a month and is just now healing. Grey feels his fitness may have suffered a bit, but said he was able to work on his weaknesses during that time by doing a lot of core and double pole machine in addition to pool running. Grey is hoping with another week of rest his foot will be ready in time for Kuusamo. Meanwhile, Graham Nishikawa will race his relay leg in Beitostollen.
Looking forward to this season Grey says, “I want to have fun and stay relaxed while racing my heart out.”
An Olympic gold medal at the skate sprint in Torino was not enough to satisfy Chandra Crawford into complacency. The season following Crawford captured two WC golds and proved to the world that her Olympic medal was no fluke. But in the following summer Crawford experienced multiple injuries and ended up having to undergo surgery for compartment syndrome which ultimately ended last year’s season. In addition, a condition in the peroneal tendons of her ankles made ski training nearly impossible for most of last summer. After many months and many visits to doctors and physiotherapists, Crawford was just recently able to find a solution: working with Fischer, she was able to obtain a pair of custom boots which she hopes will allow her to ski pain-free this season. Though she found it extremely frustrating to be sidelined from training, Crawford worked on upper body strength and did what she could to stay sharp.
Wood says that Crawford’s main goal is to get her fitness back and up to speed. Getting her feet back under her by racing the sprint at Bruksvallarna, Crawford wrote on her website that a large training block made her feel tired for the race but even though the race was disappointing, “even being here racing feels like a significant victory after an injury year”. Crawford will taper her training down before the Dusseldorf and Davos skate sprints, where she is focusing on having two successful races.
Harvey, age 21, has only 2 years on the Senior National Team, but an already impressive resume of results. A three time Canadian Junior champion, he won a silver and two bronze at World Junior events. Last season he continued to make a name for himself with a 3rd at the 50km WC in Trondheim, and a 22nd, 28th and relay 5th at the WChs in Liberec.
“My goal is pretty simple,” says Harvey of this season’s races, “get into top form in February.” Harvey is glad to be healthy for the time being, and thinks that his peak fitness is on its way. He feels that he is starting off this season at a higher level than previous years, but is looking to get a month of racing under his belt before feels entirely ready. He would like to tackle some of the longer distance races, which are his favored technique and says that these events, along with the team events, will be his focus for the Olympics as well.
A native of Russia, Babikov only recently received his Canadian citizenship, though he has been racing in the U.S. and Canada for a number of years. Excelling in distance races, Babikov won every North American distance race that he entered in the 2007-08 season, with the exception of one 2nd place finish. In the 2009 Tour de Ski he took gold in the 10km pursuit. Babikov will be racing this weekend in Beitostollen, and continuing until Christmas, which he will spend with his family. He will then return to the World Cup and race through the end of the Tour de Ski. The race he may be most focused on is the 15km skate, which he has said is the race he feels most comfortable and confident about.
A five year member of the Senior National Team, Jones has progressively improved on the WC circuit leading up to this season, placing in the top-30 several times last year. Jones qualified for this year’s Olympic Team with a 6th place finish in the team sprint (along with Sara Renner) at the Liberec WChs. Jones has had most of her best finishes in the sprint distance, and although she will keep her main focus on the sprints during this season, she will also be competing in many of the middle-distance races.
Jones is currently in Scandinavia and will race the WC until Christmas, when she will return to Ottawa to be with family. Afterward she will race Nor-Ams until the beginning of February, at which time she will head to Canmore to race the WC’s and prepare for the Olympic Games.
Of her season goals, Jones says, “I’d like to consistently be in the heats in sprints, and learn as much as possible from every race I enter.”
A strong force at the Canadian Nor-Ams last year, Nishikawa placed 1st in two 30km races and 2nd in three 15km races. He is not a member of the Senior National Team yet, but as a winner of the Canada Cup Nishikawa is looking to gain more international experience by racing the first two WC weekends in Beitostollen and Kuusamo. He took 15th last weekend in the Bruksvallarna 15km FIS race, and will focus on racing a fast 15km in Kuusamo before heading home to Canada. When asked if he was learning anything from some of his more experienced teammates Nishikawa replied that he was training with Kershaw and Harvey every day and “they keep the vibe pretty light all the time.”