You may not have heard of Len Valjas, but if you were at a NorAm or a SuperTour where he was racing this winter, you would have noticed – there aren’t many cross-country skiers who stand at 6’6″. The 22-year-old Canadian who skis as a member of the Pierre Harvey National Training Center (CNEPH), based in Quebec City, Quebec may not be a household name yet, but this past winter he posted a top-10 result at the Under-23 World Championships, and was consistently battling for podium positions in North America.
Valjas began his skiing career, like so many other cross-country skiers, in a Jackrabbit program (Canada’s equivalent of the Bill Koch League). His father, an avid marathon skier and weekend warrior, placed Valjas in the program at Hardwood Hills Ski and Bike, in Barrie, Ontario, which was one of the closest options to the family’s home in Toronto.
While the Jackrabbit program is popular for many young skiers, Valjas was preconditioned to get into the sport. Three of his grandparents are Estonian, and the fourth is Swedish, and all are very familiar with cross-country skiing – either as recreational skiers, or as part of their service during World War II. Valjas credits his grandparents and parents for getting him into the sport, as well as the Estonian culture. He considers Estonian his first language, and as a result of six years of Estonian language night school his parents put him through, he has made some friends on the country’s national team.
As cross-country skiing is wildly popular in Estonia, Valjas has some fan support when he goes overseas. “I feel like I am more popular as a skier in Estonia than in Canada,” said Valjas. “I have had much more Estonian press contact me.”
Valjas worked his way through the Jackrabbit program until he was too old, at which point he made the choice to try out for Hardwood’s ‘Development Squad’, or junior racing team. “I actually got rejected by [Coach] Jack [Sasseville] the first time I tried,” said Valjas, in a recent interview with FasterSkier. “He told me I was too immature, and I wasn’t ready.” After taking up snowboarding for a year and feeling like his ski career was over, Valjas got serious, and tried out again – this time successfully.
During high school, Valjas serious about skiing, yet he still limited his training plan mainly to weekend workouts, as Hardwood Hills was over an hour from his house. “I actually didn’t train that much,” he said. “I was just going race to race.” But his results kept improving, and in 2007, Valjas took the first step towards becoming a full-time cross-country skier, and headed off to the National Development Center in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
In Thunder Bay, Valjas did what he considers his first full year of training. He remembers it as “pretty intense,” as before that point he had never trained every day of the week. He estimated his hours went from roughly 300 in his last year at Hardwood to 475 in his first year at the training center. As a result, he had a difficult year, but still managed to qualify for his first trip to World Juniors.
At the end of the 2007-2008 season, most of the older athletes departed Thunder Bay for Canmore, Quebec, or retirement, leaving the 20 year old as one of the oldest and strongest on the team – a situation which Valjas felt was not ideal for his development. “I wasn’t ready to lead a team,” he said.
The result was a move to Quebec City and CNEPH, which he described as a “hard decision, but I’m glad I made it.”
From there, each year has built on the next, to the point where Valjas has become one of the best classic sprinters in the country. He started off the 2009-2010 season with a bang, posting back to back fourth-place results in the classic sprint at the Olympic Trials in Canmore. While those results were not what he was truly hoping for, as one of his goals was to make the Olympic team, Valjas continued to ski well. He placed third at the Haywood NorAm Sprint in Val Cartier, Quebec, and then went overseas and posted a ninth-place finish in the skate sprint at the Under-23 World Championships in Hinterzarten, Germany.
After Hinterzarten, Valjas took advantage of an opportunity to gain more international experience. He and a group of other Canadian athletes headed to Europe for almost two months to race a slew of FIS races, including Alpen Cups and Slavic Cups. While Valjas described the two months as “a bit too long,” especially with the reduced staff the team had at points (only one wax tech for several races), he found that as a learning experience, it was extremely valuable.
Valjas noted that sprint racing especially seems to be a different beast in Europe. “The skiers are more aggressive in Europe. In Canada, you can hold your own line in a sprint race comfortably. In Europe, if you’re beside a guy, he’s coming right over you,” he said. “It’s just a completely different race.”
Upon returning to Canada, Valjas headed to the Canadian National Championships in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory with high hopes. The first time he went to Canadian Nationals in 2004, he finished 41st in the classic sprint. Six years later at the 2010 National Championships in Whitehorse, Valjas showed Canada just how far he has come, standing on the top step of the podium for the first time, winning the classic sprint ahead of many of Canada’s Olympians.
Valjas attributes his success this year to being diligent and extremely serious in his training, avoiding sickness, and, especially, his coach Louis Bouchard. Bouchard has something of a reputation in Canada for his ‘magical’ training plans and coaching style. For Valjas, Bouchard’s knowledge of each athlete, as well as his constant communication and flexibility, are his greatest strengths. “We get phone calls once a day,” Valjas said. “If something is wrong, he’ll make a change right away.”
Additionally, Valjas credits the group of guys he trains with at CNEPH for a lot of his success. He lives with Phil Widmer, Brent McMurtry and David Greer, and the four just bought a van together. “Those guys are awesome,” he said. “We’re such a close team; we train together all the time, and push each other. Somebody is always learning something.”
This season, Valjas’ greatest test may come early – he has been chosen as one of a few skiers to head to Europe on November 7, to join the Canadian World Cup team. Valjas will test his speed on the World Cup for the first time outside of North America; his goal is to crack the top 30 and ski a few heats to gain some more valuable experience. Also, Valjas is in his last year as a U-23 athlete, and if things go as planned, he hopes to grab a medal at the U-23 World Championships, perhaps even in a distance event. (Those races are in Estonia, which should help give Valjas a boost.) As well, the World Championships in Oslo are on his radar, and he hopes to ski consistently all year.
Next Valjas heads to Park City, Utah, to train with the Canadian National Ski Team, in preparation for the early World Cup period.