A new crop of elite cross-country ski athletes have emerged in Canada and are now ready to charge for the international podium as the National Ski Team officially kicked off the road to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Tuesday.
On the heels of engaging its media partners in one of the team’s final training session at Sunshine Village Ski Resort before heading to Europe, Cross Country Canada kicked off the post-Olympic season by unveiling a talented lineup of 11 athletes that are now ready to carry the torch and contend with the world’s best at World Cup and Para-Nordic World Cup competitions.
“This experienced group of athletes have made huge progress, and demonstrated at the 2010 Olympic Winter and Paralympic Games they can perform under some of the most intense conditions,” said Tom Holland, high-performance director, Cross Country Canada. “Despite not winning a medal, the men on our World Cup Team may have delivered one of the most remarkable performances in Whistler-Vancouver.”
Striding into the peak of their careers, the Canadian men’s squad including Devon Kershaw, of Sudbury, Ont., Ivan Babikov, of Canmore, Alta., George Grey, of Rossland, B.C., and Alex Harvey, of St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que., captured the nation’s attention at Whistler Olympic Park when three of them finished in the top-10 in the Olympic pursuit race. While delivering seven top-10 performances as a team throughout the Games, Kershaw put down one of the gutsiest efforts of the Olympics when he missed the podium by a fraction of a second in the 50-kilometre classic-ski race.
The 27-year-old Kershaw will continue to lead the most talented men’s team that Canada has ever assembled for the World Cup. The two-time Olympian has collected three World Cup medals while evolving into one of the most consistent skiers in all disciplines on the international circuit.
Kershaw will be joined by 30-year-old Ivan Babikov, of Canmore, who is one of the most relentless skiers in the world. Babikov captured a gold medal in the final and most difficult stages of the Tour de Ski two years ago, and was fourth at the same event last year. George Grey, 29, and 22-year-old Alex Harvey round out the men’s contingent. Grey delivered the performance of his life when he was eighth in the pursuit race at the 2010 Olympics, while Harvey – who captured three Junior World Championship medals in his career – has two World Cup medals in just two seasons on the World Cup. Grey and Harvey captured a bronze medal in the team sprint two years ago during a World Cup test event in Whistler.
“Depth is critical for mounting an attack on the podium in any sport, and we have seen through the development of our men’s program, that our men are now racing to be among the best in the world,” said Holland. “They have spent countless hours pursuing excellence while developing through our program as young skiers. They have made positive strides together as a group, and are now ready to take this program on their shoulders with the goal of winning more medals for Canada.”
With the retirement of one of the most accomplished skiers in the Canadian women’s program, Sara Renner, this spring, Olympic gold medallist Chandra Crawford will be counted on to lead the women’s team. The 26-year-old Crawford, of Canmore, Alta., who has battled injuries over the last two seasons, is healthy and hungry to add to her total of four World Cup medals in her eight-year career. Crawford will be joined by Dasha Gaiazova, of Banff, Alta. The 26-year-old enjoyed her best season as a member of Cross Country Canada’s senior squad in 2010. In addition to making her Olympic debut, Gaiazova blazed a trail during the 2009-10 season by winning three of the four Canadian Olympic Trials races, owned the podium on the Haywood NorAm Circuit and finished 12th at a World Cup sprint race in Estonia.
Cross Country Canada also announced Robin McKeever as the new Para-Nordic Ski Coach. An Olympian in 1998, McKeever has played a key role in developing and working on technique with all team members on the Para-Nordic squad since 2008.
“World-leading coaching, and a strong support team are core to Canada’s cross-country ski athletes’ pursuit of podium results,” saidHolland. “Robin’s knowledge and experience as a high-performance athlete, and core member of our Para-Nordic program over the last decade, will be extremely valuable in taking the Canadian program to the next level. I am confident he will deliver a high level of instruction and motivation that will ensure our athletes are fully prepared to win against the world’s best.”
McKeever will continue to guide his brother Brian, while leading a group of six medal-targeted athletes that will compete in World Cup and World Championship competitions this season.
The McKeever duo, who won three gold medals at the 2010 Paralympics, will continue to lead the Canadian charge en route to 2014. The brother tandem have racked up seven gold, two silver and one bronze medal in three trips to the Paralympics in addition to dozens of World Championship and World Cup medals.
Joining the McKeevers on the Para-Nordic World Cup will be 10-time Paralympic medallist, Colette Bourgonje, who is one of the few athletes ever to win multiple medals in both the Paralympic Summer and Winter Games. The Saskatoon resident competed in wheelchair racing at the 1992 Paralympic Summer Games, and sit-ski racing in six Paralympic Winter Games. Bourgonje won a silver and bronze medal at the 2010 Games, and was the recipient of the prestigious Youn Dai Achievement Award.
Multiple Para-Nordic World Cup medallist, Robbi Weldon and her guide Brian Berry of Thunder Bay, Ont., will be looking to build on their Paralympic debut in Whistler with Jody Barber, of Smithers, B.C., and Mark Arendz, of Springton, P.E.I., who round out the national team.
“This is an experienced group of athletes that have had tremendous success on the world stage,” said Holland. “Through the generous support and leadership of Own the Podium, along with our corporate partners, we can now deliver the world-leading resources our athletes need to prepare to reach our goal of skiing onto the podium at the World Championships this year.”
Canada’s World Cup Team will participate in its first World Cup of the season, November 20 in Gallivare, Sweden. The Para-Nordic Team will race domestically until the IPC World Cup gets underway in January.