Team Canada: Picking Up Where They Left Off
With five top-ten finishes in their first weekend of racing in Bruksvallarna, Sweden, the Canadian Team seems to have kept much of their momentum they brought to Whistler last February. And much of that is due to the returning members of last year’s successful Olympic squad. The Big Four on the men’s team have returned: Devon Kershaw, Ivan Babikov, George Grey, and Alex Harvey; and though the women’s side is on the low side of quantity due to the loss of Sara Renner, Chandra Crawford and Daria Gaiazova already show potential to knock out some high quality results.
The newest member of the team is the Canadian’s new head coach, Justin Wadsworth. Wadsworth was not unfamiliar to any of the athletes, however, as he is married to one of Canada’s best-known nordic champions – Becky Scott – and has been living in Canmore with a Canadian residency prior to the Olympics last winter. He was also familiar to the team due to his role as coach for last year’s U.S. World Cup team.
Devon Kershaw has been on the Senior National Team for six years now and has worked with the same number of different head coaches in that time. Though changing of leadership has the potential to be a rough transition, Kershaw sees the positive side of a new energy entering the team and has nothing but praise for Wadsworth.
“Justin has been great to work with. I trust and respect what he has to say and his insights/expertise. He’s extremely committed and driven to succeed.”
“There have been very few fires to put out up to this point.” – Wadsworth
While there has been no grand overhaul to the team’s training plan, Wadsworth says the major change has been “the structure between training volume and rest.” Though most athletes are either equaling or slightly increasing their training hours, Wadsworth hopes to keep the athletes at an energy level which helps them avoid “major holes” some have encountered in the past.
Individuals sometimes tweak their training on a day to day basis, but the team travels to camps and trains together as a whole – men, women, distance, and sprinters. Wadsworth believes this dynamic makes for stronger all-around racers, as the distance skiers get more speed work and the sprinters end up getting a better volume-to-speed ratio in their training. Of course, on this talented squad more than half of the athletes identify as both sprint and distance racers.
Team Goals and Racing
“The goal for this year is to win ski races.” – Wadsworth
The whole team’s focus is definitely on World Championships, but many athletes have pinpointed golden weekends where they would like to shine.
The men’s team has seen a lot of success at prior Tour de Ski series, and this year they will look to do the same. For now, all four men are slated to race the Tour.
Kershaw says the men’s team is pursuing another international podium. He points out that though the Olympics was a great success as a team – everyone having their best performances of the season just when it mattered most – no one had a podium result all season.
“This year we (as a group) want to change that,” says Kershaw. “I don’t care who does it – of course I’d like everyone to hit the podium! But the main thing is to get back on those steps. We’ve done great work and everyone believes it’s possible.”
Early racing for the ladies will have a sprint-heavy focus, the goal being to lay down some good results and raise their speed and confidence, with the two post-Christmas weekends in Liberec and Otepaa acting as a springboard toward the Oslo Championships.
Development Team on the World Cup
Right now the team numbers are beefed up due to an additional half dozen men from the development team who have shown strong results on the continental circuit. Five men are scheduled to start at the first World Cup in Gaellivare, while the rest of the team will travel to the Finland FIS races. In Kuusamo the men’s team will fill the max quota of seven starters in addition to both ladies. When asked if any of the Development Team athletes had a chance to stay on for more World Cup races Wadsworth replied, “Anyone can be there as long as they are lighting it up. At the same time if people are not skiing fast we’re not just going to drag them around.”
Wadsworth believes the extra racers help add dynamic to the team, and Kershaw agrees as he makes an example of Len Valjas.
“Our developing guys are improving at a great clip. . . Look at Len’s sprint last weekend? To be 4th in that type of field and only be 22 years old? It’s exciting.”
Eric DeNys joins Wadsworth in coaching the national team. Hailing from Prince George, BC, DeNys was a former elite junior racer and has been coaching for over 10 years, most recently as a successful leader at the National Development Training Center in Canmore.
Louis Bouchard, coach of the Pierre Harvey National Team Training Centre in Quebec City, will also be helping out at many of the World Cup weekends.
Headed by the highly respected technician Yves Bilodeau, the waxing staff has also seen a boost in numbers, achieving what Wadsworth calls “a high wax tech to athlete ratio”. Though wax techs work long hours for little glory, Wadsworth assures that this experienced crew works together well, and adds “Oh yeah, they have a good time too……”
Babikov has been juggling the family life for several years now, but Grey is a new to fatherhood. Both have been absent in the pre-World Cup races in order to maximize time at home before the season revs up. With two children of his own, Wadsworth understands the struggle. One of his own personal goals is to balance his time between family and coaching. “I’ll travel back and forth a lot, but I have really good support from the athletes and staff, so I’m confident it will work well.”
The National Team
Hailing from St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Quebec, Harvey is just 22 years old but already has an impressive resume. When it comes to race formats, Harvey can do it all. Skating, classic, long, short. He has podiumed at the WC level in both sprint and 50km distance. This Olympics he teamed with Kershaw to take 4th in the team sprint, bagged a 9th in the pursuit and a 21st in the 30k.
This year his overall season goal is to place more consistently in the top 30. After that he will focus on the two big events: Tour de Ski, where he would like to post some “solid days” as well as a solid overall place; and the World Championships, where he is looking at the 30k, 50k and 4×10 relay races as his best chances to take home a medal.
The biggest change to his summer training was focusing on his self-admitted weakness: anaerobic fitness. Working through a lot of lactic acid this summer, Harvey said “it was quite painful for the first couple of months but I feel a good change now and so far it’s seems to be working well.”
Kershaw points to Harvey’s season opener 5th place result in Bruksvallarna as an indicator of good things to come. “If he improves at the same rate as he usually does – it could be a big break-out season for him.”
Last season Kershaw stood on top of the podium in Bruksvallarna and then struggled to put down another good result until a 10th at the 15km classic in the Tour de Ski. But the 27 year old from Sudbury Ontario then proceeded to lead his team through a phenomenal week of races at the Olympics, placing 23rd in the sprint, 16th in the pursuit, 4th in the team relay (with Harvey), and 5th in the 50k.
Kershaw has been training straight through these first couple race weekends, and though he admits “it’s nice to have some solid performances to calm the nerves a bit” he constantly reminds himself where the season focus is.
“It’s mid-November. I still want to be enjoying myself and racing fast in mid-March.”
Kershaw has picked out the Kuusamo 10k classic and the Davos weekend as races he’d love to do well at, but also emphasizes that the races prior to Christmas are “just races.” He is training 18-25 hours a week now, and will ramp up his hours again by pairing with Grey for a training camp in Livigno while the rest of the crew is in Dusseldorf.
Kershaw’s main focus this season:
1. Tour de Ski. “I love that competition, the format, the energy and the fact that you have to be on everyday. It’s awesome, and something I look forward to every year and try and focus my prep towards.
2. World Championships: 15km classic and the 4x10km relay. “I’m not going to lie – I am still pissed at myself for ruining our chances in the Olympic relay. We have a strong team – we were 5th in 2009 – and I’d like us all to have boss performances in February on the 4x10km relay and see what we can do.”
“My goals mimic the team’s goals. I want to hit the podium at least once this year. A World Cup, World Champs, a relay, a Tour de Ski stage – the Tour de Ski overall – whatever. Just somewhere. I know I can ski at that level, as I have done that 3 times in my career to date. That’s my main objective.”
Last year Grey had foot problems that set him back at the beginning of the season. But he found his stride – a smoking fast one at that – by the time the Olympic Games rolled around. His career best performance came via an 8th place finish at the pursuit, but he was also 18th in the 50k and 29th in the 15k.
This spring the 29 year old from Rossland, B.C. found himself back in rehab, this time as a result of knee surgery. But Kershaw does not think this will slow his teammate down, saying that Grey has showed his mettle during summer and fall training. “I think he could be ready to do some real damage (like top 10 damage),” says Kershaw of the Davos races, “He has so much experience, and now he’s a new dad too. Dads are fast. At least the dads on the World Cup…”
Babikov lives with his family in Canmore, Alberta. But being a father has not slowed the 30 year old down at all. Known for his intensity and for being able to lay the hammer down at crucial moments, Babikov performs best at long races and pursuits. He won the gold medal during 2009’s Tour de Ski pursuit, and in last year’s tour ended in 9th overall. In Whistler he put together a huge week of races, taking 5th in the pursuit, 8th in the 15k, and 33rd in the 50k.
“Ivan’s a bulldog and will be “in it to win it” all the time.” maintains Kershaw.
“There’ only one Ivan. The guy is clutch and a beauty.”
An Olympic gold medalist at the 2006 skate sprint in Torino, this 26-year-old from Canmore, Alberta is a sprint specialist who has also earned three gold medals at World Cup races and a bronze at the Tour de Ski sprint in 2006. She has been on the long road toward full recovery since her 2009 surgery for compartment syndrome. Last year she finished with a solid 26th in the Olympic sprint, but you can bet Crawford will not be satisfied until she is back on the podium.
Daria (Dasha) Gaiazova
This 26 year old from Banff, Alberta, crushed nearly every race she competed in during the Canadian Nor-Am season last year. She then saw success in sevreal pre-Olympic sprints in Otepaa and Canmore before throwing down a great first-Olympic performance, qualifying 17th in the sprint and placing 22nd in the final. This season she looks to be on the right track and fitter than ever. In Bruksvallarna last weekend she qualified 2nd in the sprint and was 9th in the distance race.
Though she will be racing an early World Cup schedule heavy on sprints, Gaiazova is also very strong at distance racing and says she does “a big variety of workouts for endurance and power and speed.” Her training reflects the races she is most focused on for this season: skate sprint, classic relay sprint, and 10k classic.
Two seasons ago Gaiazova was diagnosed with celiac disease (wheat intolerance). Consequently, she is learning how to pack and travel with a lot of wheat-free foods and snacks in order to keep on top of her health.
As the only two women on the team, Gaiazova and Crawford get along and train well together but they do look forward to additional Canadian ladies joining them in the latter part of the season. In the meantime Gaiazova says, “we like to hang out and train with the American ladies on the World Cup circuit, who are tons of fun.”