A mix of impressive strength, clever tactics and luck took a Canadian man all the way to the finals of Saturday’s U-23 World Championships classic sprint. It just wasn’t the one everyone expected.
Instead of the lanky 6’6” frame of Len Valjas gunning for a medal in Otepaa, Estonia, it was the perfectly average one of Jesse Cockney, who showed in a strong outing that what he lacks in height, he makes up with ski smarts and fitness. And the way things went for him on Saturday, it wouldn’t be surprising if he has a few four-leaf clovers lining his boots, too.
“I was pretty lucky,” he said.
Valjas, on the other hand, was not. On a course that was all but built for him, he failed to advance past the semifinals after qualifying in second place, the victim of a slow, windblown track on the homestretch.
With his Estonian roots, the fans were cheering for Valjas like he was one of their own. But on a blustery day in Otepaa, it made no difference, as the faster, glazed tracks to the finish line were blocked by skiers in front of him.
“I felt good, but with the blowing snow, my only chance was on the far left coming into the finish,” he said. “There’s only one or two good lanes—even on the hill, I was going in ankle-deep, dry snow. I’m pretty disappointed right now.”
The U.S.’s Reese Hanneman was the only other North American starter on Saturday; he was competitive in his quarterfinal, sitting in third coming into the homestretch, but faded and was eliminated, ultimately placing 24th on the day.
How good of an outing was it for Cockney, though? Things started off on the right foot in the morning, when he was 30th in the qualifier. A mere .21-second cushion over 31st place was the difference between being the last man to qualify for the afternoon heats and the first guy out, in the race Cockney had targeted at these championships.
“My coach said he was going to beat me up after the heats, because that’s taken a couple of years off his life, waiting for the qualifying results,” Cockney said.
Domestically, the 21-year-old Cockney is known for being strong in the rounds, but indeed, according to the Canadian team leader, Eric de Nys, “where he does struggle, a bit, is in the qualifying.”
“I think that will be something he’ll have to focus on next year,” de Nys said.
In his quarterfinal, Cockney was matched up with Russia’s Alexander Panzhinskiy, the winner of qualifying, along with Czech skier Jan Barton and German Sebastian Eisenlauer, among others.
The heat was tactical; Panzhinskiy bided his time before escaping on the homestretch with a commanding double-pole. Cockney
came to the top of the course’s main climb at the back of the group, but moved up on the ensuing descent into the homestretch, where he and Eisenlauer had a fierce fight for the final guaranteed spot in the semis.
They two came to the line together, with a lunge that was too close to call and sent Cockney sprawling. Initially, the stadium announcer said that Eisenlauer had won, and Cockney was already on his way out of the finish pen when he found out that he had advanced—greeting the news with a loud exclamation that cannot be printed.
In the semis, he had to face Panzhinskiy again, along with Estonian Karel Tammjarv, Italian Dietmar Noeckler, Swede Calle Halfvarsson, and Eisenlauer, who ended up advancing as a lucky loser.
Cockney was at the back from the start of the heat, and finished fifth, for what seemed like the end of his day. But then, the news came through that Halfvarsson had been disqualified.
The Swede had been one of the few men to race on skate skis on Saturday’s course, and on its two hills, he had tried to avoid the windblown powder piled up inside the tracks by climbing outside them. Video footage clearly showed one of his skis making subtle sideways pushes, which according to jury member Torbjorn Broks Pettersen was “inadequate classic technique.”
“He accepted it,” Pettersen said. ““When you’re doing it on skate skis, you know that you will be borderline from time to time.”
The disqualification moved Cockney up to fourth in his heat, and when the other semifinal was slower, he moved on to the finals as a lucky loser. There, Panzhinskiy unleashed his full power for the first time, and by that point, Cockney was cooked, trailing in for last in the heat.
“I wasn’t exactly prepared for that type of speed,” he said.
Still, Cockney said, he was happy with the result. His goal since May had been to make the A-final here, and he did, in what he said was the first set of international heats he’d raced in two years, since he was a junior.
“I wasn’t as competitive in the A-final as I would like, but that’s for next year—hopefully I can grab a spot on that podium,” he said.
Indeed, at 21, Cockney has another year left as a U-23, and he’ll have his shot at a medal at next year’s championships, in Turkey. Valjas, by contrast, had his last chance on Saturday.
He was clearly, and understandably, let down at the finish line. Despite bettering his result at last year’s U-23 Championships sprint by two places, Valjas had been looking for more after a muscular start to his season on the World Cup circuit.
On Saturday, Valjas said he felt good. He had won his quarterfinal with ease, looking every bit like the athlete who in qualifying had skied to within a half-second of Panzhinskiy, an Olympic silver medalist.
But from the start of his semifinal, he got caught behind Norwegians Timo Andre Bakken and Magnus Moholt, who went on to take second and third overal. He was still in contact by the homestretch, but was stymied by his slower lane.
“I felt like, if I’d had one of those good, glazed tracks…” he said, trailing off. “That sucks.”
In retrospect, Valjas said, he needed to be in the lead coming over the course’s main climb.
“Then you pick the good track,” he said.
Organizers appeared to be doing everything they could to keep the tracks fast, mustering workers with brooms and even a leaf-blower to clean out the powder in the morning. In the afternoon, there were groups of forerunners were skiing the course, section-by-section, throughout the rounds, but it still wasn’t enough to keep up with Otepaa’s gusty wind.
Third place in his heat, Valjas’s finish was still good enough for seventh, and he’ll get a few more chances at big-time events later this year, with a trip to Norway for a World Cup and the World Ski Championships on his schedule. But on Saturday, he was stuck on the sidelines watching his teammate Cockney in the finals.
“I was standing getting ready for the A-final, and I asked [a coach] ‘Where’s Len?’ She said he didn’t make it,” Cockney said. “I’ve gotta tell you, my heart did kind of sink a little, knowing I was going to be on my own there. But that’s how it goes.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.