Late last February, Canadian Alex Harvey got the tag from his teammate Devon Kershaw to ski the second leg of the 4×10 k men’s relay at the Vancouver Olympic Games.
Kershaw was having a bad day, and he’d dug his team into a hole—Harvey started out his race with a 30-second deficit to the leaders.
The 22-year-old Quebec native fought as hard as he could, burying himself in an effort to chase down Norway, Sweden, France and Finland. The effort ultimately came to naught, though, as the team finished outside the top five.
Four days later, on the last day of the Games, Harvey raced in the 50 k classic—a marathon event that he saw as one of his two best chances at a medal, since his first career World Cup podium had come in the same event in Norway a year prior.
In Vancouver, Harvey figured at the front of the race early, but still suffering the after-effects from the relay, he faded hard, and finished outside the top 30.
“I dug as deep as I could in the relay, trying to catch the lead group and dying five kilometers into the 10-kilometer race. It sucked,” Harvey wrote in an e-mail Thursday night. “I couldn’t recover well enough for the 50 k, two days later, and again, it sucked, badly. I was crying in the wax cabin for 10 minutes, wondering, ‘what if, what if?’”
One year later, Harvey is skiing even faster than he was in Vancouver. Along with his teammate Devon Kershaw, the pair won Canada’s first-ever World Championships gold on Wednesday, in the team sprint in Oslo.
With his three other potential relay teammates not skiing quite well enough to put the team in medal contention, at least on paper, Harvey said that he’s refusing to make the same mistake again. He’ll skip Friday’s 4×10 k, in order to be better rested for Sunday’s 50 k skate—a move that certainly opens him up to criticism, but one that will also provide a big boost to Canada’s hopes for its second-ever World Championships gold.
“As of today, I do not think we had a reasonable chance at a [relay] medal,” Harvey said. “The goal as [a] team this year was to be on the World Cup podium, and for the men, medal at Worlds. That is our team goal, and I feel that in order to fulfill that team goal, I’m better off being 100 percent ready for the 50 k than racing the relay.”
The relay is one of cross-country’s marquee races, with a rich tradition and a history of epic battles unfolding at major championships. Athletes regularly set their personal ambitions temporarily aside in order to ski for their teams, even those without medal hopes—take, for example, the performances by Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Slovenia’s Petra Majdic in Thursday’s women’s race in Oslo.
With Kershaw, Harvey, Ivan Babikov, and George Grey comprising their team, the Canadians finished seventh in the relay at the Olympics last season. This year, though, they weren’t good bets for a medal—Grey is coming off knee surgery and the birth of his first child, and is far from fit. In a phone interview, the team’s head coach, Justin Wadsworth, said he’d planned to substitute rookie Len Valjas—who is racing well, but not nearly at Grey’s level from 2010.
Despite the Canadians’ chances on paper, Wadsworth said he thought that his team still had a decent shot at a medal—and he wanted Harvey in the race.
“I personally think he should do the relay, but I also respect his knowledge of how his body is, and what he needs to do,” Wadsworth said. “So, we went ahead and made the decision to sit him out tomorrow—it’s a little bit tough, for sure.”
Wadsworth said that Harvey’s decision was partly related to a long day and celebration that accompanied the Canadian team sprint victory on Wednesday. But Harvey said that the skipping the relay has been on his radar for a number of months.
“It’s been clear from the summer with the team that I was not keen on the schedule at Worlds, with the relay being two days before the 50 k,” he said, noting that the Canadians were planning on leaving him off the squad through two team meetings leading into World Championships. “So, it’s not a surprise, even though some guys feel like it is.”
Babikov made his feelings clear through a post he made on Twitter on Thursday, which was later deleted. It read: “One of us making the biggest mistake of his life today…and I lost all the respect for that person.”
Kershaw, in his own e-mail late Thursday, was more circumspect. He said he understood Harvey’s reasoning, even if he was still disappointed.
“He’s a favorite for the medal. He feels like he screwed up last year, and this year, he wants redemption. He doesn’t want to take a chance for only—what he believes—is a ‘maybe, at best,’ for a top six [in the relay],” Kershaw said. “He wants another gold medal. Fair enough. You cannot argue that. The kid’s driven like hell. And for good reason.”
Kershaw nearly medaled in the 50 k classic at the Olympics himself—he ended up fifth, just meters from the podium. But he said that skipping the relay in Oslo to save up for Sunday never crossed his mind.
He said he “loves” the relay, and—unlike Harvey, who Kershaw said would be a surprise not to podium on Sunday—Kershaw doesn’t consider himself a medal favorite in the 50 k skate.
Kershaw said that he’s only finished one such race in the past, in 2004 in Oslo, where he was nearly 12 minutes off the winner.
“I still remember how those legs of concrete felt—it’s singed into my memory,” Kershaw said.
So in Friday’s relay, Kershaw will don his spandex and sport the maple leaf as he scrambles for Canada. He’ll be followed by Valjas, Babikov, and Grey, while Harvey prepares for the 50 k.
“I was bummed,” Kershaw said, “and I am bummed that he won’t share in the experience of racing the traditional relay—but I’m sure we’ll share many more together. You’ve got to take risks and make hard decisions if you want to succeed.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.