The 2011 Haywood Canadian National Championships began Saturday, and the drive to crown the next Canadian national champion starts now!
Held in the Canadian ski mecca of Canmore, Alberta, the premiere event in Canadian skiing features seven days of intense junior and senior racing action.
The racing opens with a Team Sprint on Saturday, March 12, followed by a middle-distance freestyle on Sunday, March 13. The athletes then enjoy a day of rest, and the racing resumes with an individual classic race Tuesday, March 14. The classic sprint is separated onto two days – the Open categories classic sprint Wednesday, March 15, and junior categories classic sprint Thursday, March 16. Finally the Championships conclude with long-distance freestyle mass start races on Saturday, March 18.
Canadian racing is at an all-time high, and correspondingly, the fields will be some of the deepest in the country in recent memory. While newly minted World Champions and Canadian National Ski Team (CNST) members Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey are attending the late-season World Cup races, there is still plenty of Canadian World Cup-level talent racing.
Additional athletes missing include the Alberta World Cup Academy’s (AWCA) Graham Nishikawa, who has the NorAm World Cup slot for the spring World Cup tour, and possibly CNST member Ivan Babikov, who is on the verge of cracking the top 50 in World Cup rankings, the level which is required to participate in the World Cup Final.
FasterSkier provides a brief preview of the men in action who may be vying for the aggregate title of Canadian National Champion.
Multiple-Olympian and World Cup medalist George Grey (CNST) is the biggest name in action, and when he is at or near the top of his game, there are very few men in Canada who can match him, at least in the distance events. Grey has not been at his best this season, but if he can recapture some of the form he had during the Vancouver Olympics, he will be almost untouchable.
Following Grey, Stefan Kuhn (CNST) has also returned from Europe, and considers the Nationals a home race, as he lives in Canmore. It may also be his last National Championship ever – the 31 year old veteran has hinted at retirement via Twitter. Kuhn has two events he excels at – middle distance classic racing, and classic sprinting, so be assured he will be in the mix.
After losing a tight battle on the NorAm circuit for the NorAm World Cup spot to Graham Nishikawa, Drew Goldsack (AWCA) will be back aiming for top results as well. The two-time Olympian has proved himself capable as an all-around skier this season, but the classic sprint suits him best. He has suffered through bouts of illness during the season, and his most recent result is not encouraging, as he failed to finish the Eastern Canadian Championships mini-tour.
Phil Widmer, racing out of the Pierre Harvey National Development Center (CNEPH), has been an impressive skate sprinter thus far this season, most notably finishing 18th at a World Cup sprint in Davos. However, outside of that, Widmer has struggled, as his top result in a domestic distance race is 27th in the 15 k freestyle at the NorAm in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Graeme Killick (CNST), who put on a show at the 2010 Canadian Nationals by winning two races, has thus far had a disappointing season, but remains a strong classic skier. Killick is aiming for a couple of podiums, and is targeting Tuesday’s 15 k classic as his big event.
Likewise, Brent McMurtry (CNEPH) has been up and down on the result sheet over the course of the season. In a recent e-mail to FasterSkier, McMurtry described himself as “run down” heading into the early World Cup period, but has focused on recovery, and is feeling back in top form.
But McMurtry has additional OPA Cup experience, and has the advantage of knowing the trails well, as he is a native of Calgary, Alberta, and has skied extensively at the Canmore Nordic Center. However, McMurtry acknowledges he isn’t the only one with home-course advantage, as most of the top men either live full time in Canmore, or have spent a significant amount of time skiing on the trails at the Nordic Center.
Surprisingly, Nationals will be only the second set of races in Canada this year for McMurtry, so there is little indication of how he will stack up. But McMurtry is aiming high – he stated his first goal of the Championships is to win a race outright.
Perhaps the best young skier attending is one Len Valjas (CNEPH), who with a 15th place at World Championships and a top 10 result at the World Cup in Drammen, has turned into an impressive World Cup sprinter. Valjas is planning on racing the World Cup in Lahti, Finland, but will be returning to Canada in time to contend the individual start classic race on Tuesday, and most worryingly for everyone else, the classic sprint on Wednesday.
Dark Horse Talent
Kevin Sandau (AWCA) has been one of the hottest Canadian skiers following Christmas, at least in distance skiing. Sandau finished fifth at U-23 World Championships 15 k freestyle, and then crossed the line 24th place in the pursuit. After returning to Canada, Sandau kept the ball rolling, finishing 2nd at the Eastern Canadian Championships mini-tour.
Likewise, Jesse Cockney (AWCA) has emerged as an impressive U-23 skier, excelling in sprints. While he freely admits to struggling in the qualifying round, Cockney has the speed to go the distance over the course of the day, which he proved with a 6th place finish at U-23 World Championships in Estonia earlier this year.
Mike Somppi of the National Development Center Thunder Bay (NDC-TB) has also become a very solid skier, earning three podiums at the NorAm level, as well as finishing 14th in the 15 k freestyle at U-23 Championships.
Finally, David Greer (CNEPH) started the season off slowly, but has finished in the top five a handful of times on the NorAm circuit, and also skied to an impressive 14th place at Swiss National Championships. His distance skiing has improved over the course of the season to the point where he could easily pull off a surprise.
While the overall aggregate should be George Grey’s to lose, the level of male skiing in Canada at the moment means that it is anything but a lock. It is entirely possible a different skier could win each race, and the variety of race formats mean that no one athlete has a significant advantage.
Canadian National Championships kicks off Sunday, with a 10 k freestyle individual start race.