Devon Kershaw’s day could not have changed more drastically over the course of two hours than it did on Wednesday in Oslo.
While he ended the day atop the podium with teammate Alex Harvey, there was a moment when becoming one of Canada’s first World Champions seemed next to impossible.
On the first uphill in Canada’s semifinal in the World Championships team sprint, Kershaw, the leadoff skier, lost a ski.
“I had a small heart attack,” Kershaw said in a press conference afterwards. “I don’t know what happened. It was a one in a million chance—somebody’s ski must have come under my binding, and flipped it up, and my ski fell off and started going the opposite direction.”
It was an inauspicious start to the day, and after the semifinal, Kershaw’s mood matched the thick, dreary fog that obscured the stadium, limiting views to about 50 meters. In fact, with the fog, nobody was quite sure what had happened to Kershaw–the only thing that was clear was that he was suddenly in last place.
“That’s generally not what you want to do at the World Championships,” Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth told FasterSkier.
But, making the best of a bad situation, Kershaw turned around, grabbed his ski, and got back to work. By the time he had finished his first loop, he was with the pack–and when Harvey took over, he moved Canada towards the front.
While Kershaw’s skiing on the next two laps wasn’t as snappy as it might have been, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the semifinal, where the duo finished second in a sprint finish with Sweden and Germany, with Finland only another second behind.
By the time the finals rolled around less than two hours later, Kershaw was rejuvenated, and turned in the best performance of his career.
The two Canadians weren’t the hands-down favorites going into today’s race–that was an honor probably reserved for Norwegians Petter Northug and Ola Vigen Hattestad, who ended up second, or the Russian squad of Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy, which ended up third.
Still, a medal was something that many had thought possible. Teammate Ivan Babikov, for one, was confident in Kershaw’s and Harvey’s chances.
“They are in the best shape,” he said on Tuesday. “The guys who raced [in the 15 k classic] today—I don’t think they have a chance tomorrow.”
Like Northug and Hattestad, Harvey and Kershaw sat out Tuesday’s race. It wasn’t an entirely obvious decision, as both are strong distance skiers, but the call ended up being a good one—the top pair that included athletes who had raced in the 15 k was the Finnish one, and they ended up fifth.
“It was a really hard decision for me,” Kershaw said. “I love the 15 k classic—I love it. It’s the only individual race, the only race with history, in Norway, left on the calendar, and to skip that, it was tough. But we knew we had a chance to medal.”
After a simultaneously successful and gut-wrenching Olympics last year, where the team failed to win a medal despite high expectations, the Canadians had been focusing on collecting a podium at World Championships–and the team sprint was undoubtedly one of their best chances to do so. That’s why the two men elected to skip out on Tuesday’s race.
“[That decision] looks pretty good right now,” Wadsworth said.
But Kershaw’s errant ski almost rendered that sacrifice a moot point.
“The adrenaline was pouring through my system, because Alex and I had thought about this race for so long,” Kershaw said. “And the first 30 seconds, we’re out of it, we’re screwed.”
“So I…tried to ski as calm as I could to get back to the pack, and luckily, I did before the exchange—but that was not easy,” Kershaw said. “I felt like crap in the semis after that, because I had used a lot of energy.”
He acknowledged that he was worried how he’d feel in the final—but he also said that since he and Harvey were fitter than some of their sprint-specialist competitors in the race, it was easier for them to recover from a hard effort.
“The semifinal does nothing to us, physiologically—we’re super-rested,” he said.
In the finals, the pair had to contend with the Swedes and Finns again, as well as Norway and Russia.
The pace was tactical for the first half of the race, with most of the 10 teams sticking together through three of six legs. The Norwegians had opted for slicker skis, and put in a few charges on the flats, but their efforts weren’t enough to break the race open.
Harvey was actually the first to mix things up, throwing in an attack over the sprint course’s big climb at the end of the fourth leg. It wasn’t enough to drop anyone, but the effort brought him into the stadium in the lead.
“I think he was just trying to make sure to tag in a safe position,” Wadsworth said.
The fifth lap was where the action really started, with Kershaw up against Northug, Panzhinskiy, Finland’s Sami Jauhojaervi, and Sweden’s Jesper Modin.
The men were together coming into the base of the big climb, but as soon as they hit it, the short, stout Jauhojaervi seemed to take the entire field by surprise when he threw in a big attack—a move he said he’d planned.
Kershaw said that he’d actually expected the Finn to go—but not quite so early.
“I kind of thought he would. But he still caught me by surprise, because he went right at the bottom of the hill, and I thought he’d wait,” Kershaw said.
Kershaw wasn’t the only one to miss the move, though—Northug did, too. The Norwegian said that he was waiting behind Modin, in the hopes that the Swede would be able to keep pace with the leaders.
But Northug probably should have known better. The massive Modin (he’s 6’6, 200), has a reputation for imploding in sprint finals—in the five he’s cracked this year, he’s finished sixth four times, and fifth once. The same thing happened at the end of Wednesday’s sprint relay—the Swede had nothing when Jauhojaervi made his attack, with Northug stuck behind.
“It was bad for me that Modin was so bad in the last leg,” Northug said. “I hoped that he wanted a medal, and he didn’t. So then I had to go through him.”
After changing tracks to get around the big Swede, Northug led the chase to Jauhojaervi—with Kershaw tucking in comfortably behind him. By the time the leaders came through to the tag zone, the Finns still had a gap, but not much of one—it was a mere three seconds.
Jauhojaervi tagged of to his teammate Ville Nousiainen, the man with the difficult job of holding Finland’s lead.
The two had picked their own running order after the results of their national championships earlier this month, according to the country’s head coach, Magnar Dalen, with Nousiainen racing the anchor leg because of his strong finish.
“It was a wish from the athletes themselves,” Dalen said. “They had a very hard fight in the Finnish championships, with double-poling the last 200 meters, and Ville beat Sami. And then they said, ‘if we are in the team sprint, [we] want to have it this way.’”
Nousiainen, a veteran 27-year-old, did his best to hold off the four remaining chasing teams: Canada, Norway, Russia, and Germany. He still had a gap over the top of the big hill, but with the flats and downhills favoring the pack, Nousiainen was finally swallowed up in the stadium. He didn’t have enough gas left for the finish, and the Finns ended up fifth.
“It was awful,” Nousiainen said of his last lap. “Too tough for me—I think I skied a little bit too hard [in the] first 500 meters, and after that, it was a total nightmare.”
While Nousiainen faded over the last quarter of the race, Harvey, meanwhile, was still fresh. He had been able to sit behind Hattestad, the Norwegian anchor, who charged out of the gate on his final lap.
“I was better off just following,” Harvey said. “In the stadium, he pushed harder than Nousiainen, so we caught him just before the last uphill.”
At that point, there were three other teams still in contact—the Germans, Finns, and Russians. But with the race taking place in Oslo, Harvey’s path to the win had to go through one man—and that was Hattestad.
The sprinter was a surprising choice for a Norwegian anchor, since Northug is known as the best closer in the sport. The pair had to face tough questions in the press conference—including one from a reporter who said that in a poll, 80 percent of his clearly-disgruntled readership would have preferred Northug going up against Harvey.
But Age Skinstad, the Norwegian national team manager, said that the decision to have Hattestad anchor was still a no-brainer.
“Classical double poling is his specialty,” Skinstad said. “So [there] was no big doubt about that.”
Over the top of the last flat section, before making a hard right and dropping down onto the homestretch, Harvey was still behind Hattestad. He had practiced sprint finishes in Oslo last week, with teammates and one of the Canadian wax techs, and Harvey said he preferred coming into the final straight in second.
“I think it’s better to follow,” he said. “So I was perfect—according to plan.”
Finally, Harvey switched tracks and moved out from behind Hattestad, with no more than a hundred meters to go. He edged up alongside the Norwegian, and then, with a handful of fierce double-pole strokes, pulled slightly ahead.
As he crossed the finish line, Harvey held up one finger, representing Canada’s first men’s World Championships medal.
“We’ve never had a medal,” Harvey said. “Never Olympic, and never World Championship. My dad tried; he won a couple of World Cups, but never a World Championships or Olympic medal. This was the first one. So hopefully, we took a couple pictures of that.”
His father, Pierre, gave Harvey some advice after the 30 k, when an overly optimistic early attack tired him and left him without a medal.
“He was disappointed too—he didn’t really know what to say,” the younger Harvey said of the conversation. “He just told me to have fun, and remember with skiing, why I do that—that I do it for fun. For sure, I want to win, but if you don’t have fun, you are never going to win.”
For Harvey and Canada, mission accomplished.