Canadian Devon Kershaw has risen steadily through the ranks of the cross-country skiing world, to the point where he is now considered one of the best skiers on the World Cup circuit. Last season, he finished seventh in the Tour de Ski, after standing on the podium four times during the event – including a win. Along with teammate Alex Harvey, he also became Canada’s first World Champion in cross-country skiing, winning the team sprint event in Oslo, Norway, in March. Finally, over the course of the season, he earned himself an eighth place finish in the World Cup overall rankings – the best finish of his career.
In the first part of this two-part interview, FasterSkier caught up with Kershaw to talk about the intensity of World Championships, the Alex Harvey incident, and his new-found celebrity status – or lack thereof.
FasterSkier: First of all, Congratulations on becoming a World Champion!
Devon Kershaw: Thanks! It’s great!
FS: You’re in Oslo, Norway, with hundreds of thousands of Norwegians. You sat out the classic race for the team sprint, the event in which you finished fourth at the Olympics. Then, the unbelievable – your ski pops off! Can you describe for me what it felt like when that ski came off your foot at the start of your semi-final?
DK: Profanity was the first thing that came out of my mouth, and what I was thinking about. To be honest, I calmly just thought quickly about Lenny [Valjas, CNST member], and how he crashed out of his heat in the sprint, but was able to come back and finish third in his heat. I lost maybe 10 seconds out of it. I told myself: “The reality is that I’m not going to be at the front, but I have to get back in the pack or there is no chance of making it through.” I just kind of killed myself while keeping it as casual as possible, going from the back to the front.
FS: I’m assuming coaches Justin Wadsworth and Eric de Nys and the whole team was pretty emotional when that happened – do you have any idea what they said, or yelled at you?
DK: They didn’t even know! It was so foggy, no one could even really tell what happened. It just looked like I was off the back. When I came in after my loop I just said “you gotta check the binding on this ski, or else I need a new pair of skis,” but I said it super-calm, and everybody was shocked. At that point, what are you going to do? I knew we had our work cut out for us to get into the final. I had to expend a lot of energy to get back on the pack in the first leg of the semi-final.
They had a small heart attack, but everyone kept it chill, because they knew there was no point in flying off the handle at that time. There was still a lot of racing left in the day.
FS: Were you worried about the final and having expended all that energy?
DK: I felt pretty crappy in the semi. I had used a ton of energy. I told Justin at the end I was having a bad day, an off day. But then once the final started, all that adrenaline, all that fatigue was gone, [and] I was able to have a solid race.
FS: If losing your ski was the low point of the race, what about the flip side – what happened when you realized Alex Harvey was going to win the sprint, and you guys would be World Champions?
DK: It was crazy! Again, it was so foggy you couldn’t see more than 40 or 50 meters. I was just standing there thinking, “Where is he? Where is he?” And as he came out of the fog, he just started passing [Norwegian anchor Ola Vigen] Hattestad. I knew at that point it was over, and we were going to win. I thought, “Ho-ly shit.” It was amazing – a pretty filthy sprint from Alex. It was obviously an amazing feeling.
Canada has never won a World Championship gold medal, and to be a part of that in Oslo was a bit of redemption from the Olympics, where we were fourth. Fourth is a good result for sure, but we were there to hit the podium, and we weren’t able to.
FS: I have to ask – was Harvey shushing the crowd?
DK: You have to watch the race and make your own decision – those who know Alex can draw their own conclusions. I know I have.
FS: What has the designation of “World Champion” done for you in Canada? Have you attracted more sponsors? Has it made a real change in your personal life?
DK: No. It hasn’t changed my life whatsoever. This is my third media interview since I arrived home in late March. One was with Tellement Sport, the Quebec TV sport show, and the other was with the Rocky Mountain Outlook [a Canmore newspaper], a few days ago. I haven’t attracted any new sponsors; it hasn’t changed my life at all. I don’t have any new sponsors, but the sponsors I do have are awesome.
FS: Honestly? That’s it?
DK: Honestly! Not even the Sudbury Star! [The Star is Kershaw’s hometown paper.]
FS: Is it something that bothers you? Or is it a little surprising?
DK: Not really. It is what it is. There’s a lot of competition in western Canada, with winter sports and hockey. It doesn’t bother me at all, but it is a little surprising. But if you talk to Alex, it’s a totally different scene in Quebec. Alex has been doing four or five media interviews a week since he has been home. I hate to say that they appreciate amateur sport more there, but maybe the readership and viewership on TV is a little bit more familiar with it. I hate to call [being world champion] no big deal, but that’s the reality.
FS: Do you feel like skiing still has a long way to go in terms of marketing and popularity in Canada?
DK: It’s been getting better and better. We’ve got some really strong sponsors that have been with us for a long time. Haywood Securities was a game changer for our program, without a doubt. Look where we were in 2001, before they signed on, and look where we are now. Statoil and Altagas have come in and put in an influx of cash.
Profile-wise, skiing in Canada is getting more and more interest at the team level, and I know our results have helped with funding. [Cross Country Canada Director of High Performance] Tom Holland done a really good job, especially coming out of the Olympics to steer our program in the right direction, and Davin [Macintosh] too, the new executive director, has been doing a great job too. The whole community is getting better and better, but of course you always want more. However, until you’re able to see cross-country skiing on TV in this country, it’s a bit of an uphill battle.