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 second part of this two-part interview, FasterSkier caught up with Kershaw what worked in his training last season, Justin Wadsworths’ outspoken goal-setting, and the return of World Cup cross-country skiing to Canada in 2012.
FS: The World Championships gold medal, the Tour de Ski medals, the eighth place finish on the World Cup overall – this year was without a doubt your best yet. What really clicked? What changes did you have to your training program that made it so successful?
DK: Every year, I have had to make some significant changes. Every year there has been a new coach – every year for six years. This is the first year I have had the same coach, two years consecutively, in a long time.
The biggest thing that changed last year was that I was so motivated. Yeah, the Olympics were great – I had personal bests, and our whole team had personal bests – but I didn’t hit the international podium once in 2010, and I was frustrated. I knew I was better than that.
I had come close so many times that season; it kind of pissed me off. I just had that extra little bit of motivation. The top 10 just wasn’t good enough. I had that bitter taste. I just worked that extra little bit harder – sometimes you have great seasons. Also, we have a really, really, solid staff and a positive environment, which I really enjoy.
FS: You mentioned this is the first time you have had the same coach for consecutive springs in quite a while. What does Wadsworth do specifically for you that works so well?
DK: I just get along really well with Justin! It’s an interesting mix, because I knew Justin as [Canadian ski legend] Beckie Scott’s husband, but then we became friends. I raced against him – his last World Championships was my first. He was around the team a lot, with Beckie, and I got to know him well.
When he came in as our coach, the dynamic changed a little bit, but I feel really familiar and comfortable around him. He’s really open, and we have really good discussions about training. He brings a really good perspective to my training. He has helped Beckie a lot in her career, he had his own career, and he has the experience of coaching the U.S. team for four years.
It’s not like I had to do with all the other coaches, where I had to stick out my hand and say, “Hi, I’m Devon. This is what I do.” He has a very good understanding of what it is to be a Canadian ski racer, and that has really helped.
FS: Wadsworth has set some pretty big goals for the team this year: top three in the Tour de Ski, and top three in the World Cup overall. Are there major changes happening to the plan and preparation?
DK: He’s pretty bold. We have a bit of a joke, that he’s pretty “American” with that stuff. He has set some lofty goals for us. But for me, performance goal-wise, I can’t control my competition. I can only control my preparation. You can only control what you can control. I don’t pay much attention to the hard numbers, because there are so many variables.
FS: Is there a specific area you are targeting for improvement this off-season?
DK: The blatant one was inconsistency. My sprinting was the best it has been – ever. Coming first and second in the sprints on the Tour de Ski was great. When I was on, I was the best in the world, but when I was off, I was horrible. I was not able to qualify. I qualified in maybe half the sprints I went in last year, and that’s unacceptable. In past years, I would qualify for almost every sprint, but get knocked out in the quarterfinals. We have to work on my qualifying speed.
My double-poling has come a long way, but there is still a lot of work to go. My skating, as well, needs to improve. When I’m in good shape, I can be competitive, but when I’m a little bit off, I’m further back. I can’t afford to be coming 25th to 30th in skate races if I want to be contending for the World Cup overall.
FS: The International Ski Federation (FIS) recently announced that they were lengthening the Tour de Ski by a day and a race. They are adding a third race in Toblach, Italy, an individual start 3 k for women and 5 k for men. What’s your take on the extra day and race?
DK: I don’t think it changes the dynamic too much. Just throwing in a single individual start, like that, is fine. If they started adding travel days, like a few years ago when we went to Prague, then it gets tough.
But adding races in the same venue – I have no real problem with it. You’ve traveled all that way, you might as well do an extra race! I’m cool with it. I think the Tour is getting more and more prestige, and viewership is rising. And people will still drop out when they get sick. If you’re not in the top 10, you don’t get paid for the overall, and the points fall away quickly. If you get sick and you push through, you risk the rest of your season. And lots of people always drop out, but with that style of race, it’s always going to happen. I don’t see how to fix it.
FS: In 2012, the World Cup returns to Canada, in both Canmore, Alberta, and Quebec City, Quebec. Are you excited to race in Canada again?
DK: Yes and no. I’m super, super psyched to be racing in back in Canada. It’s how we have the depth we do in Canada, with the young guys coming up getting a chance to race against the best in the world. But the races are usually pretty skate-heavy in Canmore, and that’s the worst course in the entire world for me in skating.
The other thing is that it’s in December, and I think it’s too bad that that’s where [FIS] put it. I don’t really know who is going to come over. If people are gunning for the Tour de Ski, and it’s a championship year, are people really going to want to get on a plane, stop in Quebec, and then head to western Canada? Is it going to be like the Rybinsk World Cup [a Russian World Cup weekend with typically poor attendance] in Canada? If it’s like that, then I think it’s tragic, because it’s not a World Cup. I don’t think it’s the best place to put it, but it’ll be good for Canada! We’ll have good results! But as far as competitiveness, it’s too bad.
We’ll have to see when that year comes, but even for us, do we go to Europe to prepare for the Tour de Ski? I don’t know exactly how close it is right now, but if it’s really close, what are you going to do? In a championship year and [with] the Tour de Ski, I think we have to look at it.
But I’m psyched, racing in Canada rules!
FS: Does adding the new Quebec City venue get you pumped up?
DK: A new venue is all positive! Hosting World Cup races in Canada is the number one reason that Canadian skiing is getting better and better. I don’t hesitate to make that call. Having international races in Canada is the best thing to bring our level up.
FS: What do you have planned for the summer training season?
DK: We’re heading to New Zealand, which is great. It’s some of the best skiing I do all year down there, so that’s fun. Then, we’re headed to Park City in the fall, and then I’m going to Montreal to train with Alex in late August, and at some point, I’ll do a Share the Road event in Sudbury, which is an organization that’s pretty close to my heart. Other than that, I’m finishing up some renovations in my house right now, and hopefully I’ll get those done soon.
FS: Finally, this year saw the departure of two fixtures from your days on the team, George Grey and Stefan Kuhn. What’s it like?
DK: The biggest thing for me was that last year I trained probably 85 percent of my workouts with Stef, so I felt that for sure. Every year, a couple people drop, and they seem to be the ones I train with, but Babs [Ivan Babikov] is still around, and will be around long after I’m done, so there is stability there. I’m still able to train with Alex at almost every camp too, so that’s good. Of course it’s sad to see people move on and step away from ski racing, but it’s also exciting because they both seem to be doing really well. Our team dynamic changes a little bit, but there are some new guys coming up that will make training fun as well.