ROSSLAND, British Columbia — Anyone who caught a glimpse of Jesse Cockney on Saturday probably saw him smiling — except for when he was racing, in which case he was concentrating.
The first day of NorAm freestyle competition at Black Jack Ski Club started out well enough for the 22-year-old Alberta World Cup Academy skier, as Cockney won a sprint qualifier for the first time in his life.
The fifth to start on a 1.6 k men’s course that several racers acknowledged as technical –with sharp corners and winding descents — Cockney clocked the fastest qualifying time in the NorAm Teck Sprint in 3:15.35. His teammate Phil Widmer ranked second, more than three seconds behind in the qualifier in 3:18.36.
The top-dog status pushed Cockney farther, as he won two more rounds to reach the ‘A’ final. There, he kept his energy going all the way to the finish, where he extended his arms in front and behind him for a “first-down” victory gesture.
The celebration was directed at a FasterSkier report from last weekend, which suggested Canadians didn’t know of Tim Tebow.
“We’re all pretty big NFL fans,” Cockney said. “So I did the first down. We do watch football in Canada.”
He was still smiling.
For Cockney, the race affirmed that he wasn’t a slow qualifier. After narrowly qualifying in 30th in the U-23 World Championship sprints last year, he went on to place sixth. Finishing ahead of the pack early on Saturday gave him good vibes for the rest of the day.
“I didn’t want to waste that feeling so I took advantage of it,” Cockney said.
In the heats, Cockney stayed ahead of one crash involving Karl Nygren (CXC) in the first round. While Nygren, the 10th fastest qualifier, discovered he was too far back to make a run for the semifinal, Cockney moved on. Three heats later in the quarterfinals, Cockney’s teammates, Matt Wylie and Widmer, piled up in another crash.
Wylie said Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) took a more direct line into a downhill corner, which pushed Wylie out.
“That caught me off balance and Phil and I slammed into each other,” Wylie said. “I got pushed right into (Widmer’s) line.”
Two of the AWCA’s top sprinters, Wylie and Widmer were disappointed to be eliminated, but they understood it was part of fast-and-furious short, skate races.
“Everyone’s skiing on the same course,” Wylie said. “You control your own destiny, so you have to just ski as fast as you can and try to stay on your feet.”
After qualifying in 13th, Wylie focused on how strong he felt, especially heading into Sunday’s 15 k freestyle mass start. Seeded second in the heats, Widmer said he took something from Saturday’s outcome.
“That’s the thing about wanting to be in the front,” Widmer said after trailing closely behind Wylie, the leader, and Michael Somppi, who escaped the crash. “Lesson learned.”
Watching his two teammates fall out of contention on a notoriously tricky corner, Cockney said he made a point to get out front.
“I didn’t want to ski with anyone around the corners (to) make sure I stay on my feet,” Cockney said.
After Cockney, Brent McMurtry of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre placed second for the third straight race. Last weekend at Sovereign Lake, he was runner-up in both the NorAm classic sprint and 15 k classic individual start.
“Jess was pretty speedy out there, (and I) didn’t have much to go with him,” McMurtry said of Saturday’s freestyle sprint. “I thought I skied pretty smart and conserved some energy early on.”
It was the first time McMurtry qualified in a skate sprint in nearly two years. He was the fifth-fastest qualifier on Saturday.
“It’s not necessarily a strength, but I like my chances in anything,” he said. “Yeah, second again, it would be nice to be on the top of the podium, and I think it’ll come. At the same time I’m pretty reasonably happy.”
Kevin Sandau (AWCA) also achieved a personal best, placing third in the ‘A’ final just behind McMurtry, who edged him at the line. It was Sandau’s first appearance in that round.
“I’ve never been in an ‘A’ final ever in a NorAm,” he said.
Come to think of it, Sandau as last weekend’s defending NorAm distance champion, had never qualified in the top 10.
“So it’s a pretty cool day for me,” he added. “I guess things turned out my way.”
Nearly three years ago in Rossland, Sandau won the NorAm freestyle sprint’s ‘B’ final to place seventh overall. He said the course played to his strengths of attacking hills and drafting.
“I felt really strong today so I could make some moves and on the downhills, get a good draft and slingshot by people,” Sandau said. “So it seemed to work.”
One of the racers who avoided an early pileup, Somppi of Thunder Bay’s National Development Centre ended up fourth overall for a career-best sprint result.
As if he didn’t get enough of a workout in the four rounds, he had to run about half a kilometer from where he was staying to make the award’s ceremony. He thought they were later, and was alerted that they weren’t via a text message.
“Coach picked me up halfway,” Somppi said. “I’m glad I made the photo though.”
He also had some excitement out on the trails, moving ahead of Wylie, Widmer and Blackhorse-von Jess to advance to the semifinals. Blackhorse-von Jess also made it out of the round, but the six men in the heat finished particularly far apart.
“It was wild,” Somppi said.
Wylie and Widmer as teammates set a slow pace from the start, he said. In sixth place heading into the first climb, Somppi made a move to the front, which he said caught the others off guard.
“Everyone got kind of anxious and wanted to get at the front,” he said. “We went four guys into that sharp corner, and it wasn’t meant to be. I managed to get around them and come through, so I was pretty happy.”
Harry Seaton (NDC) notched a personal best in a NorAm sprint final, finishing fifth.
“I skied the heats really well. … I didn’t really take the lead much, but passed in those tight sections and I’m glad how those finished,” Seaton said. “Because it’s such a high-speed course, people are going to be close. That’s something I feel I did well today, kind of taking a scan around before we come into a tight section and knowing where things are.”
Blackhorse-von Jess was sixth, and the third-ranked qualifier, Frederic Touchette (CNEPH) was seventh after winning the ‘B’ final. Andy Shields (NDC) placed eighth, Kurtis Wenzel (RMR) was ninth, and Raphael Couturier (CNEPH) was 10th.
Sam Naney (Methow) was 11th and Graeme Killick (AWCA) was 12th after making the ‘B’ final.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.