NorAm Racers Roll with Punches, Ready for Rossland

Alex KochonDecember 16, 2011
Head coach Eric Bailey consults with Thunder Bay National Development Centre skiers while they test skis on Friday at Black Jack Ski Club in Rossland, British Columbia.

ROSSLAND, British Columbia — The thing about competitive ski racing is, one has to be prepared for the unexpected.

It’s not as if Jack Carlyle, a junior racer for Thunder Bay’s national development center (NDC), could have anticipated his bags would be stolen in the 15 minutes they were outside his house, but he dealt with it.

NDC head coach Eric Bailey, who was supposed to drive him to the airport, told Carlyle to sit tight and work with former NDC skiers to round up equipment. Two days after he was scheduled to leave, Carlyle flew out of Thunder Bay, Ontario, to compete in the first set of NorAm races in British Columbia.

A week later, the 18-year-old was still using a borrowed fleet of skis, clothing and gear, and feeling good about racing in Saturday’s NorAm freestyle sprints at the Black Jack Ski Club in Rossland.

“I just had to put it behind me and just focus on the races,” Carlyle said.

An official sponsor of the Canadian National Ski Team, Fresh Air Experience helped him find equipment. Salomon did the same, and the Alberta World Cup Academy lent him skis.

“It wasn’t just Thunder Bay that was supporting me, it was all of Canada,” he said.

In his two days at home, Carlyle filed a police report, asked local pawn shops and nordic retailers to keep an eye out, and scanned Ebay for his stuff. While in British Columbia, he said the Thunder Bay police and Crime Stoppers were searching for his missing duffle and ski bags.

“It’s a weird situation, and it’s in the hands of whoever took it,” Carlyle said. “So there’s nothing I could do about it.”

Bailey said the team rallied to support Carlyle, and the first-year NDC athlete remained calm and collected in the meantime.

“I think part of being a good ski racer is to be adaptable,” Bailey said. “Even the whole organization, to be able to deal with challenges as they happen. I’ve been really quite impressed with the way Jack has dealt with it.”

Earlier this week, two members of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre found themselves in a ditch after sliding on black ice and crashing into a cement guardrail. Brent McMurtry, the driver, and David Greer were fine, and they hopped into one of Thunder Bay’s team vans and continued on to Rossland.

After watching his totaled car fade away in the rearview mirror, McMurtry said he was training as usual and preparing for the second weekend of NorAm races.

Rossland NorAms

Saturday kicks off the all-freestyle weekend (in contrast to Sovereign Lake’s two days of classic races) with the NorAm Teck Sprints. The senior women will complete a 1.4-k loop and the men will race 1.6 k on the same sprint courses as last year.

Sunday’s distance mass starts (10 and 15 k) will be done on newly homologated 3.3- and 3.75-k loops, for the women and men respectively. Chief of Competition Ian Sibbald said this made for a slightly harder course compared to the previous 5 k loop.

“Our course last year was a little bit easy, whereas this year, it’s going to be a good test for the better athletes,” Sibbald said.

Last year, Black Jack hosted a NorAm mini-tour with a freestyle sprint, mid-distance skate race and classic pursuit. After those races, organizers resolved to plan a more challenging course, Sibbald said.

They also had to comply with FIS standards if they wanted their races to count toward points. That meant homologating their trails, so they chose to widen two shorter loops.

On Friday, some coaches felt the course was still too narrow for Sunday’s mass start, after a thin base made it difficult to groom wider. Bailey initially proposed to make the distance race an individual start after he skied the course with a group.

He said the strong field, particularly on the men’s side with about 80 seniors and juniors racing, should be considered.

“(There are) lots of people with really close points so everyone knows that (it) would go guns-a-blazing,” Bailey said. “That’s good for racing, but at the same time … for a fair competition, that’s why I proposed the change.”

Organizers decided on the matter Friday evening, keeping it a mass start but changing the men’s course slightly, Cross Country Canada delegate James Cunningham said.

Central Cross Country (CXC) Head Coach Jason Cork said the course’s narrowness was a slight problem in last year’s pursuit. Fortunately, one of his athletes, Jessie Diggins, won the event.

“Even with it being classic and even with 20 people in the wave, it jammed up,” Cork said. “I think that’s part of the concern; skate’s wider and 80 (racers at once) is more than 20.”

Regardless, Cork said he was “pretty ambivalent” to the final decision. A mass start would simply be less work without a need for timing splits.

Four of his athletes traveled to Rossland — Diggins, Jennie Bender, Karl Nygren and Sara Hewitt — in their fifth week on the road. Caitlin and Brian Gregg opted to train near Brian’s parents’ home in Methow Valley, Wash.

“To be honest, I think everyone’s getting a little tired,” Cork said, explaining that he scheduled in Rossland for the second-straight year because it was cost effective. He added that his athletes were looking forward to the races.

“No one’s dreading them at all,” he said.

Hewitt has a unique reason to race as her father, Ken, is the FIS technical delegate for the event.

Another American, Leif Zimmermann was the only member of the Bridger Ski Foundation testing his skis on Friday’s freshly groomed snow. While the rest of his teammates opted to return home to Bozeman, Mont., Zimmermann enjoyed racing in Canada and didn’t mind the nearly nine-hour drive.

“I like the hills and always like to skate,” Zimmermann wrote in an email. With at least four inches of new snow in the last two days, he expected the conditions to be soft, yet was hoping to make the top three on Sunday.

Rossland native and Alberta World Cup Academy coach George Grey said athletes shouldn’t take Rossland lightly.

“It’s going to be hard,” said Grey, who made the podium there last year. “It’s a working course: lots of flat sections where you have to keep your speed up.”

“The sprint there is a very tactical sprint,” said his former World Cup teammate, Stefan Kuhn, the academy’s sprint coach.

Race Favorites

He pointed to Phil Widmer and Jesse Cockney as AWCA men to watch in Saturday’s sprint. Widmer won last weekend’s sprint qualifier and was second in Rossland’s sprint last year. Strong in both the sprints and distance races, Cockney will be looking to podium as well.

On the women’s side, Alysson Marshall (AWCA) will be a race favorite, especially in the sprint. Her teammates, Heidi Widmer, Emily Nishikawa and Marlis Kromm will also be gunning for top performances on Saturday.

Andrea Dupont of the Rocky Mountain Racers was third in last weekend’s sprint, and she has historically done even better at NorAms. Nakkertok’s Alana Thomas will also be vying for a spot in the sprint final.

Of the American women in Saturday’s sprint, Diggins and Bender will be aiming for similar success.

On the men’s side, Harry Seton (NDC) will be looking for his first NorAm podium after several top-10 performances.  McMurtry, now a few days removed from his car accident, will try to win in both races.

An American sprinter, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess (Bend Endurance Academy) was included on Monday’s entry list, but could not be reached to confirm he would be racing at Black Jack for the first time.

On Sunday, Kevin Sandau (AWCA) is a race favorite after claiming his first NorAm victory last weekend in the 15 k classic. He had previously raced at the World Cup in Europe. His teammate, Drew Goldsack, is still on the mend after catching a bug on the flight home from Dusseldorf, Germany.

Another academy racer, Graeme Killick will look to top his distance competitors, as will Thunder Bay’s Mike Somppi. Typically a podium contender in longer races, Somppi is looking for a better performance after placing 12th in last weekend’s 15 k. Coming down in elevation after spending 12 days at altitude in Silver Star should help, said Bailey, his coach.

“Any perceived disadvantage from last weekend I think will become our advantage this weekend,” Bailey said, including Andrea Lee and Erin Tribe as athletes to watch in both races.

AWCA head coach Chris Jeffries said that besides Marshall and Nishikawa, keep an eye on Annika Hicks, who was 11th last Sunday.

Like Diggins and Bender, American Evelyn Dong (Stella Racing) should also be in the mix. Amanda Ammar (Canmore) made the top 10 last weekend in her first NorAm distance race in two years.

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Alex Kochon

Alex Kochon ( 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.

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