The fifth man at the top of the last hill leading down into the stadium, Jesse Cockney was fairly confident he’d win the final. The 22-year-old Canadian Senior Development Team member had a few things going for him – knowledge of the course, confidence in himself and confidence in his skis.
Cockney’s calculations played out, as the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) skier slingshot past his competitors and kept the lead to the finish of the NorAm 1.4 k freestyle sprint in Canmore, Alberta, on Saturday.
Cockney won the A-final in 2:54.07, about three-tenths of a second ahead of teammate Phil Widmer (+0.31). Brent McMurtry (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre) was third in the final sprint to the line (+0.92), trailing Cockney by 0.92 seconds.
“I really like skiing the sprint course in Canmore because it always comes down to that finishing stretch,” Cockney said in a phone interview after his second win in four NorAm sprints this season. “Getting a chance to live and train here, we get to practice that a lot. … We kind of know how the course flows.”
He also knew how his boards would run, or at least his coach told him to have faith in them. Exhausted after leading and winning his quarterfinal, Cockney said he went to his sprint coach, recently retired Olympian Stefan Kuhn, for advice.
“I was kind of nervous about doing that again,” Cockney said. “I talked to Stef between the quarter and the semi and kind of decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. … I have amazing skis in Canmore and I wanted to let them do the work.”
The skis and the sprinting know-how worked for several other Academy skiers as well, with four AWCA men making the A-final. Graham Nishikawa finished fourth, Graeme Killick was fifth and Russell Kennedy (Canmore) was sixth.
“We have a good team with a lot of strong skiers and some older ones as well that have been able to provide some leadership and perspective,” AWCA head coach Chris Jeffries said. “You put them in a head-to-head situation and they’re pretty tough.”
A seasoned veteran, Widmer put down the fastest qualifying time of the day, and Cockney was second in the qualifier. In the final, Widmer said he took a more direct line in the last descent’s sharp turn, which inadvertently put him in front of McMurtry and the rest of the pack. As Cockney tucked in behind the front two, Widmer knew what Cockney was doing and wished he had been in a similar position.
“I’m relatively happy [with second], but I think tactically, I would have liked to ski a little different,” Widmer said. “My game plan was to be in the top three, not leading into the downhill. I ended up leading into the downhill … I had to try to recover from the slingshot effect and didn’t have the legs to keep up with Jess.”
No stranger to the Canmore Nordic Centre, McMurtry watched Cockney take the smartest route into the stadium as well. Regardless, McMurtry as the NorAm and Western Canadian Championships mini-tour leader was pleased with how he executed the sprint, especially for a distance guy.
“I wanted to be in a position at the top of the hill to be in contact, but I didn’t want to be in the lead,” he said. “I was pretty happy with how I skied tactically.”
After winning Friday’s 10 k individual start by more than 21 seconds, McMurtry said he felt the burn of another challenging course at Canmore on Saturday.
“I don’t know what I did [yesterday], but my hamstrings were really sore. I don’t ever get that from classic skiing,” McMurtry said with a laugh. “I figured everyone’s legs were just as tired.”
McMurtry won’t get much of a break as the first man to start in Sunday’s freestyle 15 k pursuit. According to Western Canadian Championships multi-stage standings on Zone4.ca, McMurtry will start 40 seconds ahead of the second man, Kevin Sandau (AWCA), who was 10th in the sprint after making the B-final.
“It’s a hard course again tomorrow, one that I’ve raced lots of times,” McMurtry said. “For me, it’s important to pace it and stay smooth. … If it does come down to Kevin catching up to me, I’m going to leave a little left in the tank so I have something left in the finish.”
That was different than McMurtry’s recent tactic of going out hard and staying ahead. While that helped him win the last two races, it cost him others, he said.
“I want to ski a distance race where I know that the last lap is really going to matter,” McMurtry said.
Men’s freestyle sprint results
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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.