Note: This recap has been updated to include quotes from third-place finisher Harry Seaton.
Heat after heat, Jesse Cockney may have been racing around the same 1.4-kilometer sprint course in Cantley, Quebec, but in his mind, he was at the U23 World Championships on Friday.
Cockney, 22, had been trying to visualize what it would be like in Erzurum, Turkey, ever since he officially qualified for the U23 trip in mid January. It helped that the NorAm circuit provided a variety of terrain for the Alberta World Cup Academy member to practice tactics on.
Two weeks ago at the Western Canadian Championships in Canmore, Alberta, Cockney faced a new course on his home turf, just as hilly as ever. Transitioning to the Eastern Championships on Friday, he discovered the Cantley course was similar to last year’s: flat and fast. That was good for Cockney; he won the freestyle sprint there last year.
Aiming to hang back and ski relaxed, just like he did in the final a year ago, Cockney found ways to win his quarterfinal and semifinal. The second-fastest qualifier after Brent McMurtry (Pierre-Harvey NTC), Cockney primed himself for the A-final.
Starting out in third or fourth, Cockney said in a phone interview that he made his way to second behind Drew Goldsack (Rocky Mountain Racers). At the final climb, Cockney saw his opportunity to overtake the leader and pushed the pace until the finish.
Cockney went on to win the final – his third in five NorAm sprints this year – despite McMurtry’s push to stay with him. He nipped McMurtry at the line, and Harry Seaton (NDC Thunder Bay) crossed the line just behind them in third. It was Seaton’s best NorAm result of his career.
“Brent and I were definitely right with each other on the last corner coming in with about 100 meters left,” Cockney said. “I had a couple solid free skates and I think I put a small gap on Brent and … I think [Harry was] pretty close.”
“I just worked hard to put myself in a good position near the front,” Seaton wrote in an email. “[I] skied really smart and made the best of the opportunities that came my way. … Being a bigger guy I like the power courses.”
Russell Kennedy (Canmore) was fourth and Graeme Killick (AWCA) finished fifth ahead of Goldsack, who had severe shoulder pain when someone stepped on his pole before the last climb. The two-time Olympian and World Cup skier has been coping with a rotator-cuff injury since crashing in the A-final at the NorAm sprint in Whistler, British Columbia.
“I couldn’t put much power through my arm or move it very quickly for a few strides due to the pain,” Goldsack wrote in an email. “By that time it was too late, a gap had opened up. I was also hurting quite a bit at that point so I wasn’t able to close the group.”
Cockney said the pace in the A-final was especially slow from the start and probably ended up being the slowest heat of the day. That made timing more important. Cockney was still learning how to push the pace early without blowing up.
“I have led in a lot of [heats] and kind of got burned at the end,” Cockney said. “[I was] just trying to relax and let someone else lead and make moves in smart places and put myself in a spot to kind of come down to that last 100 meters and trust my legs.”
Perhaps just as importantly, Cockney trusted his skis and said they helped determine when to make his moves on the hard-packed course.
Best known for his distance results, McMurtry exploded out of the gate for his first-career NorAm qualifying win. He went on to nab second place for the sixth time in a NorAm race this season.
After winning the quarterfinal and placing second to Killick in the semifinal, McMurtry wrote in an email the final went as he’d hoped.
“I wanted to come down the last hill and into the stadium in second position and slingshot around to take the win,” he wrote. “This all went [according] to plan other than I was not able to get around Jess. He was pretty fast coming into the finish so I had to settle for second.”
For McMurtry, the result was a good start to the three-day mini tour, in which he is trying to secure his top spot in the NorAm standings. Kevin Sandau (AWCA) as the runner-up was eighth in Friday’s sprint behind B-final winner Matt Wylie (AWCA). Dudley Coulter (NDC Thunder Bay) was ninth and Pate Neumann (AWCA) finished 10th.
Competition resumes Saturday with the women’s 10 k and men’s 15 k freestyle interval starts.
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.