Minutes before the NorAm freestyle interval starts on Saturday, three Alberta World Cup Academy coaches scrambled to get into position. In the women’s race as well as the men’s, they had several athletes starting one after another, many of which they knew would be competing for top spots.
Earlier that morning in the wax room, AWCA head coach Chris Jeffries jokingly told sprint coach Stefan Kuhn that the men’s team had not swept a distance podium this season.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen today,” Jeffries later said in a phone interview.
Some 6,500 kilometers their training centre in Canmore, Alberta, the AWCA athletes prepped their own skis at this weekend’s Eastern Canadian Championships mini tour in Cantley, Quebec.
Before the races, Jeffries knew it would be a challenge to give all his athletes splits, and they weren’t able to set up an iPad application to help them do so in time for the men’s 15 k.
Fortunately for them, it didn’t really matter. The coaches used stopwatches to measure the difference between Graeme Killick and Kevin Sandau, two of their athletes that started within a minute of each other.
From the start, the teammates skied head to head, clocking the exact same time on the first of three laps. Killick remained a second or two ahead for most of the race, and at the beginning of the last lap, the 22-year-old heard he was 4 seconds up on Sandau.
On the final climb, the margin was 2 seconds, pushing Killick to drive harder toward the finish. There, he edged Sandau by 0.5 seconds for his first NorAm victory of the season. After Killick won in 34:20.8, AWCA skier Pate Neumann finished third, 37.1 seconds behind.
With Neumann’s bronze, the Academy completed the sweep and did one better by placing four men in the top five. Jesse Cockney (AWCA) was fifth after Erik Carleton (Rocky Mountain Racers) in fourth.
Considering the AWCA coaches weren’t able to give much information to many of their racers, Jeffries said their results indicated the team was where it needed to be. In some ways, it was good that they didn’t have the technology working for them.
“They’re in good shape and they train hard, and this is the time of year where it pays off,” Jeffries said. “I think sometimes athletes rely too much on splits and it’s good to just go hammer it out.”
For Killick, all he needed to know was where Sandau was.
“Kevin’s been fighting for that spot to go over to Europe,” Killick said. “I didn’t know where [NorAm leader] Brent [McMurtry] was, but I knew it was Kevin and I that were fighting for the win so I was sort of pumped to be up there with him.”
Earlier in the season in Rossland, British Columbia, Killick was third in a NorAm 15 k freestyle mass start behind Sandau in first and McMurtry in second. On Saturday, McMurtry finished 11th for his first time outside the top 3 in a NorAm distance race this season.
While Killick said he was better known for his classic skiing, a lingering hip-flexor issue forced him to skate more in training. That translated into improving freestyle results.
“It’s really nice to have a good skate race like that going into U23’s,” Killick said of the under-23 world championships in Turkey at the end of the month.
“Even though I’ve been kind of injured, I’ve been bringing up my skating,” he added.
Both Killick and Sandau said they attacked the hills and flats equally as they tried to outdo each other.
“My legs were feeling good so I wanted to try to one skate the hills and get some good speed,” Sandau said. “I knew I was really tight with Killick for the majority of the race so I tried to get him at end, but I guess it didn’t work.”
Regardless, Sandau said the finish set him up well for Sunday’s 30 k classic pursuit. According to Zone4.ca, he will start 7 seconds behind Killick and 1:01 ahead of McMurtry, his main rival in the NorAm standings.
“The win would’ve been a lot better and it sucks to lose by [half] of a second, but that second place still does me good,” Sandau said. “It definitely helped me toward that regional spot.”
While his two teammates battled for first on Saturday, Neumann said he had no idea where he stood until after the race. Upon discovering he secured third by 0.9 seconds, he was excited about his season best and felt he could have given even more.
“It was nice to finally feel like my body is in race shape,” Neumann wrote in an email. “I was sick for a while after Christmas and it took a long time to bounce back. But I am happy to say I am finally back.”
Rounding out the top 10, David Greer (CNEPH) was sixth, Christopher Hamilton (NDC Thunder Bay) was seventh and Russell Kennedy (Canmore) was eighth. Raphael Couturier (Skibec) finished ninth and Harry Seaton (NDC Thunder Bay) was 10th.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.