Looking out at his athletes plugging along during a workout last fall, Mike Cavaliere of the Alberta World Cup Academy sat inside the team van and listened to his coaches.
A few years ago when Cavaliere started the Canadian national training centre in Canmore, Alberta, he and his staff recognized the lack of high-level female skiers. Back then, they resolved to work toward producing more, but at a training camp in Whistler, British Columbia, all eyes were on the men.
Inside the van, national team team psychologist Dr. Sharleen Hoar made the initial observation.
“Something she said really hit me hard,” Cavaliere said in a phone conversation from Canmore. “All the male coaches went out to watch the males ski and there was an equally good workout just 100 meters behind them and nobody’s paying attention.”
Then and there, Cavaliere had his eureka moment. If somebody took complete ownership in overseeing a women’s program, the females on that team would inevitably improve. They’d likely have a better experience and in turn, higher-quality workouts.
He decided that was the path the academy would take the following year and separated the program into men’s and women’s teams. Instead of 10 women and 10 men training under one head coach, as the academy had in years prior to last season, its new roster included two main coaches leading 12 women and 11 men.
According to Cavaliere, it was the first time a national training centre women’s team eclipsed a men’s in size. While athletes still had to make the team based on criteria, Cavaliere met apprehension when he wanted to break it up by gender.
“I was questioned at out ski team meeting,” he said. “They said, ‘What do you hope to accomplish?’ and I really couldn’t answer that question. I don’t know, but we’re gonna go here, and we’re gonna see how it works out, and at the end of the day, we’re going to have something to look at and evaluate and make better in the future.”
Head coach Chris Jeffries said the concept of retooling and improving was part of Cavaliere’s vision when he started the academy five years ago.
“One of the things that we have long talked about but haven’t always acted upon is that female athletes have different needs than male athletes,” Jeffries said, referring to physiology as one factor. “It’s always a challenge because programming generally comes from men because there’s more coaches than female coaches.”
For starters, they hired a female strength coach to complement the man they had in that department.
“We just thought it was really important for us to start to dedicate certain resources that would be a bit more focused on one gender and the other,” Jeffries said. “We have a very strong women’s team. I think the strength of the women in our program and the need that we see for developing more females at the top international level, it was like a no-brainer.”
National Team Changes
While Cavaliere figured out how to restructure his academy – assuming the position of men’s coach in addition to racing director, making Jeffries the women’s coach, and 2010 Olympians Stefan Kuhn and George Grey what he called “unisex” coaches – the higher ups at Cross Country Canada were playing around with similar ideas.
After its female World Cup athletes offered feedback during a retreat last fall, the national team coaches and staff reviewed the information in February and created a formal plan. The next month in Olso, Norway, Canadian coaches met with their three World Cup women – Perianne Jones, Chandra Crawford and Dasha Gaiazova– along with senior development team skiers Alysson Marshall and Emily Nishikawa to present the new format.
“We thought, it’s time to start a separate women’s team in conjunction with a men’s team,” said Canadian national team head coach Justin Wadsworth.
“We didn’t want to totally separate the teams, but we felt like they deserved their own coach and their own program and opportunities to train with both the Canadian women and the U.S. women.”
With former senior development team coach Eric de Nys heading up the women’s team and Wadsworth coaching the men, their World Cup athletes would train separately for the most part throughout the summer.
The women – which were confirmed as Jones and most likelyCrawford – would take advantage of their national team headquarters’ proximity to the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and train cohesively with athletes like Marshall and Nishikawa. According to Wadsworth, they would attend training camps in Alaska and Whitefish, Mont., inviting Marshall and Nishikawa to the former and joining the AWCA at the latter.
Torbjørn Karlsen, who coached Beckie Scott to Canada’s first Olympic gold in cross-country skiing in 2002, would serve as a special consultant to de Nys. Jones expected he would work remotely from the U.S. and join the team at certain camps.
“Someone coming in and looking at us once in a while can almost be more helpful,” Jones said. “They can see different things than the coaches see day in and day out.”
With at least one of the three women from last year opting out of the World Cup training plan (Dasha Gaiazova said she was exploring options at a national training centre this summer), Wadsworth stressed the importance of developing top-notch females in Canada. That’s why he put de Nys and Karlsen on the job.
“Eric and Torbjørn are the only two coaches that have ever coached North American women to gold medals at Olympics [in nordic skiing],” Wadsworth said, referring to Crawford’s sprint victory in 2006 and when his wife, Beckie, earned gold in the 5×5 k pursuit.
On the men’s World Cup team, Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Lenny Valjas will generally unite at camps, including trips to Hawaii and New Zealand. Scattered throughout the country, the three will be coached with the help of Louis Bouchard, Harvey’s personal coach at the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre in Québec.
Both teams planned to kick off the season with an on-snow and dryland camp in Bend, Ore., from May 16-28. There, the men and women will train separately as usual, but with the specific guidance of their newly appointed coaches and the added boost of others.
Still the head coach, Wadsworth moved his team’s camp up 10 days earlier than originally planned. He wanted his skiers, specifically the women, to work with the Americans and scheduled the rest of their summer camps generally around theirs.
“One difference in sports between men and women is the social aspect, and for the women, it’s a very strong element,” Wadsworth said. “We really want to address that and our national team is quite small. We want to make sure they have opportunities to train. That’s why we canned the camps in New Zealand [for the women last year] and sent them to Alaska, and that was a big success.”
While he set up rendezvous with the Americans in places like Park City, Utah, Wadsworth said it was equally important to create training opportunities at home.
“We can’t just have our women training with the U.S. and ignoring the younger athletes in Canada at the development level,” he said. “It’s really important that the tradeoff goes both ways for our women’s team.”
By officially including the AWCA in its summer plans, the national team created what both sides considered a “win-win” environment. The World Cup women would have training partners with when they were in Canmore, and the 12 academy females could regularly jump into workouts with Canada’s best.
Jones, for one, was excited.
“I went for a bike ride with the academy girls [Wednesday] morning and it was great,” she said. “It’s nice to be on the same schedule so that we can actually train together.”
Despite being next door to the academy, Jones said coordinating with its athletes was often frustrating before.
“Like, ‘I’m on a rest week and you’re doing intensity and volume!’ ” Jones recalled. “We were all doing the same thing but at different times. This will make it a lot easier.”
Cavaliere said the arrangement, which allows two of his development team skiers (Marshall and Nishikawa) to join national team camps and workouts in exchange for winter support when World Cup women are occasionally back in Canada, isn’t entirely different than before. Regardless, it created an unparalleled training group.
“Just as the older girls get to mentor some of the younger girls, this is an opportunity for Alysson and [Emily], even Heidi, Marlis, all those girls, who all have the same hopes and dreams, for them to be able to train beside Chandra or Dasha or Perianne,” he said. “It’s the logical step.”
With so many changes essentially going on around her, Marshall, 24, didn’t expect much to change. Cavaliere would continue to write her training plans and she would train mostly with the academy under the guidance of Jeffries, the AWCA head coach.
“I did two extra camps with the national team last year and that’ll probably work out to be the same this year with Park City and Alaska,” Marshall said. “I’m really excited about Alaska.”
Last year, that’s where the lasting bonds between the U.S. and Canadian women got started. Nearly 20 elite females and their coaches spent two weeks in Anchorage, Alaska, training on Eagle Glacier for the first “North American Women’s Training Alliance” camp. From that experience came a wealth of feedback.
“Alaska was great last year,” Jones said. “When there’s a group of 20, you know you can always find someone to train with or someone who’s going at your pace and doing what you’re doing.”
She noted that a similar scenario would take place in Bend, where the Canadian and U.S. Ski Teams would be joined by several other top-tier groups, including the Canadian biathletes and AWCA.
“It’s pretty awesome to have all the best women in North America to push each other,” Jones said. “When we do intensity, it’s for sure better competition than at a NorAm race because all the World Cup girls are there.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the camps, Jones said she was trying not to compare destinations with the men’s team’s. Her fiancé and national team wax technician, Joel Jaques, will be traveling to Hawaii and New Zealand with them.
“For sure it’s tough when I’m going to Alaska and they’re going to Hawaii,” she said with a laugh. “They’re kind of like different ends of the spectrum. I guess, first and foremost, I’m a ski racer so I need to do what’s best for ski racing, and for me, going to Alaska is definitely the smarter, better choice. At times it feels like they’re rubbing salt in the wounds, but I’ll get over it.”
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.