QUÉBEC CITY – From an athlete’s point of view, it was easy to get nervous Friday. Never mind that thousands of spectators lined the manmade World Cup course in front of Québec’s Parliament Building; skiers had to go head-to-head right off the bat with 12 to 13 international racers per semifinal.
The best ones had their name printed across their bibs. That’s how newcomers could really tell whom they were up against. To fight the nerves and do their best to perform, most skiers in their first World Cup or team sprint simply looked around. They were part of history with the first cross-country World Cup in Québec and the first city sprint in eastern North America. Moreover, they had achieved the goal of most rising skiers and made it to the World Cup.
“It’s a dream come true,” Stratton Mountain Skier Sophie Caldwell said. “I’ve always wanted to ski a World Cup so it’s pretty exciting. The other day [Alaska Pacific University coach] Erik Flora said it’s just like any other race except it’s run better.”
She laughed. Caldwell and U.S. Ski Team member Sadie Bjornsen didn’t make it past the first round and finished 14th overall, but Caldwell kept it in perspective.
“[I was] going from being one of the fastest [on the U.S. SuperTour] to probably definitely the underdog here, but it was nice because there wasn’t a lot of pressure, no expectations really,” Caldwell said. “I was able to somehow turn nerves into excitement.”
With a sizable Vermont crew cheering from the sidelines, Caldwell said she saw people she knew all the way around the course. At points along the barriers, people stood three deep.
“I’ve never seen this many people at a ski race,” said 17-year-old Maya MacIsaac-Jones of Rocky Mountain Racers.
As she and teammate Zoe Roy walked the outskirts of the course in the heart of Québec City, several French Canadians told them “bonne chance,” good luck.
“It’s the biggest race I’ve done,” said Roy, who learned she would race Friday’s team sprint (in addition to Saturday’s individual sprint) on Thursday while boarding a flight out of Calgary, Alberta.
“I was a little nervous to start, but I took a deep breath,” the Ontario native said. “It’s just very sweet to have so many people lining the course and a lot of them knew our names, too. It was cool. Canada’s got a lot of support out there.”
Québec native Alexis Turgeon, of the Pierre Harvey Training Centre at Mont Sainte-Anne 45 minutes north, was visibly brimming with excitement even after being eliminated with teammate Russell Kennedy (Alberta World Cup Academy). He had realistic expectations going in, but that didn’t keep him from studying the course almost daily on a printed map.
“I pretty much looked at it every day,” Turgeon said. He had been thinking about this since the announcement two summers ago that Québec would host its first World Cup.
“It’s crazy, my whole family was around the track, my little brother was screaming and my mom was there on the sideline,” he said. “I was racing in front of my girlfriend, … friends from Ottawa, from everywhere came. It’s just a perfect spot to race. The city’s beautiful; the track is perfect. On the first lap you just hear everybody screaming. It just makes you faster and push through the pain more.”
Both Turgeon, 19, and Kennedy, 21, had never raced a World Cup before, yet were fast enough in the Canmore NorAm qualifiers last weekend to make one of four Canadian teams for Friday’s event. They will also compete individually on Saturday.
“It’s hard because we never get to race with those guys,” he said of World Cup skiers. “That’s the best preparation we could have for tomorrow’s sprints, I think, seeing what speed you need to have. It’s not what you’re able to do, it’s what you need to do.”
“It was just fun to be there,” said Kennedy, a dual-citizen who trained with Far West in Truckee, Calif., as a junior before moving to Canmore two years ago. “I was excited.”
More experienced skiers like Reid Pletcher of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation also tried to approach the races with an appreciation for getting there in the first place. A year and a half after suffering a life-threatening head injury in a climbing accident, Pletcher, 24, smiled as he looked out at the course while sitting on the plow of a parked snowcat.
“I think I’m still on the mend, but it’s been a long journey; I had a hard time believing myself ever since that happened,” he said after placing 24th in his first World Cup team sprint with Sylvan Ellefson (Ski & Snowboard Club Vail/Team HomeGrown).
“I think me just being here proves that I can come back and that I’m in the mix,” Pletcher added. “[This is] really meaningful. I’m glad I’m here.”
Hearing his name screamed from the sidelines helped, too, although it was hard to hear everything – or really anything at times.
“I would hear the occasional screaming my name, and the rest was head down, pain cave,” he said. “As loud as it is here, it’s not sound, it’s not loud, it’s just hard.”
Becca Rorabaugh of APU said the crowd was what helped her and teammate Caitlin Gregg (Central Cross Country) finish 18th in Rorabaugh’s first World Cup team sprint.
“Having people the whole time and knowing that you have a teammate, it takes away from you’re like inter-talk when you’re like, ‘Oh, wow this hurts,’ ” Rorabaugh said. “It just kind of erases all that so you just go.”
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.