(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Zeke Williams.)
It would’ve been so easy to dwell on the numbers, results and superficial measures of success. But racing is about so much more than that. Canada’s juniors, particularly its women, understood that.
Gathering for the last day of competition at the Junior World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, Canada’s 4 x 3.3 k women’s team huddled in on Sunday with its fifth member, Katherine Stewart-Jones, who didn’t race but had her face painted just like the others.
Then 18-year-old Frédérique Vézina of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre (CNEPH) gave a motivating speech, teammate Cendrine Browne explained in an email. They wanted to ski fast, especially with just 3.3 k apiece, and work as a team from the warmup to cooldown.
“We also made sure that Katherine, who wasn’t a part of the relay, was as much [a part of the team as] Maya [MacIsaac-Jones], Anne-Marie [Comeau], Frederique and I,” Browne wrote. “We also wanted to make our country proud.”
Pumped up and ready to go, the Canadians made a goal of besting their junior women’s relay finish from last year of ninth. After falling behind on the first leg, the women scrambled to stay ahead of last in the 14-team field. They ended up 13th, more than a minute ahead of Australia, but 4:36.4 behind the Swedish winners.
Yet at the end of the day, all four Canadian women reflected positively on the experience.
“I think that our team of Junior girls did a great job of working together (even when not all of us were racing), to create a very motivating and supportive environment!” MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers) wrote in an email. She sat out the two distance races after placing 36th in the classic sprint.
The opening classic leg, she described the start as very aggressive. The lanes quickly narrowed to two at the top of the first hill, bringing the pack to almost a halt.
“It was very important to push hard throughout the whole race, but to save some energy for the end,” MacIssac-Jones wrote. “I found that I pushed too hard right off the bat, and died towards the end of the race. Overall, I am happy with how this trip went. It was great to get some more experience racing in Europe, and our team was a lot of fun!”
In last through the first exchange, Comeau (CNEPH) worked hard to put her team in a position to catch others. Despite skiing the 12th-fastest leg, she came through the exchange in the same position, nearly 40 seconds behind Australia in 13th.
“I went the fastest that I could and it was very hard,” Comeau wrote. “After my 3,3km, I had no more energy, but I am happy.”
Browne proceeded to ski the ninth-fastest on the third leg, passing Australia and bringing the Canadians to 13th, about 12 seconds out of 12th.
“I thought: ‘Ok. I have to try and catch these girls in front.’ And that’s what I did,” Browne explained. “I felt a little tired but I think everyone feels tired at the end of a long championship. I felt also pretty motivated even though we were very far behind the other girls. I wanted to close the gap.”
At the final exchange, Vézina burst out of the tag zone, attempting to catch Ukraine. At the same time, she focused on skiing smooth.
“A 3.3k is really really short and intense so trying to push hard from the beginning and to keep up the pace was painful,” Vézina wrote. “The whole atmosphere of a team relay is quite amazing. With the Canadian team cheering out loud for us on the course, the atmosphere was really motivational and pumping so even with this result, today was a lot of fun.”
Pleased with her week overall, including 29th in the skiathlon, Vézina said the relay was what stood out most.
“Seeing all my teammates with the painted faces, Canadian flags and the official coach of our amazing team, Katherine Stewart-Jones, cheering like there is no tomorrow by the course was such inspiring and powerful!” she wrote. “We have such a great team atmosphere! This was by far the most memorable moment of the week.”
“Personally, I think the result is good, because we did all what we could and we gave our 100%,” wrote Comeau, who had an individual best of 34th in the skiathlon. “This was important.”
Browne had the most outstanding result of the week when she was 15th in the 5 k freestyle. “I am proud of myself,” she wrote Sunday. “This was my first time at a Worlds and I am very happy about my 15th place!!!”
In the men’s 4 x 5 k relay, Canada placed 15th of 19 teams, 3:20.3 back from the Russian winners.
Alexis Turgeon (CNEPH) scrambled and tagged off to Zeke Williams (Nakkertok) in 18th. According to Williams, Turgeon crashed on the downhill on his first lap. Williams brought the team to 15th, about 1 ½ minutes behind the leaders after the second leg,
“My leg went pretty well,” Williams wrote. “I felt horrible in the morning and debated not racing, but I decided to eventually and I was happy that I did; it was nice to catch and pass some people on my leg. Still disappointed to be so far back from the leaders in my leg, but I felt pretty good and it was fun to cheer on my teammates afterwards.”
David Palmer (Black Jack) and Raphaël Couturier (CNEPH) kept the team in 15th, with Couturier skiing the eighth-fastest anchor leg to close the gap on those ahead of them.
“It was a great experience racing today!” wrote Palmer, who’s individual best was 32nd in the 10 k freestyle. “Although shorter is usually not as good for me, I feel like I really pushed hard in this one. … Some of us had challenges, but I think every team member had a strong contribution.”
The team had been hoping to rival Canada’s 10th place in last year’s relay, Palmer explained. Even though they didn’t top it, he saw the silver lining.
“This week has overall been incredibly valuable as a learning experience, and I have a refreshed motivation and good racing spirit to bring back to Canada,” Palmer wrote. “This has also been a great networking opportunity, I’ve made many new connections in the cross country ski community. After being in Liberec I’m really impressed with how enthusiastic people are about skiing around here.”
Couturier notched a career-best 17th in the skiathlon, Turgeon placed 30th in the classic sprint, and Williams had an individual best of 46th in the sprint.
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.