(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Andrea Dupont.)
Every racer has their beef with one course or another. For Toronto native Brittany Webster, hers was right at home at Highlands Nordic in Duntroon, Ontario.
So much for home-course advantage.
Webster, 25, confronted her quasi-fears and attacked the women’s two-lap course on Sunday, winning in the NorAm 10-kilometer freestyle interval start in 31:44.1. Four years ago at the same venue just a short drive from her home, the Highlands Trailblazers skier finished second in the 10 k classic at Canadian Nationals. She went on to place sixth in the 30 k freestyle mass start – not exactly what she was looking for.
Webster wanted one thing on Sunday – a great race – and her hometown fans helped her achieve that.
“I’ve had some bad experiences even here at Highlands,” Webster said on the phone after winning the NorAm distance race and Senior World Championships trial by 23.4 seconds.
“For me it was [about] just being excited,” she continued. “I wanted to make sure I was just really excited to come here and see my family and see my club and just enjoy my whole time here instead of worrying about racing.”
The spectators, and moreover, all the volunteers calling her name, pulled her through the working course with a few hard sections and several flats. Down by 10 seconds to Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) and about a second behind Alana Thomas (Nakkertok) in third after the first lap, Webster focused on skiing conservatively and relaxed.
“It’s a tough course out there and the snow is soft,” Webster said of the warming conditions on a chilly -7 degree Celsius (19.4 Fahrenheit) day. “There’s a lot of girls that kind of faded away and I didn’t want to be one of those people.”
One of the last starters with all the splits she needed to fuel her, Webster gradually turned it on over the next 5 k, leading by some 20 seconds coming into the finish. Runner-up Zoe Roy (RMR) made up considerable ground on the second lap as well after skiing in fourth, 16.6 seconds behind Dupont.
Best known as a sprinter, Dupont finished third (+32.6) after winning Saturday’s classic sprint for her second-straight victory at the two-part trials. Dupont also won the NorAm classic sprint at Lappe Nordic in Thunder Bay, Ontario, earlier this month, which will likely secure her a trip to World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, at the end of February. A team-selection announcement is expected sometime on Monday.
“I am still a little shocked in my distance result,” Dupont wrote in an email on Monday. “Since the Quebec sprint in soft, deep snow I have been working on efficiency in these conditions. My goal for the interval start was to ski relaxed and technically well. I was able to ski relaxed and efficient for the first lap, but my technique fell apart a bit on the second lap.”
While she couldn’t explain it, Dupont explained she came into the weekend relaxed. With the World Championships team announcement looming, she was suddenly feeling more angst.
“It is funny because now I am nervous,” she wrote. “I have done everything in my power as a sprinter to meet the criteria. I am the fittest I have ever been and would be thrilled if given the opportunity to test myself in Europe. But at this point it is out of my hands.”
Webster’s win puts her in close contention with Emily Nishikawa (Alberta World Cup Academy/Senior Development Team) for a distance spot. Nishikawa won the preceding skiathlon at the Lappe Nordic trials, but did not race Sunday because of sickness.
“It was a great race for me,” Webster said after a solid all-around weekend, in which she placed seventh in the classic sprint after qualifying in fifth. “I hope this performance shows them that I’m back in shape again.”
At the skiathlon on Jan. 3 in Thunder Bay, Webster was fourth during which time she was recovering from the flu. “Now that I’m back on track, I’ll hopefully ski more consistently,” she said.
After feeling sick the night before and waking up with a cold, Nishikawa explained that not racing was a difficult decision to make.
“I knew I was sick but I really wanted to race today,” she wrote in an email. “So I went to the race site, and warming up I just knew I wasn’t feeling hundred percent and decided it would be best to play it safe.”
According to her coach, Mike Cavaliere, they reasoned racing was not worth the health risk.
“We will be applying to the selection committee since Emily has been a very dominant female skier this year,” he wrote in an email. “So we believe they will consider her for the World Championships.”
While her future is a little uncertain, her brother likely secured his. Graham Nishikawa (AWCA/NST) rolled to his second-straight distance victory at the World Championships trials, winning Sunday’s 15 k freestyle by 32.7 seconds in 40:29.7.
After the first of three laps, he had already built a 17.2-second lead. Teammate Michael Somppi skied in second, half a second ahead of another Academy/NST member Kevin Sandau. By the end of the second lap, the top three remained the same – but Nishikawa was up by more than 31 seconds.
“I was just trying to ski really smooth and technically well,” Nishikawa said. “I didn’t really know I was going up that fast, but then I caught Kevin Sandau on the second lap. I started to get some splits that I was doing well. I tried to keep driving it to the line.”
Sandau started 31.6 seconds ahead of Nishikawa, who went out last. That made catching Sandau a good sign. Sick after Thunder Bay, Nishikawa spent the last few weeks recovering and was a bit nervous about how he’d perform this weekend.
“After you come off sickness it’s either really good or really bad; I’m glad it was really good,” he said.
Without a definite word on whether he’ll make the Canadian World Championships team, Nishikawa tried not to think about it too much.
“I’m very optimistic that things will go well, but I try to win the race and that’s all I could’ve done,” he said.
Sandau finished second, 32.7 seconds back, and Somppi ended up third (+45.3). Starting 30 seconds apart, the two essentially skied parallel races and remained within a second of each other through the first two laps.
“I had tried to start aggressively to make some time early on in the race,” Sandau wrote in an email. “Don’t think I could have started much faster, and Graham had made about 17 seconds on the first lap. He caught me about 7km in and then I worked a bit with him to keep the pace quick.
“I’m happy with second, would of definitely liked to win, but Graham has been racing at another level this year,” he added. “So really happy to see him grab the win and punch a ticket to Italy.”
Second on the distance-rankings list to Nishikawa, Sandau didn’t expect to make the World Championships team.
“It is pretty clear they only have a spot for one at world champs, so I don’t think anything will come of these races in terms of a trip to Europe,” he said.
Overall, the second half of his season was going smoothly, he added. So no regrets.
Somppi also started hard, but didn’t feel as good as he did in Thunder Bay, where he won the 15 k freestyle. One of three events that weekend, the 15 k didn’t count as a World Championships qualifier.
By the end of Sunday’s race, Somppi wrote that he faded on what he considered a “deceivingly challenging” course with two long climbing sections in soft conditions.
“I didn’t actually realize Kevin and Graham were so close behind me until the final km, but I couldn’t have done much about it anyway,” Somppi wrote. “I pushed myself to the limit early in the race and was doing everything I could to hang on in the end.”
Ultimately, he was happy to be on the podium.
“It feels good to be challenging for podium results regularly this season and I hope to continue to find the podium in next weekend’s NorAm events,” Somppi wrote.
Brian McKeever of the Canadian Para-Nordic Ski Team placed fourth (+58.0) and Graeme Killick (AWCA/NST) was 1:10.5 out of first in fifth. Saturday’s sprint winner, Brent McMurtry (AWCA/NST) placed sixth (+1:16.0), Chris Hamilton (AWCA) was seventh (+2:14.8), Jesse Cockney (AWCA) eighth (+2:14.9), David Greer (Yukon Elite Squad) ninth (+2:24.3) and Dudley Coulter (NDC-Thunder Bay) 10th (+2:25.0).
In the women’s race, Amanda Ammar (Canmore) was 3.1 seconds off the podium in fourth (+35.7), Thomas finished fifth (+36.6), Kate Brennan (AWCA) was sixth (+56.6), Alysson Marshall (AWCA/NST) seventh (+1:23.4), and Rebecca Reid (AWCA) eighth (+1:24.2). Alannah Maclean (NDC-Thunder Bay) was the top junior in ninth (+2:01.0) and teammate Erin Tribe was 10th (+2:13.3).
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.