FasterSkier’s coverage of the 2013 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, is brought to you by the generous support of Fischer Sports.
VAL DI FIEMME, Italy – Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth could have used a number of clichés to describe what happened Thursday on the first day of FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. “It’s not over ’til it’s over,” and “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” come to mind.
But not long after watching one of his athletes, 24-year-old Alex Harvey, place third in the 1.5-kilometer classic sprint to become the first Canadian male to win an individual medal at World Championships, Wadsworth was almost speechless.
“It feels unbelievable, especially after this morning and what happened in qualifying, to get a medal here,” Wadsworth said after seven of eight Canadian starters failed to qualify for the heats in the men’s 1.5-kilometer and women’s 1.2 k classic sprints.
The only one who moved on, Harvey narrowly did so in 26th, one second ahead of 30th. He was 6.67 seconds off Russian Nikita Kruikov’s winning qualifying time of 3:29.75.
Quick to realize his mistakes – going easy up the first big climb and having too much energy at the finish – the Quebec native resolved to go harder in the quarterfinal. But he needed to tweak his skis to do so.
“I think our skis weren’t good in the beginning, like none of us qualified other than me, and the body felt better than 26th,” Harvey said. “On the flat especially, I was double poling and there was nothing, no glide, just fighting the kick, so the wax tech adjusted that and gave me retarded skis for the final.”
In his quarterfinal, Harvey positioned himself in third then struck late on the downhill straightaway into the stadium, comfortably beating Italy’s Fabio Pasini and Dmitriy Japarov of Russia, who were second and third in a photo finish. All three advanced to the semifinals, where Harvey went with a similar tactic and finished third, just 0.17 seconds behind Norway’s Petter Northug and Eirik Brandsdal, respectively.
Wadsworth said the entire team talked strategy before Thursday, and he had some tips after finding a lot of success there. In three recent editions of the Tour de Ski, the Canadian men’s team has racked up five podiums in Val di Fiemme.
Number one: don’t lead.
“[That’s] the last thing you want to do unless you feel like you really, really can make a gap and have good skis,” Wadsworth said.
At the same time, you’ve got to be close enough to catch the slingshot, but not too close so that you can actually gain on the person ahead of you and pass them with some speed.
“We really focused our tactical approach on the whole last downhill and the bump,” he said, referring to small hill over a tunnel into the stadium. “That was, we felt like the whole race.”
According to him, Harvey couldn’t have executed much better for the bronze, skiing in third up the last steep hill despite slipping. The lack of kick, especially in the final, was his own request, Harvey explained. He wanted fast skis for the finish.
“It’s good purchase for the ski outside the track,” Harvey added. “In the track would’ve been too much fighting and it’s so steep, you’re not gliding in the track anyways so I felt for me it was the best option.”
He proceeded to follow Kriukov and Sweden’s Emil Jönsson up and over the final bump, where Northug flew by him into second. In the stadium, Harvey caught the draft in fourth, then picked Kriukov’s lane to pass Jönsson while the Russian and Northug battled for first, which Kriukov held onto for the win.
Harvey picked up third – his second World Championships medal since winning the 2011 classic team sprint with Devon Kershaw in Oslo, Norway.
“Our goal is two medals and to get one on the first day, I mean, it’s fantastic,” Wadsworth said.
“The plan’s working good,” Harvey explained less than a week after placing 39th in a classic sprint at the Davos World Cup in Switzerland. “Davos was bad, but I knew the training’s been good in the last month and a half. I was confident in my shape. There was just a bit too much fatigue left [after training], and now, day by day, I’m feeling better and better.”
The event wasn’t exactly his forte or one he was most excited about at World Championships. The night before, Harvey said he was looking forward to the relay as well as the freestyle team sprint, if he got to race that two-person event. He’s essentially guaranteed himself a spot now.
Standing alongside the fence while Harvey wove through scores of international reporters, his mother high-fived coaches and eventually embraced her son.
A sports physician, Dr. Mireille Belzile had flown out as the team’s doctor for World Championships. Three weeks ago, she reviewed her son’s MRI results after he dislocated his shoulder in Sochi, Russia. He took a few days to recover, then trained at altitude for a week in Italy before traveling to Davos, where he had some less-than-stellar results outside the top 30. Now, here he was, back on top.
“I was surprised,” Belzile said. “It’s not his best event, individual sprint for him, it’s just a gift when he can make a medal in that distance so it’s good. Good beginning.”
From the onset, things looked a little grim for the Canadians. After Harvey squeaked by in 26th, one of the men’s sprint favorites Lenny Valjas placed 40th, 10.5 seconds out of first and about three seconds from qualifying. Devon Kershaw was 46th, nearly 13 seconds back from the leader, and Canada’s top domestic sprinter, Phil Widmer of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), was 49th (+13.85).
In their signature event, the two World Cup women didn’t fare much better. Dasha Gaiazova was 42nd, 15 seconds behind qualifier Finnish winner Mona-Liisa Malvalehto, and Perianne Jones placed 48th (+17.72). The NorAm’s leading sprinter, Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) followed in 49th (+18.48) and distance specialist Emily Nishikawa (AWCA) was 57th (+22.87).
While Wadsworth hadn’t spoken to all his athletes shortly after the morning qualifier, he racked up their result to several “random” things.
“Everyone said the skis are fine,” he said. “Lenny had strep throat. He coughed something up on the first hill he said, like, big, hard, green thing, and Devon was up last night at 3 a.m. sick again.”
Kershaw said he checked in with Dr. Belzile on Thursday morning and she thought he might have gastritis. He planned to get test, but said he wasn’t sure what was in store for the rest of World Championships after hoping to race five of six events. He’s been having the problem since coming down with food poisoning in late January at the World Cup in La Clusaz, France. He had another episode two weeks later in Sochi, hindering him and Valjas in the team sprint.
“Every 10 days or so it comes back,” Kershaw said. “This is disgusting to talk about but last night, same thing, 3 a.m., woke up, went to the bathroom like three times, swollen stomach. I don’t know what’s going on but it’s still hanging on.”
As for Valjas, he was on the mend, but not at full strength Thursday after getting sick last weekend and taking four days off before Wednesday.
“I stayed positive and I wanted to obviously get into the heats and just keep my goal of getting to the final and onto the podium, but my body just didn’t agree today,” Valjas said. “I was missing a gear and coughing and choking up my phlegm … It was just not ideal. I felt OK, but my speed was just all-around slow. I tried hard and that’s all I can do.”
Widmer, 29, in his third World Championships has his best classic sprint result in 49th. Wadsworth said he looked good, but Widmer said it wasn’t what he was hoping for.
“I was happy until I got a little scrambly on the second hill,” Widmer explained. “The track was a little bit broken and I ended up running, didn’t ski it that well and I felt like I lost a lot of time there.”
Unsure whether it was his lack of speed or grippy skis, Widmer added that he’ll do an OPA Cup race in Switzerland before heading home to Canmore, Alberta.
“It was fun, for sure, would’ve liked to qualify, but it is what it is,” Widmer said.
Canada’s top two sprinters, Gaiazova and Jones weren’t sure what happened Thursday after their worst results of the season.
“[Warming up,] I thought I was skiing well and I was happy with my skis so nothing that really jumped out at me,” Gaiazova said. “I really didn’t expect I would ski so slow. I guess I have to regroup. There’s still lots of racing left.”
She and Jones are teaming up in Sunday’s team sprint.
“We have a good few days to turn things around and I think we definitely can,” Jones said. “I just felt like I was missing some snap and I don’t know exactly what happened but not enough energy I guess. … I did a lot of training after Russia and maybe I’m just not recovered enough from it.”
In her first World Championship, Dupont was pretty happy with her top 50 after placing 53rd in the classic sprint in Davos.
“I feel it’s a different game a little bit out here,” she said. “I was happier with today than Davos, for sure. I feel like today I didn’t mess around with skis as much maybe, just too many distractions in Davos and better course for me, but there’s definitely room for improvement.”
While she was unsure if she’d do a couple OPA races in the near future, Dupont said she was traveling to Sweden for the Vasaloppet on March 10.
“It’s a long course for me from a sprinter to do a 90 k, but there’s a lot of double poling so I’m definitely looking forward to that,” she said. “There’s like 16,000 people that enter it, so it should be pretty fun.”
And Nishikawa, who’s been fighting illness for the last month, said she was just happy to race on Thursday.
“I haven’t done much intensity lately because I’ve been sick so I think it was good to get out there and just have a hard effort,” she said. “This is my first World Championships; I just wanted to get a feel for it before the [15 k] pursuit on Saturday, just get a feel for the start and how it all works and the crowd and stuff like that.”
At the end of the day, Harvey’s medal proved most memorable, and he hoped it would lift his team.
“This is huge for our program,” he told Cross Country Canada in a press release. “I hope the team can build a lot of confidence from this for the rest of the championships.”
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.