Heading into Sunday’s NorAm 30-kilometer classic pursuit in Cantley, Quebec, Jess Cockney knew he’d have to rely on some pretty smart skiing to get him through. The 23-year-old Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) skiers had more than half a dozen teammates to contend with, and he really wanted the Eastern Canadian Championships mini tour title.
Racing against guys who know your strengths and weaknesses is hard enough, but try outdueling them over a six-lap course. Traditionally known as a sprinter, Cockney started first, just 2 seconds ahead of distance specialist and AWCA teammate Graham Nishikawa. More of Academy men were close behind: Brent McMurtry started six seconds back in third and Michael Somppi went 12 seconds after Cockney in fourth.
Skiing in a pack for much of the race, all the top guns wanted the same thing and predicted what it would come down to. Cockney executed as planned, winning the sprint finish by 0.4 seconds over McMurtry and 0.8 ahead of Nishikawa in second and third, respectively. Somppi was 2.3 seconds off Cockney’s winning time of 1:20:14.9, and another teammate, Graeme Killick, skied the fastest 30 k in 1:20.00.3. Killick crossed the line in fifth, 1:14.4 after Cockney, and helped the AWCA sweep the top seven with Chris Hamilton in seventh (+1:52.1).
“It felt great today,” Cockney wrote in an email. Throughout the long weekend at Nakkertok Ski Club, he was fourth in Friday’s classic sprint and third in Saturday’s 15 k freestyle.
“I’m so happy to put together three days and win a mini tour for the first time,” he continued. “The tactics were pretty straightforward today as I just wanted to make sure to help the pace of the group and be in a good spot for the sprint finish. Next thing for me is some training in Canmore and a few weeks from now we’ll face again at Westerns.”
Canada’s next NorAm, the Western Canadian Championships will take place Feb. 22-24 at Wapiti Nordic in Grande Prairie, Alberta. The last mini-tour of the season, they’ll include skate sprints, 10/15 k classic interval starts and 15/30 k freestyle pursuits.
While McMurtry couldn’t be reached for comment, Nishikawa – who made the podium twice at Easterns in both distance events – described it as “a very tactical race as the course was on the easy side.”
Eleventh in the classic sprint and second in the 15 k, Nishikawa tried to push the pace at times, as did McMurtry (the third-fastest of the day), but neither had much luck. Ultimately, it came down to a sprint – which Cockney excelled at.
Somppi posted the second-fastest time for fourth overall in the mini tour, which was just short of the podium he had hoped for.
“I felt good skiing today and was able to close down the margin on the guys starting in front me pretty easily,” Somppi wrote in an email. “Unfortunately I crashed on an icy corner just before starting the 3rd lap and used up some energy closing down the 10 second gap that opened. … I’m happy I stayed with the guys to the end and had the 2nd fastest time for the day, but I’m a little disappointed.”
Fresh off a trip to U23 World Championships, Colin Abbott of the Yukon Elite Squad tied his a personal-best NorAm result in seventh and was the top U23.
“I felt relaxed, smooth and powerful for the whole race,” Abbott wrote. “I’m really excited about this result! it’s one of a handful of races that I’ve really been competitive with the best guys in Canada. … To be top 6 in both a sprint and 30k was beyond my expectations. In retrospect, my time in Europe for the U23 championships felt like a good training camp for this weekend.”
Raphaël Couturier of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) was the top junior in eighth. He and several other CNEPH juniors raced as seniors to garner more FIS points and secure better starting positions next year.
David Greer (YES) placed ninth, and Patrick-Stewart Jones (AWCA) made the top 10 for the second time this week after placing second in Friday’s sprint.
Nishikawa Tops Brennan for Women’s Title
In the women’s 15 k classic pursuit, Emily Nishikawa (AWCA/NST) came out on top despite battling a cold throughout the week. After starting in second, 14 seconds after mini-tour leader and teammate Kate Brennan, Nishikawa caught Brennan on the second of three laps with the help of Amanda Ammar (Canmore), who started nine seconds behind Nishikawa in third.
The three skied together for the final lap, and Nishikawa attacked on the second-to-last climb to finish first in 45:30.3, 5.5 seconds ahead of Brennan in second. Ammar was third (+6.8), but posted the fastest time for the open 15 k win.
“I am starting to feel better from my cold now, and I’m really happy with my result today!” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “I’m really excited to head to Europe now. I’m hoping to keep building momentum and have my best results at the world champs.”
While Brennan could not be reached for comment, Ammar described the weekend as “really draining” in the cold weather with temperatures around -10 Celsius on Sunday.
“I just tried to push as hard as I could without absolutely dying out there!” Ammar wrote. “I can’t remember the last time I was first on a Senior Noram, so today is a great day! I’m happy with the overall weekend, I tried to ski smart, and just be consistent. The first day was unreal though, I’m not known for my sprinting abilities, and I’m really pumped about making the A-Final, that was another first in many many years.”
Ammar was fifth in the classic sprint and fourth in Saturday’s 10 k skate.
“Em put an amazing surge on the last hill, and I fought to keep her in sight, while Kate snuck up beside me in the double pole finish,” she explained Sunday. “But I was still able to claim the fastest time of the day, and that’s all I really wanted.”
After placing 13th on Saturday, Alysson Marshall (AWCA/NST) made up some ground from starting seventh, improving to fourth (+1:21.3) with the fourth-fastest time.
“It was really nice to have a solid distance race. I still want to be back fighting for gold but I feel like my body is coming around,” she wrote. “The skate race yesterday was rough for me but I was happy to finish the weekend as well as I did as I’ve been fighting a cold all weekend.”
Zoe Roy (Rocky Mountain Racers) placed fifth (+2:15.1), and Cendrine Browne of CNEPH was the top overall U23 (another junior who raced as a senior) in sixth (+2:18.1).
“I am really, really happy. I never had a good result like this in a classic race,” Browne wrote. “Classic isn’t my strength but maybe it’s becoming it! My coaches told me to find someone to ski with: it was a hard course and if you skied alone, you would get tired. So I stuck with a pack of girls, repeating to myself over and over again: don’t lose them, stick with them. That’s what I managed to do and it really helped me to stay focused and to have a great result.”
Andrea Lee (NDC-Thunder Bay) placed seventh, Anne-Marie Comeau (CNEPH) finished ninth and Nakkertok’s own Alana Thomas notched her third top-10 of the weekend in 10th.
After starting fourth, 33 seconds behind Brennan, Brittany Webster (Highlands Trailblazers) did not finish because of illness.
“I came down with a bug,” she explained. “I felt pretty heavy and run down before I started today. Then in the warm up I started to feel dizzy and nauseous. Started the race and by 7.5 k I had to pull out- I felt just terrible. … Hopefully I won’t be sick for long. It’s going around though- there were 1/2 a dozen racers that came down with something. I’m optimistic some good rest will do the trick.”
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.