WHISTLER, B.C. – On a sunny day at Whistler Olympic Park, the men put the cap on an exciting first day of Canadian Nationals with a collision and crash in the final 50 metres of the 2×3 1-kilometre freestyle team sprint.
Four teams entered the final straight together with Phil Widmer of Canmore Nordic in the lead. At the start of the pine-bough lane markers with 50 metres to go, Widmer and Jess Cockney of Foothills Nordic chose the same lane. Widmer fell, leaving Cockney to defend his national team-sprint title with partner Brent McMurtry. Skiing for different Whitehorse teams, Knute Johnsgaard and Graham Nishikawa split around the fallen Widmer and lunged for the line.
A year after winning at Canadian Nationals in Quebec, McMurtry and Cockney claimed the team victory in 15:32.03. Johnsgaard finished in 15:33.00, taking silver with partner David Greer. Nishikawa was 0.31 seconds behind to take bronze with teammate Colin Abbott.
Widmer recovered to take fourth with Russell Kennedy, 11 seconds after Cockney. Raphaël Couturier (Skibec) led the second pack another 5 seconds back in fifth with teammate and Canadian National Team biathlete Marc-André Bédard.
When asked what made the difference, Cockney had a one-word answer: “Brent.”
“Brent skied so strong on his last leg and gave me such a huge lead,” Cockney added. “All the other guys were gassed after catching up to me.”
Johnsgaard had a similar view. “I felt really strong. I just didn’t quite have the finishing speed that Jess had in the final,” he said.
Cockney skied the last leg with a clear tactic in mind.
“I didn’t feel that strong so I held the lead as long as I could and made sure to tuck in behind Knute and Phil on the downhill into the last 300 metres,” he said. “With the headwind, it was good to tuck behind someone else.”
Nishikawa also took a strategic approach to the final. A big crash and a broken pole on his first lap of the semifinal put him well off the back of the pack. While Abbott was able to finish the job of rejoining the group, the energy they spent qualifying in second in the fastest heat would come back to haunt them.
In the final, the first-leg skiers went out hard on their third and final lap.
“Brent attacked and dragged Colin,” Greer said. “I got around a couple of people and ended up coming in second.”
“I finally caught the top three teams at the corner with a hundred to go and then they all started their sprint,” Nishikawa said.
Asked about the crash, he said, “It took a lot of energy to get there so I just had my head down trying to sprint. I saw some tangles and then I was in a lunge for second as well. It happened fast so I don’t really know what happened.”
Johnsgaard, who also was in a good position to see the collision, didn’t think any penalties would come of it. “I think it is part of racing,” he said.
The jury agreed and took no action.
The women’s 2×3 1-kilometer team sprint was also exciting, but without the finishing-straight fireworks. On the final lap, Foothills’ Marlis Kromm opened up a gap to send Heidi Widmer off with a sizable lead. Their finish time of 15:17.1 was nearly 10 seconds ahead of Hardwood’s Erin Tribe, who shared silver with Mary Thompson.
Zoe Roy and Michaela Howie teamed up for Rocky Mountain Racers and won the sprint for bronze. Roy finished just over a second ahead of biathlete Julia Ransom (Canmore), who partnered with Kathryn Stone.
Anne-Marie Comeau (Mont St. Anne) took over from Camille Pépin and quickly moved from fifth to second on the final leg , but a crash on the top hairpin put her back in fifth, six seconds out of the medals.
Kromm and Widmer were very happy with their result.
“We were junior challenge girls here [in Whistler at 2008 nationals] and won the relay here so it was really fun to come back,” Widmer said. “It’s a great start to the week and Mother Nature has been really great today.”
Both saw the race as tactical. “We wanted to start in control, ski the first couple of laps with the pack and try to save some energy and make our moves in the second half of the race,” Kromm said.
“It is a long week of racing at nationals,” Widmer added. “The team sprint is important, but you have to be aware of your energy for the rest of the week.”
The silver medalists said the race was “definitely tactical.”
“You had to hold on to a spot and pick when to move up and make sure you had something for that last lap,” Thompson said.
“It was really refreshing that the sun was shining and the skis were fast,” Tribe added. “It was a great day.”