The Canadians had some supreme memories to live up to Friday at the World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden.
A year ago at the same venue, Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw owned the 3.3-kilometer freestyle prologue, placing first and third, respectively. Kershaw went on to finish second overall in the World Cup and Harvey, at the age of 23, was sixth.
Never ones to sugarcoat disappointing performances or a sub-par season overall, the Canadians weren’t exactly expecting to repeat those results on the renovated course (for 2015 World Championships) this year. But they wouldn’t be happy with much less, either.
Facing a shortened 2.5 k freestyle prologue, modified because of safety concerns on the infamous Mörderbacken hill, the Canadian men set out to achieve some redemption.
Harvey had already shined at World Championships, becoming the first Canadian male to medal at that level with bronze in the classic sprint; Lenny Valjas wrapped up the season with a career-best eighth in the World Cup sprint standings, and Kershaw notched a few season-best top 10s, but continuity and momentum were what they were looking for.
That’s what they thrived off last year, and that’s why they hoped they could end the season with.
Two top 30s on Friday, with Valjas placing 27th and Harvey finishing 30th, didn’t quite cut it. Valjas finished 14.2 seconds behind Norway’s Petter Northug, who won in 5:20.7. Harvey was another 0.6 seconds back, and Kershaw placed 32nd (+15.3).
NorAm leader Michael Somppi of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) came in 44th (+19.4), and World Cup veteran Ivan Babikov was last in 52nd (+30.2).
In the women’s 2.5 k, Emily Nishikawa (AWCA) was 41st, 37.6 seconds behind Norwegian winner Marit Bjørgen (who finished in 6:03.2). The lone women’s World Cup Team member competing, Dasha Gaiazova was 43rd (+43.6).
“It’s not the greatest day for our whole team,” Valjas said on the phone. “It’s hard when nobody’s really skiing to their potential. Usually when one guy’s doing well, he can help motivate the rest of us, but none of us are really having stellar days so we’re all just kind of bummed.”
Don’t get them wrong; the results weren’t bad. Harvey, Kershaw and company have been outside the top 30 before, with Kershaw most recently returning to form at the Holmenkollen 50 k freestyle mass start last Saturday in Oslo, Norway. Despite waxing struggles there, he pulled off 29th. Again, not a podium, but an improvement.
Heading into Friday’s prologue, the team tried to keep in mind that anything was possible.
“This was such a good race for us last year and we were trying to get revved up thinking about that success,” Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth told Cross Country Canada. “But the bodies just aren’t there right now.”
Last year, they were. Plus the Canadians had one success story upon another to feed off. After Harvey and Kershaw topped the prologue podium, Valjas placed third in the 15 k classic mass start at 2012 World Cup Finals.
“[Prologues] should be good for them, but it’s mostly about the shape, which for many reasons isn’t there now,” Wadsworth wrote in an email. “The guys tried hard, but just didn’t have it. Dasha didn’t have it from the get go…”
The 31st of 53 starters, Valjas sped up on the second half of the course down Mörderbacken, improving from 29th at the high point to 27th overall. Harvey skied consistently in 30th, and Kershaw rose from 41st at 1.2 k to 32nd.
“It felt more like a long sprint qualifier,” Valjas said. “Five and a half minutes? It ended pretty quick, but tomorrow’s [15 k classic mass start is] a good day for all of the guys so we’ll give it another shot and see where that leads us.”
Harvey was eager to forget Friday after what he wrote off as one of his worst prologue results.
“I just didn’t feel too good out there,” he wrote in an email. “When I wanted to open it a bit harder, near the top of the climb and on the last 500m at the bottom of the downhill, there was just nothing there … no extra power.”
Somppi had perhaps one of the most notable Canadian performances of the day, starting sixth and leading through 1.2 k. He ended up having the 15th fastest time at that checkpoint, but was disappointed about dropping to 44th.
“I think I skied the first climb well. I was certainly attacking, but was in control,” Somppi wrote. “It was when I received a split from Justin that I was leading out the few guys that started in front of me that I got excited. I just went for it up the big climb, hop skating as hard as I could.
“When I crested the hill right after the time check my legs had nothing left,” he added. “Definitely should have kept it in control a little more on the climb to save something for the downhill/stadium finish loop. … Lesson learned.”
Nishikawa was satisfied with her result. “I felt I skied well on the climbs, but my legs were super shaky on the downhills, so I skidded more than I would have liked,” she wrote.
According to several athletes, the Friday-morning course alteration, which cut off the top of Mörderbacken, didn’t affect much.
“I think the course change was good, although you still had a fair amount of speed at the big corner,” Nishikawa wrote. “It was fine for an individual race.”
“It was a weird change, it just made it really short,” Valjas said. “But I don’t know if that really helped or hurt us, we just really didn’t have the best day out there.”
On Friday night, the Canadians had a team meeting. There, Wadsworth asked his athletes “to stay focused and fight,” he explained.
“As long as each of them tries 100% and crosses the finish line having laid it out, then we should all be able to walk away with our heads up,” Wadsworth wrote. “It’s hard to do this time of year, especially when the shape isn’t there, but really what other option do we have – To go home? I gave them that option, but they are still here, so I hope everyone really pushes hard and goes for the best effort they have.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.