With his ninth consecutive World Cup season in the bag, Devon Kershaw, 30, could finally put his feet up this spring and think about 2012/2013 – not that he necessarily wanted to.
It wasn’t easy reliving that fateful stumble down a flight of stairs in Bruksvallarna, Sweden, in which the Canadian national-team skier tore a ligament in his foot a weekend before the season started. Unable to run for several months, he taped the afflicted area around his ankle and pushed through every ski race – refusing to publically acknowledge it or use it as an excuse.
Things perked up about midseason (he placed eighth in two World Cup sprints in February and narrowly missed the World Championships team-sprint podium with teammate Alex Harvey in March), but ultimately, Kershaw finished farther back than he had hoped: 27th in the overall World Cup, compared to second in the world the year before. He ranked 42nd in distance events, his worst showing since 2007, but was better in sprints: 22nd, down from seventh in 2011/2012.
All too aware of his results, Kershaw needed answers and had a good idea where to find them.
“I’m a pretty big journaler,” he said on the phone from Davos, Switzerland, where he was getting acclimated earlier this month before a high-altitude camp in Val Senales, Italy. “But I haven’t taken much time going back to read what I write.”
Thumbing through his entries, Kershaw took a particularly close look at his thoughts on World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. He considered the team sprint the best race of his season, but the rest of his performances there “a disaster.”
“That was a big slap in the face,” he said. “When I got back in Canada in the spring, I met with [head coach] Justin [Wadsworth] a lot, went back to my journals, met with the sports psychologist. … I realized how poor of place I was in for many, many months and how my decision-making was horrible. I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
His musings weren’t limited to sports, but also included personal reflections.
“I wasn’t in a good place mentally,” he said. “I wasn’t sleeping great. With some of the things going on in my life, I shouldn’t have been racing as well as I was … There’s a lot that wasn’t going that well, but at the time I was just trying to stay so positive because you want to make the most of every day.”
By nature, Kershaw is an optimist. He’s been dating Kristin Størmer Steira, one of Norway’s best distance skiers, for more than a year and said she’s had a tremendous impact on him.
“I’ve been known to exaggerate a bit and make mountains out of molehills, and Kristin’s super, super grounded and a calming influence on me,” he said “As a person she’s got great, great perspective so it’s awesome to be around her.”
Glancing at his schedule this year, Kershaw felts a pang of the in-season blues. He had been doing this for a long time, often the same training camp after another, and now he had a girlfriend who lived thousands of miles away in Norway.
Steira, 32, visited him in Canmore, Alberta, in late July and trained with the Canadian women’s team through early August. Then, the couple parted ways, knowing they’d see each other in November. That didn’t sit well with Kershaw.
“I’m old; I’m 30 and that’s a bit too long,” he said. “It’s not the best way to be in a great frame of mind heading into the racing season when you’re missing someone that you really care about.”
Steira suggested he come to the Norwegian-national team camp in Val Senales in late October, then spend the rest of November with her in Norway. Reasoning he might as well ask, Kershaw contacted his former national-team coach, Steinar Mundal, who left Canada to coach the Norwegians in 2007. Mundal was open to it, Kershaw asked Wadsworth if he was, too.
A former U.S. Ski Team member who crossed borders and married Canadian Olympic gold medalist Beckie Scott, Wadsworth understood. He and Kershaw turned to Norwegian head coach Trond Nystad, who coached the U.S. team until 2006, to work out the specifics.
“I made sure for Trond to ask the boys if it’s OK if I’m there because, I don’t know, I don’t want to piss anyone off,” Kershaw said.
On his first full day in Val Senales – his first time on the glacier that soars more than 3,200 meters (10,000 feet) into the atmosphere – Kershaw tweeted, “First impressions … ? I don’t miiiiiiiiiinnnnnnddddd it. #feelsgoodtobeskiing.”
“I’ve been in the game for a long time so its nice to have something to look forward to, seeing Kristin was the main thing, and training in a different environment in the fall is something to look forward, too,” Kershaw explained on the phone.
From Oct. 20 to Nov. 6, he expected to see the Swedish national team there, along with the Swiss, and more than 50 Norwegians between the distance, sprint and U23 teams. More familiar with Norway’s sprinters than its distance skiers, Kershaw said he was invited to a couple workouts and would primarily train with the distance team.
“That’s [the] thing about being a little older, I’m not in high school and trying to bring my lunch tray to a table and say, ‘Hey, can I sit here?” Kershaw joked.
“I’m really not that concerned. I’m not there to rock any boats or do anything; I’m there do to my thing.”
For the last five or six days, Wadsworth planned to join Kershaw in Val Senales to make sure he stuck to his training regimen. The two received the Norwegians’ camp outline a couple months ago and planned accordingly to make sure it jived with Kershaw’s plan.
“It’ll be hard, but nothing groundbreaking,” Kershaw said. “The plan looks pretty similar to what I do back in Canada: skiing in the mornings … then, in the afternoons doing some runs or rollerskis.”
But most importantly, he’d be getting that skiing feeling back every day. That’s what Kershaw said he needs before his first races in late November at the World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland. He’ll stay with Steira at her home in Oslo, Norway, until then.
“I’m here ’til late March so it’s a long haul,” Kershaw said. “Packing up from Canada, it’s tough, [but] I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve spent five months in Europe before; what’s the difference with a couple extra weeks? My girlfriend is Norwegian and that’s important. A happy skier is a skier that usually races fast.”
As for how he’s feeling now, almost a year after he tripped in a pair of loosely tied sneakers and tore a ligament around his ankle, Kershaw said he’s in a much better place – physically and mentally. Last February, he said his foot wasn’t the sole reason for the sub-par start to his season.
“There were a lot of other factors, too,” Kershaw said.
Now, he feels more settled.
“My life’s a lot calmer,” he said. “I’ve taken care of a lot of things that were in flux the last couple years. You want to win every year and you want to win every season so when you have a little bit of a disappointing season, it’s not great, but we learned a lot and we’re a lot better at calculating what we can and can’t do. I tried to do a lot with not a lot of energy and it bit me in the ass.”
Leading up to Kershaw’s third Olympics – the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia – he’s excited and not entertaining retirement.
“I’ll continue to race through 2015,” he said. “This isn’t going to be a season where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s over.’ Moving forward, as long as I’m really enjoying what I’m doing and can wake up every day with a passion and excitement to do what I’m doing, that’s kind of what’s driven me through my career, then I’ll continue racing.”
Almost four years ago in Vancouver, B.C., Kershaw and Harvey placed fourth in the team sprint for the best Olympic finish by Canadian men. A year later, they won the same event at World Championships.
“I actually don’t feel much pressure,” Kershaw said of Sochi. “No one can put more pressure on myself than myself. Last year I piled on pressure on myself, and what did that get me? Nothing. Hopefully I’ve learned lessons.”
This time around, he said he’s better prepared and more realistic. “I hope to have some great races, but I’ll also have some miserably awful races, too. I’ll have some OK races, and that’s how most seasons look for most people.”
That’s where his “dorky” journals help him in pointing out trends, Kershaw said.
“It’s ski racing and I’m trying my best,” he explained.
That said, he wants an Olympic medal – and if he can’t capture one, he’ll be happy if any of his teammates do.
“No Canadian man has ever stepped on the podium and that sucks,” he said. “We’re better than that and the times is now. If it’s me, awesome. If it’s Alex, that’s just as good. … We really, really want to bring and Olympic medal back for Canada and I don’t care [which nordic events] it comes from.”
“Is this my last Olympics? I don’t know, we’ll have to see,” Kershaw added. “Predominately, I look at [last] season as horrendous, and if the season’s like that again, there’s a lot of other things I’d like to get done. … [But] our team is just so fun to be around. I love those guys like brothers.”
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.