KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — One by one, the four Canadian women in the 30-kilometer freestyle mass start last Saturday, their final race of the Olympics, walked away from the finish line and into the media corrals, assembling as a unit to be interviewed.
Without watching the race, one might’ve guessed they missed the relay; that’s how much of a team these women appeared to be.
Two were teammates on the Alberta World Cup Academy and Canadian Senior Development Team: Emily Nishikawa and Heidi Widmer, both in their first Olympics.
The other two were independent racers, Amanda Ammar, 28, of Team Ninja, and Brittany Webster, 26, of Team Mito.
All had finished within seven places of one another in the 30 k finale, with Webster notching the top result of 46th and Widmer, the youngest on the team at 22, placing 52nd. (On Friday, Widmer turned 23.)
Without the team’s three World Cup sprinters in Perianne Jones, Dasha Gaiazova and Chandra Crawford in the race, the group provided a glimpse of the future of Canadian women’s skiing.
Each had taken different roads to get there — Nishikawa and Widmer more traditionally through the Olympic Team Trials in January, and Ammar and Webster through an appeals process soon after the trials. The latter two, both former national-team members, were in their second Olympics since semi-retiring from the sport a few years ago. Ammar cited injuries and burnout; Webster had gone to the 2010 Vancouver Games but did not compete, then in 2011, decided her slip in results stemmed from a lack of enjoying the sport.
Ammar returned to racing in late 2011, Webster in 2012.
Come the next Winter Olympics, here they were, with two newcomers in Nishikawa, 24, and Widmer as teammates.
Together, the team had its best results of 11th in the classic team sprint with Jones and Gaiazova, 14th in the 4 x 5 k relay with Jones, Gaiazova, Nishikawa, and Webster, and a top individual result of Jones’ 23rd in the freestyle sprint, just ahead of Gaiazova in 25th.
The 30 k wasn’t a personal best for any of the Canadians, but it was a capstone in their respective careers.
Aside from her result of 49th, Ammar called it her most memorable part of the Sochi Games.
“I’m so proud of these girls — I mean 30 k is so hard,” she said, fighting tears while looking at her teammates. “I know we were all a little terrified, maybe, excited, but anyone who does this race is a hero in my eyes.”
Of her teammates, Ammar said she started the fastest and paid the price. Webster and Nishikawa passed her, and like Widmer, Ammar said that gave her motivation to push harder.
“A 30 k is just an abundance of walls and when you’re going to hit it you never know,” she said.
Webster said it was funny because the ended up within places of one another, but didn’t ski together. Only Ammar changed her skis, which she called “a mistake.”
“They got slower, but so did everyone else’s, I felt like,” Webster said.
Widmer was hoping the competitor she was skiing with would go in for a fresh pair.
“I was secretly like, ‘Please change, please change. OK, we’re not changing, we’re gonna do it,’” she recalled. “But my skis were fast, so I was like ‘If they change, I’ll change,’ but mine were faster so I was like … ‘Maybe I’ll just go chill.’ ”
Widmer went on to beat Croatia’s Vedrana Malec by nearly two seconds in what she called a “slow-motion sprint” to the finish. She had been skiing with Kazakhstan’s Tatyana Ossipova in front of her and Malec behind her for most of the race.
“The last 5 k, the Kazakh broke me and the [Croatian] chick passed me on the last uphill, and then I passed her back,” Widmer said. “I was like, ‘I will stay in front of her if it’s the last thing I do,’ so that was the sole victory.”
The four women laughed together, snapped a group photo and hung out under the sunny and warm skies. They were in no rush, despite being indescribably tired.
After finishing 33 seconds behind Webster in 47th, Nishikawa reflected on her first Olympics.
“From the start of my first race, the pursuit was an incredible feeling — ‘Oh my God, I’m an Olympian!’ ” Nishikawa said. “It was just really cool to realize, ‘Oh, I’m here,’ and I had a great race that day. I’ve had an incredible time here, so I’m incredibly fortunate and just feel incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to get three Olympic races in.”
“The two words that stick out right now are how proud I am and how inspired I am that you get to represent your country and then you get to race against the best in the world,” Widmer said. “That has inspired you to be that much better, come back stronger.”
Webster praised her teammates after spending three weeks with them at a hotel in the valley town of Rosa Khutor. “It’s been nice to become close to everyone and feel like … for the first time in my entire ski career, I feel we have a great team,” she said. “I’ve never really felt that before.”
The Post-Olympic Period
After the Games, some team members, like Gaiazova, went home.
According to Cross Country Canada, Widmer will join other NorAm leaders, including Andrea Dupont and Alysson Marshall, in the March World Cups, which start this weekend in Lahti, Finland. Jones is the lone woman on the Canadian World Cup team who will be racing there, and Cendrine Browne was also called up for the races based on her results at U23 World Championships.
While Gaiazova could not be reached for comment, she tweeted on Feb. 23, the day after the 30 k: “Really sad to be going home instead of the World Cup races in Scando. Such is life… @cccski good luck to those racing!!!”
Head coach Justin Wadsworth said Gaiazova wanted to leave after she was done racing at the Olympics.
“We did tell her that she’s not welcome on the rest of the World Cup,” he said. “She broke all our team policies and code of conduct.”
After Gaiazova placed 44th in the 10 k classic, her second of four races at the Olympics, Wadsworth said she had “been out partying” the night before.
“We had talked about it at our Olympic briefing, that there’s no partying at the Olympic Games [before your races are over],” Wadsworth said, adding that Cross Country Canada had the paperwork to back that contract up. “She’s appealing it.”
On Feb. 17, Crawford tweeted that she was on her way back to Canmore.
Since the beginning of the season, there have been indications that this would likely be the last Olympics for Jones, Gaiazova, and Crawford, although when each plans to retire has not been publicly laid out.
“I will definitely race ’til 2015 at World Champs in Falun,” Crawford told FasterSkier more than a year ago. “It’s just set in my mind as a for sure, but I’ll probably reevaluate after the Olympics the feasibility of another quadrennial.”
Gaiazova said she’d make a decision after Sochi.
“When I ski race, I put my 100-percent effort into it, and as long as I’m able to do that and as long as there’s desire and determination I think I would be thrilled and honored to continue,” she said around the same time. “And if my priorities shift and something else comes up or for whatever reason I’m not able to perform at 100 percent then, you know, you sort of reevaluate and see if you want to commit to more.”
— Seth Adams contributed reporting
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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.
February 28, 2014 at 5:30 pm
At this point it’s difficult to even see Chandra racing into next season… What was supposed to be a big comeback year for her, driven by her decision to train separately from the National Team, seems to have fallen far short of all expectations.
Right now it seems like the women’s team is a bit of a motley crue, and it hardly represents a true world cup level national team – no distance skiers?, no depth? The top women, Crawford, Gaiazova, and Jones, all have respectable sprint credentials, but not the kind that are going to inspire the next generation and motivate up and comers… And while it’s good to hear that the 30k girls have come together as a team and had a positive Olympic experience, as a nation, it’s hard to get excited about 46th place.
Good to see the NorAm leaders on the start list for Lahti this weekend, as well as top U23s. About time to start using the quota, just in time for the next quadrennial.
February 28, 2014 at 11:59 pm
The problems with the Canadian Women’s XC Team should have been straightened out along time ago. This mess has been dragging on for over 3 years. Far too much of the tail wagging the dog and skiers thinking that they deserve all the support but very little personal accountability. The team administration and coaching staff is to blame and must be held accountable. For Chandra to have consumed a massive amount of funding dollars on a highly questionable program with rapidly diminishing credentials is very disturbing. Most athletes can be credited with having the good sense to know, having honestly evaluated their commitment and potential, when to quit and make room on the team for a highly committed developing athlete.
Dasha is basically in the same boat and based on her actions in Sochi should simply be dismissed from the team. The coaching team has been terrible at identifying female skiers who can race longer than 1.5K. On the other hand an athlete like Andrea Dupont who had a top ten overall finish in the 90K, let me repeat that – 90K, classic Vasaloppet last year was an astounding result that seems to have gone completely unnoticed. She accomplished this with very limited distance training and the distance was 3 times the Olympic 30K. Lacking appropriate coaching intervention, she continues to focus on sprinting when she could probably become Canada’s best women’s distance skier by a long shot and a world level contender.
Congrats to the other girls who put down their best at the Olympics, I believe they are truly inspired and motivated.
March 1, 2014 at 12:16 am
This is shameful—the effort at these games by these ladies referenced above is about as low an effort by any women’s National Team in the history of the games—where CCC goes from here with these ladies for the future of ladies xc skiing internationally and domestically in Canada will be one hell of a job to put back together again. It will take a monumental piece of work and organization by CCC and who ever the coaching staff may be—if they can find anybody willing to take on the job.
I said 3 years ago when Dave Wood was replaced by the current coaches that it was soon apparent that the new coaches had lost control of the team. Well, it took 3 years to get to this situation—isn’t it interesting to see the pride being demonstrated now.
Gaiazova has the audacity to appeal her being removed from the team—-break the contract—go home is fair treatment.
Crawford skiing thru another Olympics—that is a joke—-she doesn’t have the money to support that effort—she was whimpering about the money she had to spend to get herself to Sochi. If she was to go, on there are some motivational factors that are required to deal with the training that she doesn’t have to get the job done.
All the rhetoric last year about being over trained, and that being why she had to leave the team—was just the opposite of what she was—she was drastically under trained and not at all prepared to ski even domestically let alone internationally this year. Her effort in the sprint was like a O2 deficit death march after about 200-300 meters of coming out of the start gate—she literally embarrassed herself from there to the finish. Such a sad finish to her career.
Enough said—-this sport is all about how you make it up the hills and right now this team and program has one hell of a Mt Everest to climb in the next 4 years.
Hope you ladies are ready to get into the harness because the days of old are long gone—the best of luck—you’ll need it.
March 1, 2014 at 10:03 pm
I don’t really understand what people expected from the Canadian women. They reached a peak a couple years ago as a unit, and now either haven’t really improved upon that or have gone south a bit. I don’t know if it’s coaching or the athletes or both, but the women’s team, and honestly you could say the team as a whole hasn’t had a great 2013 or 2014 season, apart from a couple podiums from Harvey, a TDS prologue podium from Kershaw and the Babikov 4th at World’s 15km last year. Sure, Babikov and Kershaw aren’t getting younger, but to they’ve kind of stalled a bit, especially Kershaw. He was a world beater two years ago, now he has a hard time getting into the top 50 at some world cups. Webster and Ammar got into the Olympics due to the Americans inability to gage the talent pool domestically. The US Ski team coaches, as well all know, didn’t take advantage of the 17 athlete quota they had for the Olympics, thus those open spots went to the Canadians. The biggest issue is that there really isn’t anything to shout about with the youngsters coming up. Some solid results, but nothing to party about, and the number of women racing at the Haywood NorAm’s is pretty scary.
March 2, 2014 at 3:16 pm
March 2, 2014 at 3:22 pm
I don’t disagree with you, but it is obvious CCC/NST is a lost and confused organization, how do they fix it? How does an organization that receives so much funding not have checks and balances along they way? Who actually holds them accountable? From my vague recollection 2 medals in 2006, 0 in 2010( but close) 0 in 2014 – no real development or at least not compared to the US who actually get athletes to Europe to race. While I think you can throw these girls under the bus, not sure they are the ones who deserve it? How does an organization lose such control of a program?
March 3, 2014 at 6:02 pm
I predicted when Dave Wood left that his influence would continue for another 1-2 years and then it woulod drastically drop off. Why? because Dave built his program on the Canadian coaching experiences from some 40-50 years and he know probably better than anyone how to use high altitude to peak. Judd was dropped into a very difficult situation when he was hired as a coach, his chances however may be used up now. We really need to take a new hold, no European coach has todate left any legacy in Canada and we must now build a new Canadian program with mostly Canadian staff.