SOCHI, Russia — “Without a core group of friends like this, at the ripe old age of 31, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Devon Kershaw spoke for himself at the press conference held by the Canadian Ski Team in Sochi today, but you wouldn’t know it. Whether they’re leaning on each other as friends, or grabbing onto the coattails of the older racers and trying to hang on, the Canadians depend on one another.
“It’s called the World Cup circuit, but really it all happens in Europe and Scandinavia” said Alex Harvey, a 25 year old beginning his second Olympics. “We spend so much time on the road in hotel rooms – Christmas, New Year’s, and most people’s birthdays. Our teammates are more than just teammates, we’re a second family.”
“What some people don’t understand is that when we pack up in November, we don’t go home until late March or early April,” Kershaw added. “I spend close to 200 days on the road every single year. To share that with good friends, it’s hard to even describe how important that is for longevity and high performance.”
For the Olympic veterans, drawing on the experience of an Olympics at home – Canada’s best Olympic performance ever – has been invaluable.
“Canadians know so much more about the winter sports because of 2010,” said three-time Olympic veteran Chandra Crawford, 30. “We had all of these resources […] because of that big push to have the most successful Olympics ever, which was a big boost for our team. I feel really excited to be at my third games, and see the full circle of having been the rookie on the team and now getting to connect it to the next generation.”
Canada’s veteran skiers have certainly had their work cut out for them. From the late 1980’s until the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, Canada didn’t put a single man on the podium in a major international race.
“It was quite the drought,” said Kershaw of that time. “People would say, ‘oh, so you’re going to go to the Olympics and that will be fun, and then you’re going to go to school and do something else because no Canadian men can do well in cross country skiing.’ It took a lot of stubbornness to keep going. And self-belief. We’ve always had a really really great core group of men, and I’ve been really fortunate for that.”
“But it’s been a really inspiring ten years – wow, it’s amazing how fast it’s gone by,” he continued. “It took a lot of hard work and dedication and a group of really like-minded individuals together who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“Devon has [blazed a trail],” the Harvey said of his older teammate. “I’m really lucky because when I came onboard the team the team was already always in the top 30 – there were guys who got on the podium once or twice a year. So it was just natural. I could have a different approach even for my first World Cup. Rather than fighting for top 50, I was trying to be in the top 10. But mostly I think just mentally for me, the fact that George Grey, who is retired now, and Ivan [Babikov] and Devon have been on the podium a couple times before, I thought it was possible for me, also, to be on the podium, even though I was a first or second-year senior.”
“This is only my third day of Olympic experience,” said Heidi Widmer, 22, “but […] I have Chandra [Crawford] in the room and also Beckie Scott […] showing me the way, so I just have to do my best to keep up.”
For Canadians skiers Ivan Babikov and Dasha Gaiazova, these Olympics have extra meaning: both are Russian born, and veterans of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Babikov was born in Kozhva Komi Republic and competed for the Russian National Team in his first Olympics in 2006, gaining full Canadian citizenship in 2007. Gaiazova was born in Moscow, and immigrated to Montreal in 1999 with her family.
“I feel really special about this,” Babikov said. “Two Olympics in a row and both in my home countries. I don’t know if many athletes have done this before. Of course I’m really excited to be here. I’m enjoying every day of it.“
“This will be my third Olympic Games,” he continued, “and in terms of comparison, I just don’t think you can compare Olympic Games to each other. Every one is different and they have their own best sides and their down sides. But Vancouver was great, the greatest Olympic Games. Sochi, for now, I think all of us feel really welcome here and everything has been so great so far.”
“It is obviously really different to compete in Russia than in Canada,” Kershaw said of his own perspective. “But the Olympics in themselves are always a big deal, and when you get off the plane you always know that you’re at a big event. Those big giant rings are just slapping you in the face as you get out of the airport.”
Yet, even for an experienced international racer like Kershaw, the Canadians don’t miss a chance to learn from each other.
“I think it has been really really fun for me personally to share the journey to Russia with Ivan and Dasha,” he said. “Kind of getting the straight goods on how it’s going to go and everything. And also just seeing how excited they are. Having shared that home Olympics with them in Vancouver and then seeing them do it again now, it’s making it a really, really cool experience.”
As the Canadians work together to get the most out of these Sochi Olympics that their bodies can give, they know that they’ll have each other no matter how it comes out.
“You share in all the victories together, and we help each other through the defeats and the hard times together,” Kershaw said, speaking, it would seem, for the whole team.
— Chelsea Little contributed on-site reporting