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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – In an alternate universe, Canadian cross-country ski star Alex Harvey would have been spending his Sunday evening in a CBC studio somewhere in Sochi, conducting interviews about his medal-winning effort in the 50-kilometer freestyle race earlier in the day.
But Harvey finished 19th after getting tripped up on another athlete’s ski pole, so instead, he and his teammates are heading to the gold-medal hockey game between Canada and Sweden, where Harvey hopes he’ll be able to put a lackluster Olympics out of his mind.
“It hasn’t been a good championships for us, in terms of luck,” he said after Sunday’s race. “So, we’re just going to forget this and move on.”
Harvey, 25, was the top Canadian in the 50 k, 46 seconds behind the Russian winner, Alexander Legkov, after losing the lead pack in the closing kilometers.
Harvey was one second and one place ahead of his teammate Ivan Babikov—significantly back from where the two men had aimed to finish.
Their results closed an Olympics for the Canadians that came far from fulfilling their goals.
Their pairing of Harvey and Devon Kershaw failed to advance out of the semifinal heats of the classic team sprint—an event the two had won the last time it was held at a major championships, in Norway in 2011.
And the men had other races derailed by skis that weren’t as fast as their competitors’, or didn’t provide enough grip.
“For the whole team, it has been a pretty tough two weeks,” said Babikov, 33. “We couldn’t bounce back from the misfortunes with the skis. We had amazing skis today, but it just didn’t go the way we wanted it to.”
There were a couple of bright spots in the race, however. Graeme Killick, 24, who was skiing in his first-ever Olympics here, placed a solid 28th, just a minute-and-a-half off the leaders.
And Jesse Cockney, 24, said he relished a last-second start in the 50 k that he only learned of on Saturday afternoon—while he was in the middle of a board game, The Settlers of Catan.
Cockney, whose specialty is shorter sprint events, finished 56th in the 50 k, 12 minutes off the winner; he beat just four other athletes.
His preparation hadn’t been exactly ideal—he’d done a hard workout Saturday, confident he wouldn’t have a start spot the next day. But then, he was subbed in at for Kershaw, who has been struggling with a cough and wanted to focus on World Cup racing in Finland next weekend, according to Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth.
“I’m just thrilled to have the start,” Cockney said afterwards. “I had a chance to feel the crowd, give a couple waves to the camera when I finished—I just had a great time.”
Add in the tickets to the gold-medal hockey game, and Cockney said: “It’s going to be the best day ever.”
Canada’s two top men were less enthusiastic.
Harvey had stayed in contact with the pack for the whole race up until the very end, when he tripped on a ski pole that had been broken by American Noah Hoffman.
He said he had saved energy by starting the uphills towards the front of the pack, drifting backwards as they climbed, then moving up again on the descents.
Harvey said he doubted he had the energy Sunday for a top-five placing.
“But I think a top-10 was pretty realistic—it would have been a good way to finish,” he said. “We had really good skis, and I felt really good.”
Babikov also stayed in the group for nearly the whole race, but said he struggled with cramping starting halfway through.
“You start climbing, and your legs just feel like blocks. Like cement, you know?” he said. “I just tried to keep my mind off the pain, and just keep skiing, but it’s really hard. It’s painful.”
Cramping can be debilitating for endurance athletes, and is often worse in warm weather. (Temperatures during Sunday’s sunny race were close to 50 degrees.)
Eating and drinking during a race can help stave off the cramps, but Babikov said he got them even though he’d consumed some sports gels during the race.
“You can’t do much,” he said.
—Chelsea Little and Alex Matthews contributed reporting.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.