What do you get when you take a Norwegian Olympic skate-sprint champion, who’s won more than a dozen individual World Cups and the overall sprint title in 2004/2005, and make him the co-World Cup coach of a tight-knit group of Canadians?
That’s yet to be seen, but if you ask Tor-Arne Hetland, 40, who previously coached the Swiss sprint team the last four years, he likes their chances.
“Knock on wood, everything is for the moment fine,” Hetland said of the eight-person squad’s collective health. “We will see when we start racing if they have done the job good enough.”
This year’s Period 1 World Cup team includes World Cup staples Alex Harvey (third in the Overall World Cup last season), Devon Kershaw, Ivan Babikov and Lenny Valjas. Joining them are additional national-team members Graeme Killick (Development B-team), Jesse Cockney (Dev. B), Emily Nishikawa (Dev.), and Perianne Jones (Dev. B).
Period 1 includes four World Cup weekends starting this Saturday, Nov. 29, in Kuusamo, Finland, and extending through Dec. 20- 21 in La Clusaz, France (with Lillehammer Dec. 5-7 and Davos Dec. 13-14 in between).
According to Hetland, in charge of the World Cup team along with Canadian National Team Head Coach Justin Wadsworth (also with the team in Europe right now), all eight athletes — all of which went to the 2014 Olympics — will get some World Cup races in before Christmas.
Last weekend, the whole team kicked off the International Ski Federation (FIS) season in Gällivare, Sweden, with the sprinters participating in a classic sprint and the distance skiers doing a 10/15 k classic.
On Friday, Cockney, 25, placed 13th in a Norwegian Cup classic sprint out of more than 160 competitors, after taking third in his quarterfinal in a three-man photo finish for first. According to Cross Country Canada (CCC), the World Cup team did not have enough quota spots for him to compete in Saturday’s Kuusamo 1.4-kilometer classic sprint, which Harvey, Kershaw and Valjas are listed to start.
Last weekend, Harvey pulled off two podium performances in the team’s opening FIS races in Gällivare, placing second in the 1.4 k classic sprint and third in the 15 k classic. Jones won the 1.2 k women’s sprint, and Nishikawa was fourth in the 10 k classic the next day.
While the competition way up north in Sweden wasn’t quite as deep as farther south in Bruksvallarna and Beitostølen, the races were still good practice. Hetland didn’t put too much emphasis on them, focusing more on the rest of the season well beyond Kuusamo.
This time of year is always exciting, he said in a phone interview two weeks ago from Davos. The team convened in Gällivare on Nov. 17 and trained there until this Wednesday. As a competitive skier up until his retirement in 2009, Hetland remembered what the calm before the start of the season felt like.
“It’s a cool time and of course you start to feel and smell the winter,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it and the main [training] job is done, but now the real job is starting. I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully the athletes will bring out the best.”
Hetland’s been working with the team since May, when the World Cup team spent a little over a week on snow at the Sunshine Village ski area in Banff, Alberta. In the spring, summer and fall since, the team’s held camps in Bend, Ore., Stratton, Vt., Park City, Utah, and on Frozen Thunder at its home base in Canmore.
Harvey attended all but two of the camps at Sunshine and Frozen Thunder, working with his personal coach Louis Bouchard — a World Cup assistant coach — and recently skiing at Forêt Montmorency in Quebec.
“I don’t believe that it is possible to have better training conditions than we’ve had in the training camps,” Hetland said. “And also the training in Quebec and Canmore, it’s not possible to find better places than this.”
After post-Olympic budget cuts last spring, those were the kind of training-venue options Canada’s World Cup Team was left with. Instead of holding international camps in popular, snow-covered places like Austria, Italy or their usual August trip in New Zealand, the Canadians saved money and cut down on travel by staying in North America.
“It’s good that we haven’t been traveling so much because the athletes are away from home all winter,” Hetland observed. “Now they are ready to go [in] Europe and hopefully they will enjoy the timing with racing.”
In terms of goals or expectations, Hetland said they’re clear within the team.
“Every athlete has their own goals and Cross Country Canada have their goals and I have seen what the athletes have done in training,” he said. “I believe the athletes can do very well and if they do everything perfect then they will be hard to beat.”
That said, he acknowledged that other skiers around the world probably trained hard, too. But the difference for the Canadians this year is that they may have trained harder than usual.
“The training philosophy has changed noticeably this season with TA at the helm of the training plan,” Kershaw wrote in an email, referring to Hetland, who co-designed training regimens for Kershaw, Babikov and Valjas with the help of Wadsworth, the team’s coach for the last four years. “More hours all around and intervals were longer in time and shorter on rest.”
At the end of the season next April, Hetland said they’ll be able to see how different the training actually was compared to years past and whether it was beneficial.
“I think most of the training is similar with what they have done earlier, but of course with a new coach in the team then there [are] some new and different things,” he explained. “Maybe not big things … but maybe some small changes are made to be faster.”
The four World Cup Team members (Babikov, Kershaw, Harvey and Valjas) have individual aspirations much like they’ve each had in the past — with Babikov focusing on certain races and the Tour de Ski, Kershaw and Harvey as what Hetland called “all-around skiers,” looking to be competitive each weekend and contend for a top overall World Cup finish, and Valjas trying to get back to his top sprinting form after a health-and-injury-plagued last season.
“Then it’s [about] not [being] too greedy and not jump into too many races and be calm enough to train a little bit and do well also in World Championships,” Hetland said.
“It’s [about] not [being] too greedy and not jump into too many races and be calm enough to train a little bit.” — Tor-Arne Hetland on Canadian World Cup Team’s philosophy for 2014/2015 race season
According to CCC’s 2014/2015 national-team selection criteria, the main goal at World Championships is podium results, specifically at least two medals and a minimum of one top-12 individual result from each athlete.
“Because of the implications to CCC’s funding, medal potential athletes will be the primary focus,” the criteria states (page 14).
Selection events include 2014/2015 World Cups, NorAms and U23/Junior World Championships in early February. At the very least, Canada will select a minimum of two athletes per gender.
Asked whether there was any pressure regarding medals at World Championships (which will be held Feb. 18 to March 1 in Falun, Sweden), Hetland laughed.
“I think you can make a business plan and also make goals for the athletes, but for the athletes, it’s still [their goals] that is the most important and [they] are making the most pressure on themselves. They know if they do the job, then the results will come.”
For more on Canada’s World Cup Team, see the mini profiles below:
Big story: Finished 2013/2014 season on overall World Cup podium (in third) for first time in his career and first time since Kershaw did so in second in 2012/2013.
Also: Won skiathlon at 2014 World Cup Finals, a World Cup skate sprint in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, and the opening Tour de Ski stage (4.5 k skate prologue) in Oberhof, Germany. He was second in the TdS skate sprint two days later in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Posted best-individual Canadian finish at 2014 Olympics (17th in skiathlon)
So far: 2nd and 3rd in Gällivare FIS opener (classic sprint and 15 k classic, respectively)
Been working on: “Like previous years, I increased a bit the total volume and went back to a bit more capacity work,” Harvey wrote in an email. “The main thing is Louis and I built a plan for the next quadrennial. Every year will have a specific physiological energy system that we focus on leading to [the 2018 Olympics in] South Korea.”
World Champs target races: 30 k skiathlon and 50 k classic
Big story: Got engaged to Norway’s Kristin Størmer Steira in April in Nepal’s Himalayas.
Also: Placed second in the first stage of last year’s Tour de Ski, the 4.5 k skate prologue in Oberhof, Germany.
So far: 5th in first FIS race of season, Gällivare 15 k classic
Before Sweden: “I was in Norway for 8 days,” Kershaw explained. “It was great to hang out with the fiancé for a bit before things got going. Kristin is still injured and recovering from her fractured pelvis, so to have a little over a week after almost two months apart was super important and all around awesome for both of us. I won’t see her in Kuusamo either, so that’ll be the only time we’ll get together in November. It was nice — she’s taking her MBA, so was busy with school most days, but I was training twice (dryland) during the day, so it was all good.”
Pre-race feelings: “I’ve been feeling good lately and this whole season — but you know how xc skiing goes — you never know until you know. You know? Still, I’ve been confident and believed in what I’ve been doing which is so important. As for expectations — I expect nothing yet I’m trying to prepare for everything. Deep I know…”
World Champs targets: Individually, the 50 k classic, and as a team, the relay and team sprint
Big story: After a fourth-place finish at 2013 World Championships (in the 15 k skate), the 34-year-old Babikov will be hungry for medal in Falun
Also: Posted the third fastest time up Alpe Cermis, the final climb of the 2013/2014 Tour de Ski, to finish 15th overall
So far: 6th in Gällivare 15 k classic
World Champs targets: “Falun is pretty far ahead, haven’t started the World Cup season yet. :)” Babikov wrote. “But I’d look forward to the Duathlon [skiathlon] race and the team relay of course.”
Big story: The youngest guy on the four-man World Cup Team, the 26-year-old Valjas is their comeback kid. “Some things just don’t work out the way you planned,” Valjas explained in a blog post. “For me, last season should have been the best one of my life, the one I was training 4 years for. Instead, it was my worst year ever.”
After arthroscopic knee surgery in June 2013, he expected to be out for six weeks. Instead, it was five months. He got back to Europe last February, shortly before the Olympics, but caught a nasty cold and was quarantined from the athletes’ village in Sochi.
“This was the hardest year of my life so far,” Valjas continued. “… I am more determined than ever to train smart (I learned a lot about myself through all this), and race hard.”
Since May, he’s been back to normal training with the rest of the team.
“He will come into the season with two knees,” Hetland said with a laugh. “Both are working, and he’s getting a little bit tired of hearing people talking about his knee. He liked the time earlier better when everybody was talking about that he was strong. I think he has trained well and has done most of the training. … He’s been looking good so we will see when the season is starting and hopefully he can be improving during the season also.”
So far: 3rd in the qualifier and 4th in the Gällivare classic sprint. “I felt strong in the race, like my old fast self,” Valjas wrote in an email afterward. “I still have some tapering to do this week but I’m excited to race the Kuusamo course.”
Several have noted that Kuusamo’s tough climbing course is suited for him.
“Looking to get back into the points after missing the top 30 last year with my knee surgery,” he wrote.
World Champs targets: For the classic-sprint specialist, it’s gotta be the classic sprint
“He will come into the season with two knees.” — Hetland, about World Cup skier Lenny Valjas
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.