NorAm Preview: All About Racing the Best in Canada, and the U.S.

Evan GirardDecember 19, 2014
American Brian Gregg (l) and Canadian Andy Shields of the Thunder Bay National Development Centre ski alongside each other in the 11 k classic individual start last weekend at the NorAm opener in Rossland, B.C. Gregg went on to place fifth and Shields was 12th. (Photo: FRESH cafe & apres/Facebook)
American Brian Gregg (l) and Canadian Andy Shields of the Thunder Bay National Development Centre ski alongside each other in the 11 k classic individual start last weekend at the NorAm opener in Rossland, B.C. Gregg went on to place fifth and Shields was 12th. (Photo: FRESH cafe & apres/Facebook)

While the opening weekend of the U.S. Super Tour marked the start of the North American race season in late November, Canada’s NorAm circuit kicked off last weekend in Rossland with two classic distance races, held despite challenging conditions and a lack of snow.

The second stop of the NorAm circuit was originally scheduled for Whistler this Friday and Saturday, but once again, warm weather and insufficient snow led the races to be moved further inland to Sovereign Lake in Vernon, British Columbia, better known as Silver Star.

This season, the NorAm will visit six venues, wrapping up at the Lappe Nordic Centre in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for Canadian Ski Nationals. The circuit attracts many of the most competitive Canadian and American domestic cross-country skiers, juniors and seniors alike, all trying to earn their stripes and log top results in an effort to get to Europe.

Canadians Alysson Marshall and Heidi Widmer, teammates at the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) in Canmore, Alberta, and on the national development team — also based in Canmore, started the winter off with strong results at the SuperTour opener in West Yellowstone, Mont. Marshall won the first sprint of the season, and Widmer placed second.

In the 10 k freestyle the next day, Widmer again broke into the top 10 with a ninth-place finish, and Marshall finished 17th.

Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA), Bob Thompson (Thunder Bay NDC), Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST D-team), and Andy Shields (AWCA) were among several Canadians racing in West Yellowstone. There, Shields made the sprint A-final, but finished sixth after breaking a pole. In the 15 k, Stewart-Jones led the Canadians in 17th. 

One week later, Stewart-Jones emerged as the winner of the classic sprint in Bozeman — the second SuperTour stop in Montana. Marshall placed fifth in the women’s A-final, and the next day in the 10 k classic mass start, she finished 14th, just ahead teammate Dahria Beatty (AWCA/NST U23) in 15th. In the men’s 15 k classic mass start, Somppi was the top Canadian man 13th.

Rossland’s opening NorAm races challenged organizers with difficult conditions, but quality racing still took place thanks to the hard work of the staff and volunteers. Warm weather and rain previously wreaked havoc on the snow, but below-freezing temperatures last weekend made for hard-packed, icy conditions for the two distance races. Leading up to the races, organizers ruled the course unsafe for a sprint and added another classic distance race to the schedule instead.

Yukon's Annah Hanthorn racing to third on the opening day of the 2014/2015 NorAm season, in the women's 7.5 k classic in Rossland, B.C.  (Photo: FRESH cafe & apres/Facebook)
Yukon’s Annah Hanthorn racing to third on the opening day of the 2014/2015 NorAm season, in the women’s 7.5 k classic in Rossland, B.C. (Photo: FRESH cafe & apres/Facebook)

Marshall swept both races, as did American Kris Freeman. Somppi hit the podium in third in last Saturday’s 11 k classic, and was again the top Canadian in fourth in the following 15 k classic. Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) placed second to Marshall in the 7.5 k sprint on Day 1, and junior Annah Hanthorn (Yukon Territory Ski Team) placed third, then second in the women’s 11 k on Day 2.

Following an Olympic year, there have been some shifts in the key Canadian players: Dasha Gaiazova, Amanda Ammar and Zoe Roy were three of the nation’s top women last season and retired this spring. Graham Nishikawa, the reigning overall men’s NorAm leader, has re-committed his focus to guiding Canadian Para-Nordic teammate Brian McKeever at International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Cups and 2015 World Championships.

Many of the top athletes are aiming for top results in order to qualify for later World Cups, U23 and Junior World Championships, and potentially senior World Championships in Falun, Sweden.

“Making the transition from domestic to World Cup racing is what everyone on the development team is trying to achieve, me included,” Somppi wrote in an email. “Experience is certainly helpful. The more international racing you do, the more comfortable you get with it and the better you perform.”

Women to Watch 

Alysson Marshall at the 2014 Canadian Eastern Championships in Cantley, Quebec. (Photo
Alysson Marshall at the last season’s Canadian Eastern Championships in Cantley, Quebec. (Photo: Canadian Eastern Championships)

Heidi Widmer (AWCA/NST D-team) – With last year’s overall NorAm cup winner Emily Nishikawa starting her season in Europe on the World Cup, Widmer is one favorite in the running for an overall NorAm title this season.

The 23-year-old Sochi Olympian already has a podium under her belt from West Yellowstone, where she also posted the fastest women’s qualifying time in the sprint. In late October before the season officially started, she qualified fourth in the Frozen Thunder classic sprint among U.S. Ski Team members and other top Canadians, and then edged Nishikawa in the distance skate to finish ninth.

Alysson Marshall (AWCA/NST D-team) — In six races so far this season, Marshall, 26, has won half of them. Marshall and Widmer have already been battling back and forth; neither has beaten the other in consecutive races this season (although Widmer did not race in Bozeman or Rossland). Marshall, 26, has been consistent in distance and sprinting, a critical asset in the run the overall NorAm title. Last season, she finished third in the NorAm standings behind Nishikawa and Widmer, respectively.

Dahria Beatty (AWCA/NST U23 team) – One of the youngest threats on the circuit, Beatty, 20, is a first-year senior who proved as early as the Frozen Thunder classic sprint that she’s able to ski with the best. There in October in Canmore, she qualified second behind former Olympian Perianne Jones.

Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) – After finishing fifth overall in the 2013/2014 NorAm (behind Ammar in fourth), this 34-year-old distance veteran is looking to lift herself to World Cup starts.

A sprint specialist, Dupont stressed in an email the importance of dominant qualifiers, while adding that racing well in the heats and advancing throughout each round is important as well. But more than anything else, she wants better qualifiers than last season.

“It isn’t enough to just get into the heats in Canada; you have to win the qualifier here if you want to have a chance of qualifying in Europe,” she explained.

Despite her sprinting preference and sickness early in the season, Dupont claimed second place in Rossland’s 7.5 k classic race.

Cendrine Brown (CNEPH/U23) – This 21-year-old member of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) in Quebec, made the junior-national team last season and competed at U23 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.

This year, after focusing on speed to improve her sprinting, Brown has already recorded fourth- and sixth-place finishes in Rossland, and will continue to shoot for another U23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The first three NorAm weekends serve as trials for Canada’s U23 and World Junior teams.

Brittany Webster (AWCA) — A two-time Olympian and veteran to high-level racing, Webster, 27, started her season off in 15th in the Bozeman classic sprint. She didn’t race in Rossland, but Webster has been busy this offseason; competing in her first off-road triathlon World Championships, where she won the amateur division.

Also this fall, she launched a crowd-funding campaign in September and has raised over $19,500 to help cover the cost of what she anticipates to be an expensive international race season.

Men to Watch

Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST D-team) racing in the Frozen Thunder classic sprint on Oct. 24. (Photo: Angus Cockney)
Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST D-team) racing in the Frozen Thunder classic sprint on Oct. 24. (Photo: Angus Cockney)

Michael Somppi (AWCA/NST D-team) – Third overall in the NorAm last season; Somppi, 26, is eager to build on his past performances. For now, he’s focused on superb racing before the end of December.

At this point in my ski career, I’m 26 and if I want a shot at being a World Cup competitor I need to be able to podium at home,” Somppi wrote in an email. “So every time I step on the start line I’m looking to finish on the podium.”

He was the top Canadian in both classic distance races in Rossland last weekend, claiming a bronze medal in the 11 k classic and finishing fourth in the 15 k.

Raphaël Couturier (CNEPH/U23) – In August, Couturier, 21, was the only Canadian not part of the World Cup Team invited to come down from Quebec to train with the team at a dryland camp in Stratton, Vt. He ranked fifth overall in the NorAm last year, and has started the season in seventh and 10th in Rossland.

Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA) – Wrapping up the 2013/2014 NorAm season in sixth overall, Stewart-Jones, 23, will be looking to improve his placing. Last winter, he posted some of his best results of the season at Canadian Olympic Team trials in Janaury (where he was third in the freestyle sprint and sixth in the 15 k classic), and was able to race at U23 World Championships as well as Scandinavian Cups in Latvia and Estonia.

In six races, he has two top 10’s: one win and an eighth-place finish in the 11 k classic last weekend.

Knute Johnsgaard (Independent) – Likely one of the biggest dark horses at the beginning of this season, Johnsgaard spends most of his training hours without company in the Yukon.

Despite his training partner leaving for school, having limited time with his coach, and developing his own training plan with the help of Graham Nishikawa, Johnsgaard is confident in his training, the work he has done and how it will translate on the tracks.

“I’m always really focused and motived to just get out and go by myself,” he explained. “It’s a little lonely sometimes but I don’t need anybody to ‘push’ me.”

Johnsgaard, 22, added he likes being off the radar and not having anyone knowing how his training is going. To that end, he joked that he’s won every single time trial he’s done this year. He’s hoping to continue this streak and claim victories at NorAm races.

Andy Shields (Thunder Bay NDC) – Last season, Shields finished ninth overall on the NorAm, yet his early season results indicate he’s had a successful summer of training that could put him closer to the top overall this time around. So far, the 23 year old has posted two sixth-place results: first in the West Yellowstone sprint and also in the 15 k classic last weekend.

Wild Cards

World Cup Academy teammates Kevin Sandau (NST D-team), Jesse Cockney (B-team), and Graeme Killick (B-team) were among the most competitive on the NorAm circuit last season, finishing second, fourth and seventh overall, respectively. Cockney and Killick earned Olympic spots for Sochi based on the mid-season NorAm races and all three have started their seasons on the World Cup in Europe.

In an email, Sandau described his excitement to race on the World Cup and some of his expectations: “Davos is a very unique race and I think it plays well with my strengths with it being a longer distance and a course with longer climbs than most other world cups,” the 26 year old wrote. After some tuneup FIS races in Switzerland earlier this month, he placed 70th in the 15 k classic last weekend in Davos.

“At the end of the day it really is the final result that counts, but more than anything I want to cross that line and just have that feeling of it being the perfect race,” he wrote.

Multiple-time Paralympic gold medalist, Brian McKeever races to 13th in the Rossland NorAm 11 k classic on Dec. 13. (Photo: FRESH cafe & apres/Facebook)
Multiple-time Paralympic gold medalist, Brian McKeever races to 13th in the Rossland NorAm 11 k classic on Dec. 13. (Photo: FRESH cafe & apres/Facebook)

Last year’s overall NorAm leader, Graham Nishikawa is backing away from domestic racing to fulfill his commitments to the Para-Nordic Tea, although he confirmed he would take part in one or two NorAms to prepare for IPC World Cups. Despite the races not being his focus, Nishikawa, 31, is a potential treat if he makes it to the start line.

His younger sister Emily matched him as the women’s overall NorAm winner last season. She is currently racing on the World Cup, where she posted a career-best 29th last weekend in Davos.

“The major difference between racing on the World Cup and domestically is the depth of the field,” Emily Nishikawa explained in an email. “If you lose a few seconds, you will lose a few places as well. This probably won’t happen when racing domestically because the field is just that much smaller.”

Annah Hanthorn and Maya MacIsaac-Jones, both 19-year-old juniors, finished third and fifth respectively in last weekend’s 7.5 k classic (and Hanthorn was second in the following 11 k classic). Then there’s always Perianne Jones, a perennial World Cup staple, who could make NorAm waves should she return to Canada.

Already, it’s shaping up to be another exciting year of racing. Some athletes are most competitive in distance races, others sprinting, and a myriad of possible contenders can take the victory on any given day. Stay tuned for NorAm updates via the Continental Cup blog:

2014/2015 NorAm Schedule 

  • Dec. 13-14: Rossland NorAm opener (and U23/Junior World Trials 1): 7.5/11 k classic & 11/15 k classic
  • Dec. 19-20: Vernon freestyle interval start & classic sprint at Sovereign Lake (U23/Junior World Trials 2)
  • Jan. 8-11: Duntroon 15/30 k skiathlon, classic sprint, 10/15 k freestyle (U23/Junior World Trials 3)
  • Jan. 15-18: Western Canadian Championships in Canmore: 10/10 k classic, freestyle sprint, classic mass start
  • Jan. 30-Feb. 1: Eastern Canadian Championships in Cantley: freestyle sprint/prologue, 10/15 k freestyle, 15/20 k classic mass start
  • March 14-21: Canadian Ski Nationals in Thunder Bay: freestyle team sprint, 5/10 k freestyle, 10/15 k classic, 30/50 k freestyle mass start

— Alex Kochon contributed reporting

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Evan Girard

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