Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (Rocky Mountain Racers) didn’t have the best start to Saturday’s 15 kilometer skiathlon at Under-23 World Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The Canadian cross country skier started at the back of the mass start, and she didn’t feel great on her classic skis.
“I was pretty much last starting the race,” she said in a phone interview.
But oh, how things picked up from there. After a fast transition to skate skis after 7.5 k, Bouffard-Nesbitt felt better and better. She soon found herself skiing with a pack of four or five other women, and picked off competitors who were tiring. Around 11 k, her coach told her that she was in 16th.
“It was super motivating to hear that,” Bouffard-Nesbitt said. “So I knew that at that point, I was at the back of my little pack so even within my pack, if I could beat the rest of them that would leave me in a good position. It really helped in catching the girls in front of us.”
She attacked with about 1.5 k to go before the finish, and ended up 12th for the best international result of her career and the best finish for Canada so far this week at World Junior and U23 Championships.
Bouffard-Nesbitt’s time was 1:32.3 behind winner Nathalie Von Siebenthal of Switzerland, and just 3.1 seconds outside the top ten.
“Especially in the last kilometer, it’s kind of a blur,” the Canadian said. “I’m thinking back to it and I can’t remember who I passed and who passed me, and where I was. But I just knew that I had to go. That was it. That’s all I remember.”
Besides being thrilled with her result, Bouffard-Nesbitt believes she found another silver line. She said that in a previously-published version of Cross Country Canada’s selection criteria for senior World Championships in Falun, Sweden, later this month, a top-12 distance result at U23’s was listed as one possible way to qualify.
“They always make discretionary choices and I don’t know what they’ll do with that,” she said of making the cut. “It’s an option. I’m crossing my fingers – it’s not something that I had even been thinking about for this season. I’ve never raced a World Cup and so it wasn’t in my plans. But I’d be pretty stoked.”
Bouffard-Nesbitt has met the organization’s eligibility requirement of scoring lower than 75 FIS points in multiple races so far this season. No Canadian women meet the primary objective criteria for World Championships, of having finished in the top 12 in an individual World Cup event, being in the World Cup “Red Group”, or having an individual podium in the last two seasons.
The currently-posted National Team selection criteria state the U23 World Championships performances can be used for selection to the senior World Championships team, but don’t outline how. They do, however, refer that a top-12 performance at U23’s should earn an athlete placing on the Senior Development Team. And it does state that top-12 finishes at U23’s qualify athletes for the B-Tour to Finland this month.
“Our team release date is Feb.9,” Cross Country Canada High Performance Director Tom Holland wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “Olivia is certainly under consideration.”
So it’s unclear where she stands, but Bouffard-Nesbitt said she was sure she’d have an amazing time if she made the trip.
“I’ve never performed this well in my life,” she said of this week, where she also finished 17th in the 10 k freestyle and qualified 12th in the classic sprint. “I think the best thing it has done is to have given me confidence that I belong on the international stage. I’ve never raced this well, so the confidence is a big thing, and knowing that the girls I’m racing against aren’t superhuman, and that if I’m having a good race I can be right up there with them.”
Despite the strong results earlier this week, Bouffard-Nesbitt tried not to have expectations going into the skiathlon.
“I try not to go into races, especially at Worlds, with too many expectations,” she explained. “Especially because it kind of stresses me out personally. And I think that if you don’t go in with expectations other than trying to do your best, you can be happily surprised. I’ve been really happy with how I’ve approached the races mentally this week. Normally I go into races pretty anxious, but I’ve just been really excited all week to race.”
After the tough start in the classic section, she was able to ski more aggressively in the skate. She explained that she was working together with four other women, moving at a fast pace, and they eventually began to catch skiers who had excelled in the classic portion but were running out of gas.
“Halfway through the last lap of skate, I saw a big group of girls ahead of us who were all dying I think,” she said. “We were going at a pace I was able to maintain, and we were slowly catching them. When we actually caught them, that’s when I made my push. I thought, I have to go now, I have to go before the end, I should pass these girls now so they can’t latch on. So I went to the front of my little pack and pushed really hard at that part of the race. It just felt really good.”
It took a toll: by the finish she was exhausted. The top-12 nearly didn’t happen as Alisa Zhambalova of Russia came from behind and nearly passed the Canadian. Bouffard-Nesbitt held her off by 0.6 seconds.
“I actually wasn’t aware that she was behind me, and I only realized after the race was over that she was so close,” Bouffard-Nesbitt said, clearly still worried just thinking about it. “I’m really grateful that she did not get me before the line.”
This was the final day of competition at U23’s – World Junior Championships conclude on Sunday with relays – and Bouffard-Nesbitt says that World Championships selection is “in the hands of Cross Country Canada now.”
Regardless of where she travels next, it’s doubtful that she’ll forget this race.
“It was an amazing feeling,” she marveled. “I was just able to push it.”
Canadian teammate Cendrine Browne (CNEPH) finished 30th (+4:00.1) and Dahria Beatty (Alberta World Cup Academy) did not finish.
In the men’s 30 k skiathlon, Knute Johnsgaard (Yukon Elite Squad) led Canada in 32nd place (+3:49.7). Colin Ferrie (Blackjack), Scott Hill, (Thunder Bay NDC) and Raphael Couturier (CNEPH) followed in 44th, 45th, and 48th, respectively.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.