What started out like any other cold turned into a season-ending downward spiral for Devon Kershaw, who, in the midst of what would have been his eighth World Championships, had to forgo racing and head to his fiancée’s home in Oslo, Norway, to recover.
A day after being diagnosed with mycoplasma pneumonia, commonly known as walking pneumonia, Kershaw found himself in the car last Saturday with his mom and fiancée Kristin Størmer Steira’s parents — driving from Falun, Sweden, to Oslo.
It all happened fairly fast, but the 32-year-old Canadian World Cup Team member couldn’t say he didn’t see it coming.
“The World Cup weekend in Östersund [Sweden], I came down with a really light cold, nothing that serious, just had a little bit of coughing and not feeling that good and a little bit of congestion,” Kershaw, a 2011 World Championships team-sprint champion with Alex Harvey, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
“It was a really wussy cold, but I wanted to be careful ahead of World Championships so I didn’t travel down with the team from Östersund to Falun,” he explained. “I stayed up in Östersund, but I just never got better and the races kept ticking by.”
At World Championships in Falun, Kershaw had planned to do the classic sprint, 30-kilometer skiathlon, 4 x 10 k relay, and 50 k classic mass start, as well as the team sprint if he raced well enough to make the two-man team.
But with each passing day and little improvement in his health, the races went on without him. Kershaw remained in Östersund until Sunday, Feb. 22, when he drove to Falun with three other teammates that had been fighting illness as well. While each of them got better and competed in the championships, he didn’t.
The morning of his trip to Falun, Kershaw started coughing uncontrollably. Unable to stay in Östersund, he traveled with his teammates to Falun. Burdened with a dry cough there, he felt his energy had improved.
“I think I started lying to myself because I really wanted to race the relay on Friday,” he reflected. “I was trying to ski, but I didn’t do any intensity or anything and it was just getting worse and worse. I wasn’t sleeping that well because every time I lied down I’d cough incessantly and we didn’t have a team doctor with us at that point.”
By the time he got there, Harvey’s mom, Canada’s volunteer doctor for beginning of World Championships, was already on her way fly back to Quebec.
“That week we didn’t have the team doctor with us,” Kershaw explained. “Thursday I tried skiing again and realized really fast that I wasn’t going to be able to do [the relay]. I was just feeling way too bad and coughing like crazy, couldn’t ski at all without having to stop and really cough, like lung-busting coughing.”
He arranged to meet with Norway’s team doctor, Knute Gabrielsen, and physiologist, Erland Hem, whom he described as an expert on lung function.
“They checked me out and did a bunch of tests and it turns out I had mycoplasma pneumonia,” Kershaw explained. “That ended my World Championships and ended the season actually. There’s only two weeks left of the season and I won’t be able to recover in time to do the 50 k in Holmenkollen [on March 14]. It’s too close. Especially a 50 k race, it’s not going to happen.”
He last raced Jan. 25 at the World Cup in Rybinsk, Russia, where he was 34th in the 30 k skiathlon and 36th in the 15 k freestyle on Jan. 23.
“I’m gutted,” he said. “My season ended before it started. Like every team, my training was really tailored towards the four [or] five races at the World Championships and I felt like I was in really good shape coming out of the training camp we did, and I have a lot of experience, too, so I trust that shape. … To not even get the chance to use it at all is really discouraging.”
“It’s like my car broke down on the way to the exam, but I live like far away and there’s no way I can get to the exam, and I got a zero.” — Devon Kershaw on having his season end with walking pneumonia
He started on antibiotics as soon as he was diagnosed, but as of Wednesday of this week, Kershaw said they didn’t seem to be working as well as he’d hoped. He wasn’t sleeping through the night and the inhalers he was on hadn’t cleared his lungs.
“I think the name of the game is really just patience,” he said.
Looking back on his season, essentially two months long, Kershaw described it as “bad,” with highlights at the World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland, where he placed 14th in the 15 k classic, and in the Tour de Ski freestyle sprint, when he qualified for the first time this season and finished 22nd. Over the next two stages of the Tour, he placed 21st in the 10 k classic and 25th in the 25 k freestyle pursuit.
“If you look through my history, my speed before Christmas … especially in sprint qualifiers, is usually pretty bad. I think I’ve only been in the final once before Christmas in my whole career,” he said. “So I wasn’t qualifying before Christmas, which was kind of normal but a bit frustrating and skating was a real problem…
“The Tour wasn’t spectacular by any stretch of the imagination; it started actually quite bad. Again the skating just wasn’t quite feeling that great,” he continued. “We had a major debacle with the skis in the 15 k [classic] mass start in Val di Fiemme the [second-to-last stage] of the Tour de Ski and that destroyed all our chances. Ivan [Babikov] and Alex and myself, we were minutes behind with like some of the worst skis I’ve ever had. That ended the Tour right there, which was tough. [Then leading up to] Rybinsk, I was training a ton and doing a lot of volume and my mind was on the World Championships so it didn’t really work out that well in Rybinsk, either…”
So that was it. For the last week, Kershaw said he was doing his best to pass the time, playing some guitar and trying to get his energy back. Once he started feeling better, he planned to finalize some wedding plans with Steira in Lofoten, a group of islands in northern Norway. The two have a wedding date set there for July 26.
He also planned to get an X-ray in a month to check on his recovery.
Meanwhile, Steira was taking classes toward her MBA degree and healing a foot injury she sustained on a run two days before the 30 k classic mass start at World Championships. That prevented the 33-year-old Norwegian from competing in what would have been her seventh World Championships. A fractured pelvis previously derailed the first half of Steira’s season.
“This week she’s trying to get some answers and in the meantime she’s going to school,” Kershaw said on Wednesday. “She’s had an MRI done, but she hasn’t heard anything yet. She’s pretty discouraged, too. She trains so hard. To come back from a fractured pelvis and even make the Norwegian [World Championships] team is ridiculous. I was really proud of her. When she called me and said, ‘I can’t kick my skis. My foot’s really sore,’ I’m just like, ‘What? Two days ago you were just so smiley and good and loving it and things were great.’ So she had some really bad luck, too.”
If Kershaw is feeling up to it and still in Oslo (not up north in Lofoten) next weekend, he explained he would watch the 30 and 50 k season-ending World Cup races in Holmenkollen.
“That might be wishful thinking, but we’ll just see how the body recovers,” he stated. “It’s always so hard to watch races that you want desperately to be competing in, but that’s life sometimes and you got to take your knocks on the chin and keep going.”
In late April, he said he’ll head back to Canada to hopefully do some ski touring before revving up for another season. If Steira’s foot injury isn’t too serious, she’ll likely join him in May in Canmore, Alberta.
“I would like to ski next year purely because you can’t go out like this,” Kershaw said. “I showed that I can still ski at an international level and I know that I can still do the training that allowed me to. I was in good shape before all this happened and I know that’s lip service now, but at the same time I do have a wealth of experience. It’s not like I was getting murdered-murdered on the World Cup every weekend.”
Next year, he’s looking forward to competing at 2016 World Cup Finals, dubbed the Tour du Canada, which will take place at five venues across Canada: Gatineau, Montréal, Québec City, Canmore, and Lake Louise.
“Racing at home like that is a pretty incredible opportunity,” Kershaw said. “In the short term, it’s hard mentally, you feel like you’re beat up. You did so much in preparation. I’ve already trained 800 hours already this year and all for what? At the end of the day you’re like, God damn. It’s like my car broke down on the way to the exam, but I live like far away and there’s no way I can get to the exam, and I got a zero. Not being able to sit down and write it is going to take some time to get over for sure, but I’m still keen and I think we have a good team.
“This year for sure, Alex has been a major standout. For the last two seasons, no questions, Alex has been keeping our team afloat because others, myself included, we haven’t delivered like we have in the past,” he added. “So it’s time for us to start pulling our weight a bit joining Alex on the international level. I’m still motivated, absolutely, but you want to do it properly, too. We’ll just have to see how long it takes to fully recover from this.”
- 2015 falun world championships
- 2015 World Championships
- 2016 Tour du Canada
- canadian world championships team
- Canadian World Cup Team
- Devon Kershaw
- Erland Hem
- Falun World Championships
- foot injury
- Kershaw/Steira wedding
- Knute Gabrielsen
- Kristin Stormer Steira
- mycoplasma pneumonia
- walking pneumonia
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.