Hundredths of a second continue to haunt Len Valjas. For the third time this season, the Canadian World Cup Team skier missed out on the top 30 needed to qualify for the World Cup heats in Saturday’s 1.2-kilometer freestyle sprint in Planica, Slovenia.
In three out of four skate sprints this season, Valjas, 27, has finished 31st. On Saturday, his qualifying time was 0.05 seconds behind 30th. At the last skate sprint in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, he was just 0.01 seconds out of qualifying, and in December in Davos, Switzerland, he was 0.04 seconds off the mark. Add all those times up and Valjas is left with one-tenth of a second separating him from World Cup points in a combined three races.
“I’m pretty disappointed to finish 31st for the 3rd time this season in skate sprints,” Valjas wrote in an email on Saturday after finishing 5.64 seconds off the top qualifying time set by Federico Pellegrino of Italy. Pellegrino went on to win the men’s final.
“There is nothing more frustrating because you know that you are in good shape and your day is being decided by a fraction of a second,” Valjas added.
Just over a week ago on Jan. 8, he raced in an OPA Cup skate sprint on the same course in Planica. He qualified in 19th and went on to place 10th.
While the goal had been to preview the course in advance “and try to get into the rounds this week,” according to Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth, “He did say last week that this just wan’t the course for him, not his style.”
Wadsworth was reached by phone Saturday morning while in Vancouver, British Columbia. He said Valjas reported the course required a lot of grinding one skate, or V2, which didn’t necessarily suit his strengths. Regardless, they discussed how he needed to finish.
“I tell him every time, ‘You need to throw the biggest lunge in at qualifying … that’s one-tenth of a second,’ ” Wadsworth said.
After Saturday’s race, Valjas explained that he “felt really good,” he wrote. “I know I would have had some fun in the heats. I’ve missed out on valuable points and it’s not an awesome feeling.”
MacIsaac-Jones, Beatty Close to Top 30
In the women’s 1.2 k qualifier, Canada had two just outside the top 30 with Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers) in 31st (+0.31) and Dahria Beatty in 32nd (+0.84). For both MacIsaac-Jones, of Rocky Mountain Racers, and Beatty, 21, of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), Saturday marked their individual career bests in their first World Cup of the season.
For MacIsaac-Jones, 20, it was her first international World Cup after competing in Canada’s World Cups in December 2012.
“It felt great to be racing in a World Cup again,” MacIsaac-Jones wrote in an email. “This race felt different than the Canmore World Cup because in 2012, I was competing in World Cups purely to have fun and learn from the experience. While the same can be said, in a sense, about today’s race, I started today with much higher expectations of myself.”
At the Planica OPA Cup sprint last week, she qualified in 28th and went on to place 20th. That race gave her confidence, she explained, “knowing that I could pace myself well and race the course efficiently. The snow today was a bit colder and more hard-packed than last weekend, which was great for me because it is the kind of snow I train on all the time in Canmore.”
“I was both shocked and very excited to finish 31st!” MacIsaac-Jones added. “Although I would have loved to race in the heats, my result today gives me confidence and belief in myself that I am capable of top-30 results on the World Cup circuit. It was a strong day for Canadian women, and hopefully Cross Country Canada will continue to bring more women on the World Cup circuit so that we have the opportunity to chase down some World Cup points.”
According to Wadsworth, all five women on the Canada’s current World Cup roster — MacIsaac-Jones, Beatty, Emily Nishikawa (who notched a sprint career best in 39th), Cendrine Browne (42nd), and Katherine Stewart-Jones (54th) — will continue onto the Nove Mesto World Cup in the Czech Republic next weekend. Valjas wrote that he will skip Nove Mesto to take “a short break” before the classic sprints in Drammen, Norway, and Stockholm, Sweden, in early February.
“It’s a great start, it’s exciting and that’s why we have them over [there],” Wadsworth said of two Canadian women coming so close to the points. “Stepping up on your first [World Cup] in Europe and being so close to qualifying is really what our program needs right now.”
For Beatty, a U23 Development Team member, this was her second European World Cup since placing 65th in the freestyle sprint last season in Lahti, Finland. At the OPA Cup last weekend, she qualified in 17th and placed 18th overall.
“I felt like I was climbing well today, but I didn’t take the last downhill corner very well and stumbled a little over the final bump into the stadium,” Beatty wrote on Saturday. “Coming into the finish I knew it was a better qualifier than last weekend and was hoping it would put me in the top 40.
“When I crossed the line in 31st and then later ended up 32nd I was extremely happy with the result but it was also a tiny bit bitter sweet,” she added. “When you are so close to the heats you always think about the little things that could have gotten me those 0.83 seconds. Overall it was a really good day and definitely my best qualifier of the year to date…”
On Sunday, she’ll start the team sprint with MacIsaac-Jones. AWCA Head Coach Chris Jeffries is leading the team in Slovenia, and in an email, he explained how he selected Canada’s lineup for the freestyle team sprint.
“To be honest, I kept it pretty simple with the team selections and based it completely on the results from the sprint today,” Jeffries wrote. “I kept the [OPA Cup] distance racing from last week in mind as well, but the results from today fell in line with the results at the OPA last weekend, so it made for a pretty easy decision without possible questions.”
MacIsaac-Jones and Beatty will make up one women’s team (“Canada I”), and Browne and Nishikawa will make up the other (“Canada II”). Both teams will start in the second semifinal.
“The only asterisk is Emily, since she is our female distance leader on the team and had the strongest results last week in all 3 races, despite being 3rd best today,” Jeffries continued. “But I’m really happy with Cendrine’s fitness right now, especially after her 9th place in the [OPA Cup] skate 10k last weekend. I feel as though both teams are quite even in strength, and after today’s results, am really excited to watch the girls fight it out heads up with the other teams.”
Nishikawa’s Career-Best Sprint
For Nishikawa, of Canada’s Senior Development Team, 39th was her best World Cup sprint result since placing 48th in the skate sprint at the Canmore World Cup in 2012. A week ago, she finished fourth in the OPA Cup sprint final — her first skate sprint of the season.
“I was happy with my race, and it was nice to have my best ever world cup sprint result,” Nishikawa, 26, wrote Saturday. “I’m still trying to figure out sprint qualifying, but I’m happy with how my fitness, speed and power have come along in the past year. It was way harder and faster today than it was a week ago in the OPA race, but it was really fun racing today. Especially exciting seeing some great results from my teammates Maya and Dahria.”
Joining Valjas in the men’s sprint, Knute Johnsgaard (AWCA/U23+ Development Team) finished 54th, Andy Shields (Thunder Bay National Development Centre) was 56th, and Jess Cockney (Senior Development Team) was 61st on Saturday.
For Johnsgaard and Shields, it was their first international World Cup. For Cockney, it was his fourth World Cup sprint of the season and fourth time outside the top 60.
“I’ve been feeling slow this season and I’ve found it hard to dig into my fitness and really push through the race days and today was very similar to how I’ve felt all year,” Cockney wrote in an email. “My goals going into these races has been to find that ability to push again and I’m disappointed I haven’t made it happen yet.
“In general I’ve been really unhappy with my sprinting,” he added. “I’ve worked hard all training season and prepared well in the winter and it’s for sure been the most disappointing season I’ve ever had.”
On Tuesday, the 26-year-old Cockney will head home to Canmore, which he explained he was “thrilled about” since he hasn’t been home more than three weeks since early July.
“I’ll focus on bringing my fitness back and try to get some volume training back home and doing some different types of intensities hoping to find that consistency that I’ve been missing,” he wrote. “I won’t compete in any world cups before the Ski Tour Canada but I don’t even think I have a spot in that tour with the level I’ve been skiing lately, hopefully I can show more fitness racing the NorAms in MSA [Mont Sainte-Anne] and Easterns.”
On Sunday, Johnsgaard and Valjas will team up as Canada I, and Cockney and Shields as Canada II.
“Len is our best sprinter, and Knute has had the strongest results in both sprint and distance, so that pairing was straightforward,” Jeffries explained.
“I am fired up to race tomorrow in the team sprint,” Valjas wrote. “Hopefully get some payback for today’s disappointment!”
- 1.2 k freestyle sprint
- Andy Shields
- cendrine browne
- Chris Jeffries
- Dahria Beatty
- Emily Nishikawa
- freestyle team sprint
- Jess Cockney
- Justin Wadsworth
- Katherine Stewart-Jones
- knute johnsgaard
- Len Valjas
- Maya MacIsaac-Jones
- OPA Cup
- Planica freestyle sprint
- Planica OPA Cup
- Planica World Cup
- Planica World Cup sprint
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.