Canada’s Olympic Cross Country Team: Who’s In, Who’s Close, and What Comes Next

Chelsea LittleSeptember 21, 2017
Alex Harvey (4) climbing in the classic leg of the Olympic 30 k skiathlon in 2014, where he placed 18th. Harvey and four other men have met Primary Qualification Criteria for the 2018 Olympics.

As athletes enter their final preparations for the Olympic season, some Canadian cross-country skiers have a pretty good idea that they’ll be heading to PyeongChang, South Korea, in February to compete.

That’s because they have already achieved nomination objectives that will put them on the final ranking list from which the team will be picked. If more than 12 athletes – the maximum team size – meet criteria, then a second selection process will proceed to pick only the top-ranked athletes.

“If you had too many people, you’ve got to rank them on their best results and the team could be full,” Cross Country Canada High Performance Director Tom Holland said in an interview. “But that’s not likely to happen.”

In other words: six men and two women can feel pretty safe that they are heading to PyeongChang.

Other details of the Olympic team selection process are still unpublished. The location, dates, and formats of the final Olympic Trials races are being discussed, but have not been finalized. Those competitions will be used to bring the roster up to 11 or 12 athletes – with a minimum of four athletes of each gender – if that isn’t accomplished on the World Cup.

“We have to do an amendment to this criteria for final qualifying in Canada, which will be in January,” Holland said. “That piece isn’t complete yet. That’s something I have to send out to the committee and work those details through… With the men we’ve almost met the max, and we could probably only take one more. Whereas with the women, we’ll probably taking at least five, [so] there’s at least three more spots for women.”

Who’s (Most Likely) In

Several athletes have already met the “Primary Qualifying Criteria”. That group is headlined by Alex Harvey, who won his first individual World Championships gold medal last season in the 50 k in Lahti, Finland.

There are several ways to meet the primary criteria, all at World Cup or World Championships races. All consider, for scoring, only the first four finishers from each country – for example, removing the fifth (or higher) Norwegian athlete on the results list and moving everyone else up accordingly. For purposes of brevity, this will be called “Olympic-style scoring” for the rest of this piece.

The men’s freestyle team sprint podium on Sunday, Jan. 15 in Toblach, Italy, with Canada’s Alex Harvey and Len Valjas (c) in first, Sweden’s Oskar Svensson and Karl-Johan Westberg in second (l), and Italy’s Federico Pellegrino and Dietmar Noeckler in third (r). (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

With that scoring metric, sprinters must achieve one top-6 result or two top-16 results to make the list. In distance races, athletes with one top-12 or two top-16 results, or two results with FIS points under 10, make the list. Members of a podium relay or team sprint effort will all make the list. And, in a special nod to the disciplines which will be contested at the Olympics, an athlete with a top-16 distance result and a top-16 classic sprint result will make the list.

Harvey meets most of those requirements individually. Thanks to Canada’s third-place relay in Ulricehamn, Sweden, Devon Kershaw, Knute Johnsgaard, and Len Valjas join him on the nomination list.

Of the group of four, Valjas is the only athlete other than Harvey who has also met the individual standards and would have qualified without the relay result (or a team sprint win with Harvey in Toblach, Italy), thanks to sprint results of 13th in Lillehammer, Norway; 14th in Davos, Switzerland; 16th in Val Mustair, Switzerland; 10th in Falun, Sweden; and fourth in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Jesse Cockney has also met the individual nomination standards by finishing 10th in World Cup sprints in both PyeongChang, South Korea, and Quebec City, Canada.

“So there’s [five] athletes that have met those criteria,” Holland said. “And then we move onto what’s called an ‘Alternate Qualifying Criteria A.’ In this criteria, they have to be three times in the top 30.”

Alternate A, or Next On The List

A number of athletes have met this next set of criteria.

Dahria Beatty finished 25th in the sprint in Davos, 26th in the 10 k mass start in La Clusaz, France, and 29th in the sprint in Otepaa, Estonia.

Dahria Beatty is currently atop the women’s Olympic qualification list with three top-30 World Cup results last season. (Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)

Graeme Killick finished 21st in the 30 k skate in Davos. He also had a few near-top-30’s which, with Olympic-style scoring, turn into top-30’s: 33rd in the 10 k mass start in Val Mustair, 32nd in the 15 k mass start in Val di Fiemme, Italy, and 32nd again in the same event in Quebec City.

And Emily Nishikawa did it with finishes of 39th in the Lillhammer 10 k, 34th in Davos, and 37th in the Quebec City mass start, all of which are top-30’s with Olympic-style scoring.

For these athletes, selection is not guaranteed. If more skiers meet the “Primary Qualifying Criteria” in December and January World Cups, they would get preference and those who only met “Alternate Qualifying Criteria” would get bumped down.

Holland doesn’t envision that happening, though.

“There’s nobody that skied at that level,” he said of the possibility that an athlete not already mentioned would pop a top-six or top-16 World Cup result in December. “If you haven’t done it once last year, it’s going to be hard to do it… But it’s not impossible.”

There are several athletes who are on their way to meeting the “Alternate Qualifying Criteria A,” leaving open the possibility that the list of athletes meeting those requirements would be long enough that it would have to be winnowed down by ranking athletes according to their best results.

Cendrine Browne finished 26th in the World Championships mass start 30 k. She also placed 35th in the 10 k skate in Ulricehamn, a result which turns into a top-30 with Olympic-style scoring.

Julien Locke placed 20th in the sprint in Quebec City, and Bob Thompson placed 30th.

(Thompson also placed 31st in PyeongChang, South Korea, a result which would be top-30 with Olympic-style scoring; several other Canadian athletes also finished in the top 30 that weekend. But their results won’t count towards Olympic qualification due to a depth-of-field calculation explained in a separate article.)

So the list of athletes meeting “Alternate Qualifying Criteria A” could grow.

“We have men that have top-30 World Cup sprints, so they could do it,” Holland said. “But I don’t expect on the women’s side [other than Browne] — we don’t have anybody that’s done any, so [for them] it’s going to be hard to do it three times.”

Access to Points Races

A fair number of athletes will have opportunities to work on qualifying criteria this winter, as Canada is planning to send a full team to Period I.

Graeme Killick used the Tour de Ski to hit Olympic qualification criteria. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

“We don’t want to take more than 12 [athletes],” Holland said. “That’s seems to be the magic number for us, because we know we can support that. So we are going to take at least four women and seven or eight men.”

That’s the biggest chance athletes will get to avoid a nerve-wracking trip to Olympic Trials. While the selection document states that the qualifying period goes through January 21, in reality all of the World Cup-based qualifying will be done by Christmas.

That is because the Canadian team only takes a small squad to the Tour de Ski, the first set of World Cups after Christmas. The selection criteria for 2017-2018 national team trips has not yet been posted on the CCC website, but in the 2016-2017 season, athletes had to achieve one top-12, two top-20s, or three top-30s in Period I in order to head to the Tour de Ski.

In other words, anyone objectively qualifying for the Tour de Ski will have met some Olympic nomination criteria already.

There is a way to reach the Tour without those top results – according to the criteria, athletes could be added to the team by discretion if they had scored World Cup points. In other words, for athletes with one or two top-30 finishes, it is up to coaching staff whether they would be brought along or not.

Killick competed in the Tour de Ski last season through this mechanism – he had a lone top-30 result in Period I. Then he collected two more Olympic-style scoring top-30’s at the Tour de Ski.

Those were the results that allowed Killick to meet the Olympic nomination criteria through “Alternative Qualifying Criteria A”, but this year, athletes in a similar position might not be so lucky.

First of all, the Olympic Trials races are likely to be scheduled at roughly the same time – “around January 6th to 10th,” Holland said. So athletes would have to choose whether to risk a trip to the Tour de Ski, versus closing things out at Olympic Trials.

And secondly, the Tour vs. Olympic Trials decision may not even be a choice. Holland indicated that if an athlete were close to qualifying but had not yet met the Tour de Ski standard – which could be very possible since last year’s Tour de Ski criteria specified World Cup points, not the adjusted, four-athletes-per-country scoring of the Olympic selection – they would not be offered the chance to finish things off in Europe.

“We’re not going to take a whole pile of people to the Tour de Ski to try to qualify,” Holland said. “It’s better to do it in Canada head to head.”

And so, although the selection document states that qualifying can be done through January 21st, Holland did not seem to consider the Tour de Ski or post-Tour World Cups in Dresden, Germany, and Planica, Slovenia, when discussing how athletes can qualify.

“By the 10th [of January] you want to have your team picked,” he said. “You want to have your logistics, ideally you want that whole team to go to the Seefeld World Cup [January 27-28], and move to PyeongChang and get them in their training mode for the Games.”

The Rest of the Process

That means that for at least a few woman and perhaps one or two men, it will come down to the Trials races that Holland says will be held at Mont Sainte Anne.

“We’re probably only looking for one man,” Holland said of the number of athletes that would be selected from those races. “We’ve had men who have scored World Cup points in sprint but not distance so odds are we’ll be looking for a sprinter. On the women’s side, it depends what happens on the World Cup. Cendrine Browne two out of three [top-30’s] so she could make that criteria in December. So on the women’s side it’s a little more open. I think we’re looking for both sprint and distance athletes, and if Cendrine makes it in December we’d only be looking at two women.”

After that, selected athletes will refocus and begin preparing for their Olympic experience.

“After the Tour de Ski, we’re going to skip the next two World Cup weekends,” Holland said of the team’s top athletes. “Then they’ll be training at altitude, probably in Livigno for the most part, and then they’ll go to the World Cup in Seefeld [Austria] with the whole Olympic team. The ones that come from Canada might just come over prior to Seefeld and spend some time in Davos [Switzerland], or something like that.”


Chelsea Little

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.

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