FasterSkier’s Canadian Breakthroughs: Collin Cameron and Zina Kocher

FasterSkierApril 13, 2018
FasterSkier’s 2018 Canadian Breakthrough Skiers of the Year are Zina Kocher (l) and Collin Cameron. (Photos: Mario Walker & Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

With the 2017/2018 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to Canadian athletes in any disciplines who had a major breakthrough at some level of competition.

Previous categories: Junior Skiers of the Year | Collegiate Skiers of the Year | Biathletes of the Year| Para-Nordic Skiers of the Year | NoCo Skier of the Year


Collin Cameron, Canadian Para-Nordic Skiing

Four years ago, Collin Cameron didn’t really know what cross-country skiing was. At least, he didn’t know that it was a sport he could do.

“I did not even know paranordic was a thing, to be honest!” the Canadian wrote in an email last week. “At that time I was just starting to play sledge hockey provincially for our local team here in Sudbury, just for fun.”

But he since found a local group to try Para-Nordic, and was then recruited onto the Canadian Para-Nordic National Ski Team.

Canada’s Colin Cameron racing to bronze in the men’s 7.5 k sitting biathlon sprint at the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

In March, he became a multiple Paralympic medalist when he won bronze in both the 7.5 k and 15 k sitting biathlon competitions.

At the end of the Games, he picked up another bronze in the open relay, where he teamed up with Brian McKeever. In a four-leg relay, they were one of only two teams to enter with just two athletes, and each raced two different relay legs.

“Being a part of the open relay team with Brian, and his guides Graham [Nishikawa] and Russell [Kennedy], was something really special and I will never forget it,” Cameron wrote. “Getting my third Paralympic medal with those guys was pretty cool… just being a part of this amazing and successful team of athletes, techs, and coaches has to a favourite moment. Getting to see my teammate and travel roommate Mark Arendz finally earn his first gold medal was really, really awesome!”

Although he is fairly new to Para-Nordic sport, Cameron’s success wasn’t completely unanticipated. Last season, he won a World Cup race on the same terrain in PyeongChang.

“Going into the Games, I had one major goal of winning the sprint race I won at the test event the year before,” Cameron explained. “I had to settle for 4th, only 0.7 seconds off the podium. Aside from that single race, my other goal was to finish in the top 10 in all races I entered.”

As any athlete will tell you, an Olympic or Paralympic medal is a much different animal than getting on the podium at a World Cup race. And Cameron found that to be true, too, when he returned home to Canada.

“It’s been quite overwhelming to be honest,” he wrote. “I didn’t expect anything like the receptions I’ve received, and it’s really inspiring to see the way the community in both my hometowns have followed mine and the team’s success at the Games. I definitely could not have done this without the huge and overwhelming support from everyone here.”

His next goal is 2019 World Championships, which will be held in Prince George, British Columbia.

“I am very fortunate to be able to work with some of the best technical skiers and coaches in the world, that have greatly aided in the whole transition of making myself an endurance athlete…that being said there is still lots of work to do!”

Zina Kocher, Foothills Nordic

Yeah, Zina Kocher is 35. Yeah, she’s a three-time Olympian. But she did something brave this year.

The former biathlete, who had retired in 2016, decided to become a cross-country skier and try to make a fourth Canadian Olympic team. She had been thinking about giving it a go, and discussing with longtime coach Richard Boruta.

When Boruta died in a climbing accident in September, Kocher decided that even more than ever, she had to give it her best try, in his honor.

Zina Kocher racing at Olympic Trials at Mont Sainte Anne. (Photo: Mario Walker/NorAm MSA 2018 Facebook)

In some ways, things didn’t work out. She went to Olympic Trials in Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec, knowing that it was a long shot — the race formats were heavily skewed towards classic, something that Kocher hadn’t done competitively for years, even though she has long been one of the fastest skate skiers in the country.

She didn’t make the Olympics. And it might have ended there, but it didn’t.

“After the selection races, I felt settled, ready to go back to ‘retirement’ or back to my previous next phase and other life goals and stop following, let’s say, a set training plan,” Kocher wrote in an email last week “But then I thought it would be fun to race the NorAm in Red Deer [Alberta], since that’s where I’m from and where I started xc skiing many many years ago! I hadn’t raced there since I was in high school. And then I thought oh Nipika loppet, never done that, why not. And then decided last minute to go to Gatineau Loppet when my friend Kamila (my past coach Richard Boruta’s widow) said she was going and I should come.”

So, a season that had started with one goal — make the Olympics — went on.

At that point, Kocher was leading the NorAm series, and found out that as a result she had an automatic spot to race on the World Cup for the last competitions of the season: the Holmenkollen 30 k freestyle mass start in Oslo, Norway, and World Cup Finals in Falun, Sweden.

“Well, the Holmenkollen is legendary and an awesome opportunity,” she wrote.

Kocher had raced there many times before, as a biathlete. Doing so as a skier was a new experience.

“We had tons of fans cheering us on, pushing us up those big climbs!” she wrote. “I didn’t feel like I was in the best race shape that day, but I gave what I had for a 5 k pace that lasts for a torturous 30 k  … and my body went into some sort of shock post race, but that’s another story.”

Despite that, she was the top finisher among the other different Continental Cup leaders.

And then, on to Falun, where she had to do a classic World Cup race because it was part of a mini tour.

“One big thing I went though [this season] was facing a fear of being last,” she wrote. “That sounds a bit crazy to say, but I think it’s probably an honest statement for many athletes. No one wants to come last, but someone does! Printed in ink, on a computer screen, it’s there for all to see! … I was terrified of doing a 10 k mass start classic in Falun, and I knew I would probably be last from the start. I was. In the end, it wasn’t so terrifying and I made it to the finish line. Having accomplished it, felt pretty darn good even though it was a bit of a solo 10 k. The fans and coach Babs [Ivan Babikov] were incredible cheerleaders!”

Now, it’s back to retirement for Kocher. One of her top memories from the season was that Gatineau Loppet.

“After some contemplation today, I think my favourite moment was doing the 50 k Gatineau Loppet,” she wrote. “Not because I won (great too of course), but because it was a great atmosphere, and it was cool to do a race point-to-point and with a mass… and because I was with Kamila and her friend Lukas. Lukas was actually racing on Richard’s old skis, doing his first ski loppet (he raced both days). Kamila didn’t think she’d be able to do any racing this winter, so it was wonderful to see her do what she loves again, and she even won the overall (both days – skate & classic 50). It was a bit of an emotional weekend. And felt like a great Richard tribute weekend.”

Honorable Mention: Russell Kennedy, Team R.A.D. & Canadian Para-Nordic Skiing (guide)

Kennedy accomplished a rare feat this season by competing at both the 2018 Olympics and Paralympics.

“I’ve been on my own schedule this year because the Team R.A.D. is mostly younger athletes and … I have to do my own thing because I’m going for the Olympics,” Kennedy, last season’s overall NorAm winner, said at the beginning of the season. “So it actually works better for me to be training with Brian [McKeever] because he has similar goals as me.”

Canada’s Brian McKeever (r) and Russell Kennedy receiving their gold medals from the men’s visually impaired classic sprint at the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

As the NorAm winner, Kennedy started the season on the brutally competitive first period circuit of the FIS Cross Country World Cup. There, he had a top finish of 48th place in a skate sprint in Davos, Switzerland. It was only his second stint of European World Cups, after competing in Drammen and Oslo last winter.

Kennedy returned to Canada and secured his Olympic spot by winning the sprint qualifier at Mont Sainte Anne and placing second in the sprint final. Two weeks later, he picked up two second-place finishes in NorAms in Red Deer.

From there it was to the Olympics, where the 27 year old helped the Canadian relay team to ninth place, and as an individual finished 49th in the 50 k and 54th in the sprint.

Then it was the Paralympics, which had long been part of the season plan. Kennedy was one of two guides for visually-impaired skier Brian McKeever, and as such picked up a collection of Paralympic gold medals (along with Graham Nishikawa, McKeever’s other guide). It was the third straight Paralympics where McKeever went undefeated – he now has 13 gold medals.

“These sprint races are miserable,” McKeever said after crossing the line with Kennedy for gold in the sprint, according to a team press release. “They are so hard. The young guys are fast, and have natural snap. There is so much stress in sprint racing, and it goes all day long. I’m much more comfortable with the longer distances, but it was a great day for us. Russell carried the load for us today, and just thrilled we were able to cross the line first.”

“It is hard to describe the mental states I went though the past couple months,” Kennedy recently wrote on his blog. “From being told that I didn’t make the team to making the Olympic team, feeling like I was getting sick then coming back to some of the better races of my life… There were days I woke up and wondered if it was worth it and if the hard work would pay off or if I was just blowing money on something that I didnt have in me… When I fell in love with training though I knew I was doing the right thing. So fall in love with the process dreamers, when you do you will have all good days!”

Honorable Mention: Natalie Wilkie, Canadian Para-Nordic Skiing

Natalie Wilkie is just 17 years old, but she’s a Paralympic gold medalist.

In the final individual competition of the 2018 Paralympics, Wilkie topped the results sheet in the 7.5 k standing classic race – leading her teammate Emily Young onto the podium in the process. Wilkie was the gold medalist by just 1.6 seconds in an extremely exciting competition.

Canada’s Natalie Wilkie (r) finishing third, just 0.1 seconds behind Norway’s Vilde Nilsen (l) in second, for her first Paralympic medal in the women’s 1.5 k standing classic sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

“This is crazy awesome,” Wilkie said in a press release after the race. “I didn’t think this would happen at all. I’m only 17 and this is my first Paralympics… The difference today was double poling. I just kept telling myself to pretend I was elbowing my older brother.”

She has even inspired older members of the team, too, including 27-year-old Young, who was just a tenth of a second away from silver in that race.

“What would Natalie do?” she said in the same press release. “I just kept saying ‘What would Natalie be doing.'”

Earlier in the Games, Wilkie had won bronze in the sprint. And to close things out, she helped the Canadian mixed relay team – with Young, Chris Klebl, and Mark Arendz – to silver, the first relay medal the country had ever won at the Paralympics.

“What Mark, Chris and the girls did in that first relay was awesome,” McKeever, who teamed up with Cameron for a second relay medal later that same day, said in a press release.


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