Racing returned to Canada after a lost season, and there are plenty of storylines to follow.
This weekend, The Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre in Vernon, BC hosted a freestyle sprint and a classic 10/15-kilometer individual start. It sounds so familiar, a re-run of the annual NorAm kickoff with a new Western Canada Cup name.
Travel to the venue became more challenging when a November 13th ‘atmospheric river’ destroyed the two main highways between Vancouver and Vernon. The two alternate routes reopened fairly quickly, but only for commercial traffic. This created an unusual situation where athletes from Vancouver had to fly while athletes from Manitoba (two time zones east) were able to drive.
Another atmospheric river on December 1st brought record heat to the region, with a high of 16C in Vernon, well above the old 7C record. A timely cold snap saved the snow base, albeit with extremely fast glide for Thursday and Friday training. The sprint course was changed from the 2005 World Cup loop to a safer and slower variation.
Despite border restrictions, a number of U.S. teams attended. Dartmouth made their annual trip from Vermont, joined this time by Green Mountain Valley School and Stratton Mountain School (not the post-graduate SMS T2 team; they went to Duluth). Methow Valley Nordic Ski Education Foundation sent a much smaller team than usual, but Sugar Bowl Academy in California helped to make up the numbers (and took a few medals home too).
Further reaching by geography, Brazil and Portugal each had one woman racing, who were discussing plans to earn quota spots for the 2026 Olympics. Throw in the second ever Mexican National Championships and you have the makings of a great weekend.
Saturday Freestyle Sprint
Two themes dominated the sprint day: smiles and rust. With only a few athletes having raced the previous season (World U20/U23 and World Cup athletes), the excitement of racing again was visible everywhere.
The rust was also on display. Athletes regretted their layering choices. Enthusiasm led to extremely aggressive starts and ragged finishes. Many athletes forgot to allow time to collect timing chips on the way to the start. More forgot that it takes extra time to show the ‘fully vaccinated’ wristband to be eligible to start. Quite a few discovered that the wristband should not be on your watch arm, because the wristband is covered by a sleeve locked in place by the watch strap resulting in a longer delay. A wristband that is applied so that it can’t be transferred to another person also can’t be moved to the other wrist for day two. Lessons learned, or re-learned, for many skiers.
National Team Development Centre Thunder Bay (NDC TBay) athlete Julian Smith summed up the first day back for FasterSkier.
“Yeah, first day racing in Canada in a long time,” he said. “My last race was the American Birkebeiner in February 2020. So that’s pretty fun to put the bib on, really push the body and race with all our friends out here. The organizers here at the Nordic Center did a great job. And everyone was doing their job well and it ran really smoothly.”
Behind the scenes, there were also a few learning and re-learning moments for the 180 volunteers running the event.
Nonetheless, race morning dawned with a steady snowfall at -4C that provided great skiing and slower racing.
Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt was the top seed and became the first person to race for points in Canada in twenty months.
Pre-race speculation had a changing of the guard, with the young athletes expected to displace the known entities, and most athletes feeling confident in their preparation with very little evidence to back it up.
Bouffard-Nesbitt, who trains with Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), justified her #1 bib by winning the 1.3km qualifier in 2:59.69, 2.31 seconds ahead of Kimberly’s U20 Marielle Ackermann. Shaylynn Lowen (NDC TBay) skied to third (+6.54).
In the heats, Ackermann comfortably won each U20 round to take the win while Bouffard-Nesbitt showed her experience to dominate the senior heats.
Bouffard-Nesbitt, like most of the skiers, was visibly thrilled to be back on course.
“Oh, it was really good,” she said, before laughing. “It was rusty! It kind of felt like the first race back in two years. But every heat got progressively better. Quarter was better than the [qualification] and then better after that, so yeah, it was great.”
Sovereign’s own Hannah Mehain got stronger through the heats to take second place, ahead of Dartmouth’s Callie Young.
“I felt maybe not quite as snappy in the qualifiers,” Mehain told FasterSkier. “But it improved for the day and I just felt better and better .”
As the American east and Eastern Intercollegiate Skiing Association (EISA) faced COVID restrictions that limited race opportunities, Young was in a similar boat to the Canadian women in terms of lack of high-level racing opportunities. She also shared her feelings on the sprint day.
“I didn’t have my best qualifier, this is my second day at altitude,” Young said. “So it was kind of tough. But when I get into the heats, it’s always so fun and competitive.”
On the same course NDC TBay’s Smith was clearly the strongest of the men, winning the qualifier and all three heats. Xavier McKeever and Tom Stephen, qualifying 2nd and 6th, both chose to race up in senior, resulting in some hard fought heats. McKeever and Stephen are both members of the national team and train with Foothills Nordic Ski Club in Calgary.
“It was really fun,” said Smith after his race. “It was a blast for the body to do what it’s supposed to do, what I’ve been training it to do, so that was really fun.”
Smith was one of the few who answered the tactics question with something other than how much fun it was to be racing again.
“In the final, it kind of slowed down at about the first third. And I just tried to go when everyone else started to go and got a bit of a gap and in the end, was able to hold the lead. So that was really fun.”
In the end, the juniors found themselves enrolled in the Locke School of Heat Tactics, with Black Jack’s Julien Locke using guile to take second in the final after qualifying 7th.
AWCA’s Bob Thompson gapped NDC TBay’s Pierre Grall-Johnson on the climb to complete the podium.
World U20 relay silver medallist teammates McKeever, Rémi Drolet, and Stephen were 5th, 6th, and 7th, while Olivier Léveillé was away in Lillehammer. Though age and experience filled the podium, Grall-Johnson-Johnson was the first U23 athlete showing that the younger skiers are putting the pressure on.
10km/15km Classic Individual Start
The race of truth was also the race of discovery as many athletes re-discovered why pre-race routines exist. Sunday dawned clear and cold, rising to -11C for the men’s start at 9am. With yesterday’s new snow packed hard, there was no difficulty in finding grip with hard wax, but not everyone found the glide necessary on a 5km loop that is flat and fast by World Cup standards.
Rémi Drolet, just returned from racing Continental Cups in Muonio and Gällivare, skied a consistent race to take the win in 39:06.1, setting the fastest time in all three laps.
Stephen was second, 39.6 behind, moving up on the final lap.
“It was really good,” Stephen said. “It’s my first 15k back this season because I’ve been coming back from injury. And it went really well, it went just like I planned it, so really happy with it.”
Interval starts are more exciting than they used to be.
“Oh, it’s so fun,” Smith added. “I haven’t done something like this with this many people in a long time.”
AWCA’s Jack Carlyle skied a very strong first 5km lap before struggling with the cold after a mistake choosing baselayers, finishing third at 49.2 back.
“I made a rookie mistake and did not wear enough layers and froze halfway through the race,” Carlyle explained once he was warm again. “But I had great skis. And for the first bit of the race, I had great feelings. So yeah. Happier where the body is just need to remember not to make silly mistakes.”
McKeever recovered from a slower first lap, moving up from 7th to finish 4th at 1:06.8 behind.
“I was really lucky to start my season off in Europe, with a couple of victories in Finland and Sweden. And I was really happy with how they went, especially after last year being a really tough year for myself,” he said. “So overall, I’m pretty stoked to just be back at it.”
“The sprint yesterday, I think went really well. Today, I was just missing a bit of gas. I feel I didn’t feel awesome, awesome, but it’s just nice to get out there and race again in Canada. And we have more next weekend.”
Jasmine Drolet stepped up the sibling rivalry with a win in the 10km in 30:38.9. Now in her first year at Dartmouth, she made up for missing the sprint with a steady performance.
“Definitely a shock to the system,” she told FasterSkier. “But I’m glad to have gotten it over with and to be in racing season now.”
Back in Canada after her first semester in the Ivy League, she was adjusting to the changes.
“I was nervous before [the race]. Changing training, and changing coaches and everything, but now, I feel confident that my training this fall was good. The US is maybe a little bit different than Canada, but not very different. It’s a lot of work to juggle school and skiing full time, but it’s manageable.”
Bouffard-Nesbitt finished in second place, 41.4 back, with a fast first split.
Another full-time student, Mehain was third at 1:09.7, just holding off a fast finishing Beth Granstrom.
“I had a great day,” Mehain said. “It’s really fun to be out racing again, seeing everybody. I pushed fairly hard on that course for the classic 10k and had a lot of fun.”
Mexican National Championships
This is the second National Championship for Mexico, with the first held in Canmore at Canadian nationals in 2019. Starting a ski program in a country without snow or a skiing tradition is hard, even without a pandemic disrupting progress. This year, there were six men and one woman competing.
Jonathan Soto Moreno won both days, capping a year where he also earned a Beijing quota spot for Mexico at World Championships.
Karla Schleske Shepard, a former heptathlete who represented Mexico at the PanAm games, became the first ever female champion after learning to ski in February 2021.
December 11th and 12th has both the Eastern Canada Cup #1 at Nakkertok and the Western Canada Cup #2.
The major storm that threatened the first weekend at Sovereign did even more damage in Rossland, forcing Black Jack’s Organizing Committee to cancel. WCC #2 will now be held at the backup venue, Sovereign Lake, with details forthcoming.
With continued highway closures in BC and additional border restrictions related to the omicron variant, many travel plans will change. Both ECC #1 and WCC #2 may have smaller fields as US teams react to the increased friction at the border.
NDC TBay, based in arguably the east/west centre of the country, is headed for the eastern Canada Cups. This will allow some comparison between the two series and give ski fans something to debate during the Christmas break.
All will be made clear in Canmore on January 6th to 11th, when trials for OWG, U20/U23 World championships, and World Cup Period 4 will bring together the top athletes from the entire country.