The Canadian Prep Camp in Sovereign Lake and SilverStar, BC prior to the 2022 Beijing Olympics sounds like a nordic skier’s heaven.
A two-week ski vacation with 100 kilometres of perfectly groomed snow. A private room above a great coffee shop (pain au chocolate!) and next door to some great beer. January weather just below freezing with enough falling snow to make every day a hardwax day. Two weeks of what locals call superhero snow. A whole lot of sunshine.
The reality was a little different: COVID stress, travel uncertainty, and outside pressure combined to make this very much a work trip, not a vacation.
The camp, which ran from January 12th to 25th, included nine athletes, the high-performance manager plus two coaches, two wax techs, a massage therapist, and a cook.
The athletes included the majority of the 2022 Olympic Team: Katherine Stewart-Jones, Laura Leclair, Dahria Beatty, Tony Cyr, Olivier Léveillé, and Graham Ritchie. Alternates Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt and Rémi Drolet would officially join the team after the quota reallocation during the second week. Second alternate Russell Kennedy will not add to his Olympic CV and will instead go to his third Paralympics as a guide, supporting the well-decorated visually impaired athlete, Brian McKeever. The only Olympic team member not in attendance was Cendrine Browne, who chose to train in Canmore, while second alternate Jasmine Drolet returned to school at Dartmouth and earned her first collegiate wins.
World Cup coach Erik Bråten, Next Gen coach Eric de Nys, Team Lead and high performance manager Joel Jaques, techs Simon Boisvert and Félix-Antoine Vezina, massage therapist Stephen Waterreus, and Zoe the cook made up the support crew. Everyone except de Nys and Zoe are going to Beijing.
When this writer asked for last names, the response was always, “Zoe? You know Zoe.” In the end, it was revealed that Zoe is Zoë Roy, who retired from racing in 2014 as a founding member of Team Ninja. Yup, we all know Zoë.
All interviews were done on snow, from a distance, with FasterSkier wearing an N95 mask.
On Snow Training
The on-snow part of the camp was reported to have gone very well. The coaches were able to find times and trails that allowed training races that closely matched the Olympic course for profile and elevation while keeping distance from the local skiers.
The Zhangjiakou 5km course elevation range is 1639m to 1696m. The Sovereign Lake upper World Cup 5km is 1651m to 1708m, with the stadium at 1660m.
The Friday sprint course worked fairly well, despite a layout that would give any technical delegate apoplexy. As Bråten explains above, the coaches chose to do four qualifiers instead of heats to manage risk.
The Sunday skiathlon course ended up being 13km for the women and 17km for the men, with some flat sections removed from the 5km loop to better mimic the Olympic courses.
Bråten was often seen working with athletes one-on-one.
As the days counted down to departure, skiers were working on filling their bags with seconds gained: a tweak in one skate (V2) poling, free skating further on a fast flat section, experimenting with pacing on courses that simulate Zhangjiakou.
The mood of the camp seemed slightly tense, at least to a journalist who was careful not to pierce the bubble. The change on Tuesday morning, 12 hours after everyone passed the final COVID test, was dramatic, with smiles everywhere.
“It’s been fantastic conditions and just a really nice camp all around, it’s always nice when you get some sunshine,” Kennedy told FasterSkier. “So yeah, especially after a [World Cup] Period One in Finland in the dark.”
A positive test would be the end of one person’s Olympic dreams and a logistical nightmare for the support team. Any close contact of the infected person would not be able to travel. Any replacement person, athlete or not, would need to follow the same testing protocol. If that replacement wasn’t ready for the scheduled flight, the complexity of travel planning might be insurmountable.
In order to travel to the Olympics, the athletes, coaches, and techs would all have to pass two PCR tests less than 24 hours apart in the final 96 hours before boarding. Once at the Calgary airport, there would be another PCR test, with a fourth upon arrival in China.
Nordiq Canada chose a more restrictive plan than some other countries. Each person (athlete, coach, tech, cook, massage therapist) had their own room and didn’t enter other rooms. Meals were delivered. Grocery shopping was done by local resident, de Nys, scheduled for 7am to avoid crowds. No one entered coffee shops, bars, or restaurants. Each morning, everyone would do a rapid antigen test in their room. Athletes skied from their accommodation at SilverStar to the homologated trails at Sovereign Lake to avoid close contacts in vehicles. Only de Nys and Zoë the cook had contacts outside the bubble, and neither is going to Beijing.
The goal behind this aggressive protocol was twofold. First, to prevent exposures. Second, if one person tested positive, there would be no close contacts forced into isolation or removed from the Olympics. The two wax techs (Simon Boisvert and Félix-Antoine Vezina) inevitably had a shared bubble as they shared a private waxing room.
Was this the right answer? We got three answers to that.
Drolet found the camp harder than usual: “We were still able to ski together a little bit, but it was definitely a little bit lonely at times.”
Kennedy, entering with a mentally tough prospect of only making the team if disaster struck a friend, found the positive. “The guys have been playing, like hanging out online together… And we’ve been skiing together. So it’s separate, but at the same time, not too lonely.”
“Ask me on Monday afternoon when we get all the results back,” Jaques told FasterSkier on Sunday morning. “We’ve taken the right precautions so we’ll just see. But I think it’s looking good.”
A number of athletes mentioned feeling comfort in knowing they were doing everything possible to protect their Olympic dreams.
The system has worked. Everyone tested negative and the entire team is now on snow in Zhangjiakou.