Canadian National Ski TeamNewsOlympicsRacingCanadian Journey to Beijing

Gerry FursethFebruary 4, 2022
Katherine Stewart-Jones sprinting over the saddle at Sovereign Lake during the Beijing Prep Camp. (Photo: Peggy Hung)

Canada was successful in delivering the team to Beijing and getting them on snow in Zhangjiakou. The decision to go above and beyond in isolating athletes before a carefully planned drive to a charter flight worked, although other countries also succeeded with a more laid-back approach.

What can fans expect from the Canadian team in Beijing? It all comes down to qualifying and performing.

Qualifying

Canada had an Olympic quota of four women and three men, with a pretty high probability of gaining another woman and man in reallocation. The size of the quota depends on World Cup/World Championship performance and domestic FIS races; the top countries earned the maximum team size of 8 per gender. As Canada cancelled all races last season and only took a small team to Europe for a six week visit, the only path to a larger team would have been more athletes getting top 30 results in Europe last season.

Three men (Tony Cyr, Olivier Léveillé, Graham Ritchie) and one woman (Katherine Stewart-Jones) met the world cup results standard for Olympic qualification during period 1. The Trials in Canmore (January 6th to 11th) would then select three women, and possibly one woman and one man who would have first dibs after reallocation.

Dahria Beatty, an Olympic veteran from Pyeongchang, was one of the skiers who now had to qualify through a rigid qualification document at Canmore trials.

“Yes, it was definitely different last time. I was qualified for the [2018] Games a season in advance, essentially,” Beatty explained at the Prep Camp at Sovereign Lake.

At the Canmore sprint, Beatty qualified third and finished the heats in 4th, which meant Laura Leclair earned her first Olympic berth and Cendrine Browne her second.

For Beatty, selection came down to Saturday’s 10km individual classic. If she won, or placed second to Stewart-Jones, she got the spot. The latter happened, with Beatty 0.5 seconds behind and 20 seconds clear of third.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve had to qualify for a team specifically like that since U23 World Champs so it’s been a long time definitely.”

Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt was ranked 5th after trials, waiting on the reallocation process. Her journey has been longer than most, with injuries, training setbacks, car accidents, and bad luck. In 2014, she recovered from a back injury just in time to compete at Olympic trials. She won the qualifier on her first race day of the season. While lining up for the A-final heat with selection on the line, she was told that the jury had disqualified her for micro-skating during the quarter-final earlier. This year, the pieces came together.

“​​It’s hard to find words. It’s something that I believed in, like my whole life, I believed that it was possible. But then throughout the setbacks, the doubt kind of built up. And, increased and I thought it wouldn’t happen, maybe and that I just had to grow up and face that reality. But there was still like, a little voice inside me that thought it was possible. And just to have– persisted, and trusted that with patience like things would line up for me. It means so much, it means so much for me but also for the people who helped me get here because it feels like I know that they would support me no matter what but it just feels like doing them justice as well. Like putting all the time into this project that is me trying to get to the Olympics was worth it.”

Jasmine Drolet was next, with only the faint hope of moving up through a positive COVID test for an athlete above. Jasmine does have the consolation of earning a start at U20 World Championships.

Russell Kennedy finished 27th in the Ruka 15km classic in November, enough to help Canada’s World Cup quota for next season. Kennedy would have needed to ski 15 seconds faster to take the 20th place from Federico Pellegrino and earn the 4th Olympic spot. The next day he moved up to 21st in the pursuit with the 24th fastest time of day, again just outside the criteria.

The reallocation spot would be decided in the 15km individual start classic on January 8th. Whoever finished highest, after excluding the three already qualified men, would be on tenterhooks until the 17th and then be officially announced on the 19th.

 

Rémi Drolet in a practice skiathlon at the Beijing Prep Camp at Sovereign Lake, Jan 23, 2022. (Photo: Peggy Hung)

Cyr won, surprising no one, with Rémi Drolet edging out Kennedy by 10.8 seconds to take second. Every skier in the top ten had either a WC top 30 or a Canada Cup podium this season. Every one of those skiers could believe that their best effort would end in selection.

Rémi is a second year senior who chose to take a gap year from Harvard to focus on getting faster on the World Cup and qualifying for Beijing. He didn’t get selected for Period 1, but did get some good results in early season Continental Cup races in Finland and Sweden.

“For me, it was important to try really hard to make it this time around, because I think it’ll be an important stepping stone in my career,” he told FasterSkier during the prep camp. “To be able to, I guess, be a leader in the team, with so many strong guys coming up.”

Rémi is getting good results for his age, but also looking over his shoulder at juniors like Tom Stephen and Xav McKeever, who are already collecting senior wins at Canada Cup races. These three teamed up with Léveillé to collect a relay silver at U20 Worlds two years ago.

Kennedy is now 30. His ‘day job’ is with Canada’s Para National team, one of two guides for Brian McKeever. After PyeongChang, his goal was not just to qualify, but deliver at Beijing, and that dream ended with an invitation to train as a spare.

“Well, I mean, for me, it’s been a rough two weeks. I spent three years working for this year. I was focused on the Olympics, and not really as much qualifying I guess.”

Asked about sharing a bubble for two weeks with the four men who are living his dream, Kennedy didn’t shy away from truth.

“And yeah, it’s been hard. But I’ve been trying to put on a good face around them. Because it’s sweet [for them]. They’ve done it, they’re going to the Olympics, it’s a huge goal and a huge achievement. But for me, it’s definitely hard. I’m really fast right now, which just makes it harder. But that’s part of sport.”

Performing

For some people, just reaching the Olympics is the pinnacle of their dreams. And it is a major achievement, even more so now with smaller quotas. In 2006, Canada had five women who earned Torino quota spots, in addition to the ten nations spots, allowing Canada to select 15 women. 

What distinguishes the athletes who deliver results from those who participate?

“Some people believe, and some people want to believe, but [it’s] the ones that really believe.” Dave Wood explained to FasterSkier in July of 2021.

Going back to 2006, three Canadian women came home with medals: Chandra Crawford, Beckie Scott, and Sara Renner. Each of these women had individual World Cup podiums in the final two months of preparation and came into Torino with confidence. 

The current team of nine Canadians has only two members with Olympic experience: Beatty and Browne. It will be much harder for this team to dream of podiums.

Stewart-Jones, Cyr, Léveillé, and Ritchie can find confidence from their period 1 results. Drolet can find confidence in beating Léveillé and Kennedy at trials as both have World Cup top 30’s this season.

The others? They will have to find confidence inside themselves.

Expecting

One of the common expectations of sports fans is that Olympians should produce their best performance of the season on the biggest stage. Athletes work their whole lives to get to an Olympics and it seems obvious that they should be peaking at precisely the right moment.

“The results came from those that started their Olympics in May or April.” – Dave Wood, talking about Vancouver 2010.

Wood was referring to athletes who qualified for the Olympics during the previous season, allowing them to build the entire training year around performing during a two week period. Athletes who have not qualified in advance have to focus their season plan on earning selection.

Kennedy was one athlete who missed that balance.

“Because sometimes I feel with sport, you have to choose if you want to go or if you want to do well. It’s the one thing that I’ve been struggling with. And also, it’s hard because like the people making the decisions don’t really have any repercussions for their choices. So the repercussions fall on athletes, and unfortunately, this year fell on me. Yeah. It sucks, but it’s part of it. I knew what I signed up for.”

Once selected, each athlete can then reset their priorities. Four Canadians hit that point in December, three more on January 8th, and the last two on January 17th. With the first race on February 5th, which feels like the 4th after crossing the international date line, the one big thing athletes can do is not catch COVID-19.

Back in 2010, Canada had four men performing on the world cup and when it came time to pick four men for the 50km on the final day, there were five names. Ivan Babikov, George Gray, and Alex Harvey had placed 5th, 8th, and 9th in the skiathlon and were obvious choices. The final place had to go to either Brian McKeever, who had qualified first at trials in Canmore, or Devon Kershaw, whose best individual result was a 16th. Unusually for Canada, there was outside pressure on this selection, as McKeever would have been the first person to compete at the Olympics and Paralympics in the same season.

“The way the other four boys had been skiing, there was no decision, there was no discussion,” Wood explained. “Brian didn’t beat Kershaw and Alex and Ivan and George [at trials], he beat the others.”

The coaches chose Kershaw, which paid off with a 5th place finish, 1.6 seconds from gold. In 2022, there will be no difficult decisions for the men, but there are five women and four starts per individual race.

FasterSkier asked Beatty what races she was looking forward to.

“Well, if I get a start in the team sprint, I love team sprints, I love team events. So I’m definitely hoping to be doing that race, I’m looking forward to that. I’m also really looking forward to the individual sprint and the 10k individual.”

This may not be the Norwegian or Swedish level of choice, with eight skiers and four starts, but expect Canada to hold some time trials during the Olympics to inform the coaches’ choice.

Beatty and Browne were in PyeongChang, and will have experience to share with the neophytes.

“​​The races themselves, even though they will be the most stressful part, are also going to be the most fun because that’s what we dream of,” Bouffard-Nesbitt speculated three days before getting on the plane.

“I’ve never been to an Olympic Games, and especially a COVID games. So I don’t know what the rest of the time will be like.”

The Canadian women having (distanced) fun. Click the image to see the Instagram reel.

Early evidence is athletes will be killing time in their rooms and finding virtual fun with your teammates.

Dreaming

FasterSkier asked a number of the athletes a simple question: when you first dreamed of the Olympics, what sport were you dreaming of?

“I have to say, probably hockey with that one. For sure. I didn’t know I was gonna end up as a cross country skier.” — Ritchie

“Cross country skiing. Yeah, it’s always been that.” — Stewart-Jones

“I definitely think it was probably cross country skiing. That’s always been the sport I’ve been strongest at, even as a kid. I did a bunch of different sports. I always loved watching figure skating at the Olympics, but I knew that I was never going to pursue that long term, definitely was not flexible enough.” — Beatty

“I don’t know. I guess when I first really thought about the Olympics was back when I was playing hockey. But at that time, it wasn’t really, it was kind of just like, whoa, it’d be cool to go to the Olympics. But I didn’t really think of what sport I might make it in. It’s only really four years ago, I started thinking, this is what I need to work towards, to make the Olympics in Beijing.” – Rémi Drolet

“That is such a good question. Because around the time when I became really inspired by the Olympics was the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and I think Simon Whitfield winning the triathlon was the really big moment at that Olympics. And at the time, in my youth, I was just obsessed with soccer, but also skiing, so I dreamt of either/or soccer or skiing.” — Bouffard-Nesbitt

“Oh, man, I didn’t really have a sport I was dreaming of, exactly. But I thought maybe skiing because I was on skis at two years old. More downhill racing.” – Kennedy

“I was the dreaming to go to the Olympics as a cross country skier. It didn’t happen as a cross country skier but as a technician.” — Simon Boisvert

“Ah, to be honest, I’ve always been into cross country skiing with my dad and my sister, my older sister ahead of me, but always been into cross country skiing, and I thought that maybe mountain biking, but a few years ago, I knew I was not. I wasn’t going as an athlete, but I’m pretty pumped to go for my first time as a wax technician.” — Félix-Antoine Vezina

Gerry Furseth

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