During the opening weekend of World Cup racing in Ruka, FIN back in November 2021, Canada’s Antoine (Tony) Cyr popped an 11th place finish in the first distance race – a tough 15-kilometre classic won by Finland’s Iivo Niskanen, now a gold medalist in the event.
After the race, Cyr wrote to FasterSkier that the course had suited him with its long uphills and frigiddig conditions; temperatures were near zero degrees Fahrenheit ( -17 C). “Cold weather is good for us Canadians,” he said. Cyr repeated his strong showing in Ruka the next day, placing 12th in the skate pursuit.
Flash forward through a number of subsequent racing highs and lows, and Cyr found himself in similar circumstances: on classic skis in single digit temps, with an arduous course designed to test the mettle of the best in the world.
Cyr was awaiting one final tag in the Olympic team sprint from partner Graham Ritchie, still amidst the lead group of eight teams, racing with some of the top names in the sport toward an Olympic medal. After receiving the tag, Cyr did his best to keep Canada in contact with the leaders, who began to surge, breaking apart this lead group as the list of medal contenders dwindled to three teams.
Along with William Poromaa of Sweden, Cyr lost contact with the top-three, tagging Ritchie for the final leg of the race in fifth, a position Ritchie held through the finish to cross the line in 19:45.3, only +22.3 back from the Norwegian gold medalists Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and Erik Valnes.
It was the best men’s result in a classic team sprint in Canada’s rich Olympic history. At the event’s debut in the 2006 Torino Games, which was competed classic, Devon Kershaw and George Grey took 11th in the team sprint for Canada, while Beckie Scott raced with Sara Renner to win a silver medal. Kershaw lined up with Alex Harvey at the following Games in Vancouver in 2010 for the skate team sprint, just missing the podium in fourth.
“This is so incredible to pull this off and throw down such a good result for Canada,” Cyr told Nordiq Canada after the race. “It’s overwhelming, especially to do this with such a good friend like Graham. It is really special.”
Both 23-years-old and competing in their first Olympic Games, the Canadians had been looking for more than the results they’ve had thus far in Zhangjiakou. A pre-Olympic camp at a similar elevation in Sovereign Lake/SilverStar reportedly went well, and tight COVID safety protocols had kept the athletes healthy, allowing them to safely enter the Olympic bubble.
While the opening races ultimately did not feature the Canadians vying for top-10 finishes, Cyr and Ritchie could look back on the 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, where they took seventh for Canada in the freestyle team sprint.
Ritchie told FasterSkier in the mixed zone that they knew from this experience that they would need to be in the top-four in the semifinals to advance safely into the final. They had done it in the World Champs and they believed they could do it again in the Olympics.
“We know we had it in us, we just knew we had to race smart and race hard and have a good day,” Ritchie explained. “So [I’m] super proud of Tony and me to be able to work together and use our experience to push through that semi and end up giving our shot at a good race in the final.”
So far in the Games, Cyr has raced every event, but had not cracked the top-30 individually. Ritchie sat out the skiathlon and 15 km classic, and finished as the top-Canadian in 34th in the freestyle sprint, just off the time needed to make the heats. Racing the first two classic legs of the 4 x 10 km relay, Canada finished 11th out of 12 teams that completed the race. It’s not the makings of an underdog story about a small nation in a rebuilding phase after a string of notable retirements that one might drum up.
“I think we put every other race in the back of our minds and just knew we [could have] a good day,” Ritchie told FasterSkier on the team’s confidence in spite of sub-optimal results. “Tony is an exceptional classic skier. And myself and him are both – we know we can pull off a sprint. So we really put those other races behind us and were only focused on today…
“But then I mean to be on the last lap, with the podium right there,” Ritchie continued dreamily, as if still feeling the thrill. “That was pretty eye opening.”
Though he acknowledged the challenge of facing the likes of Klæbo, Joni Maki (FIN), and Alexander Terentev (ROC) in the last lap, who eventually took the gold, silver, and bronze medals, respectively, Ritchie shared that the possibility of a Canadian medal crept into his mind in the final lap. Moreso, it planted a seed for what might be possible in the future.
“I mean, during the race, I definitely thought about it. Like you could see it right there… And I mean, we’re both 23 years old. We’ve got a lot of racing left in us. So yeah, that was a big race for us. And we’re really looking forward to seeing what we can do in the future here for Canada.”
In the mixed zone, World Cup competition coach Erik Bråten also spoke to the team’s ability, particularly in Cyr’s case, to put aside the early results of the Games and take on a “fake it till you make a kind of attitude today. And just push through it.”
Speaking to the difference makers that led to this outstanding result, Bråten projected that Cyr had skied among the “top-three technically”, particularly when striding up the 400 meter A-climb, which rose 30 vertical meters to the high point of the course midway.
Though Cyr had raced the odd legs of the team sprint during the World Championships and was second in the classic sprint final during the Canadian Olympic Team Trials in January, having also won both the freestyle sprint and the 15 km classic earlier in the trials, Bråten deliberated the matchup he would enlist for the team sprint until official selections were due.
“For me, this team was pretty clear before we went here. But Tony’s been struggling a little bit. And Graham hasn’t been his maximum self here either, but I felt like he did decent enough in the [freestyle sprint]. I know Tony – the potential he has. And I felt like – we plan for success. And I think on the best day, he was the right man for the day. We don’t plan for people to have a bad day. And he had an amazing day. He showed us what he could do out there. So I just think everything came together in a perfect way.”
This coming together means more than just a new best Olympic result in the classic team sprint for the Canadian men. Bråten stated emphatically that it is a result that could spark a return to international success for Canadian cross country skiing, elevating every level of the development pathway.
“I think it’s extremely important. It’s important for all the athletes back home in Canada, seeing what’s possible. It’s important for coaches, the coaches of these athletes, knowing what’s going on, knowing what it takes to get this result. And they’re so young, they can do even better next year, and so on. So it’s just a trickle down effect that can be quite big both financially, but also, of course, information and knowledge wise. They know what they did to get to this level. Well, that can be shown down [the development pathway] as well.”
That said, feeding the development pipeline and supporting the athletes within it requires resources. While some aspects of elite level cross country skiing are relatively low cost, Canada is limited by its budget in what it can do for athletes aiming for the top.
“The man on the boards [is] the most important person,” Bråten said simply. “Any female or male who wants to be good, the most important thing you do is just get out there and do the work, which is free. Of course, there’s equipment involved, but the work is mostly free… However, there’s so much behind this. What do you put on the boards? Which boards do you have in the first place? Are you getting the coach, physiologists, ski support you need? And we’re good enough to do this, apparently, but…”
Bråten trailed off before gravely stating, “One Norwegian athlete is the same budget as our entire team.”
“It’s tough,” he continued. “So, for sure, we wouldn’t hurt getting a little bit more financial support.”
Ultimately, he has confidence in the team he is supporting, and in particular in Cyr and Ritchies outlook heading into the upcoming 2023 World Championships, which will be held in Planica, Slovenia beginning in late February.
“There’s no reason they can’t fight for at least a medal, and why not just go gold if you’re going to go for bronze?”
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646