Sunday kicked off a week of racing at the combined Canadian Cross-Country National Championship and U.S. Super Tour Finals event held in Whistler, British Columbia. Hosted by the Black Tusk Nordic Events Society (BTNES) on the Whistler Olympic Park courses, this event also offers junior and U23 skiers a preview of the courses for next year’s Junior and U23 World Championships. With Paranordic, Nordic Combined, and both junior and senior cross-country events, it looks to be a busy week of racing.
After a morning of Paranordic and junior events, the senior women got underway with a 5 k interval skate. This meant a single lap of the “Blue A” course, which features two major climbs, one almost right out of the start. Despite a wintery mix of precipitation forecasted throughout the week, and light snow accumulating on top of the corduroy, times were fast as athletes took to the course.
Swapping stars and stripes for her red and blue SMS T2 team suit, Jessie Diggins won the women’s 5 k event in 11:47.9, with her club teammate Julia Kern in second (+7.7). Craftsbury’s Caitlin Patterson took third (+29.8), ahead of Katherine Stewart-Jones who was the top Canadian racer in fourth (+33.1). Dahria Beatty was second for the Canadian women in eighth overall (+56.1), with Cendrine Browne just behind as third for Canada and ninth overall (+1:00.6).
In an interview with Nordiq Canada after the race, Diggins first spoke to the experience of racing amongst a field of over 180 women and girls from across Canada and the U.S.
“This is super cool,” Diggins said emphatically. “I mean, I’m half-Canadian, so this is really very special for me any time I can come be in Canada. I really love it, and with COVID, it’s been a while.”
She also spoke to the change of pace and pressure, in transitioning away from the high-stakes environment of the World Cup where the team operated under strict COVID precautions to ensure the season would not be derailed by an outbreak within the team.
“The biggest draw for me was to be here with my club, to have fun. There’s all these really awesome kids racing. And, yeah, it’s really nice to have a little more relaxed, not quite as high pressure, [especially] after the Olympics. It’s nice to just get back to racing because it is super fun. So I’ve really enjoyed being here.”
Diggins described watching the field of rising junior athletes race as “super cool” and spoke optimistically of what this means for the long term health and success of the sport at all levels.
“It’s so fun to see how invested in the sport, overall, that they are — because they love it, and they want to work hard, and they’re having fun. It’s just really cool to see how our sport’s been growing and expanding, and how great this next generation is looking.”
Finally, on her own race, Diggins shared it was a “shock to the system.” Following the World Cup finals last weekend in Falun, Sweden, Diggins spent the week in Annecy, France, where she visited the Salomon design center, participated in a live Q&A with a Salomon representative, and even snuck in a guided mountaineering experience in nearby Chamonix.
She then hopped aboard a flight to Western Canada, finding herself once more on a start line soon after.
“I got off the plane from France like 40 hours before the start,” Diggins laughed. “So it was one way to kick the jet lag, and it was highly effective. It was a bit of a bit of a shock, but it was really fun to just get out there and work hard, and really enjoy these — I mean, it’s fun. They’re Olympic courses. They’re really, really nice, they have great flow. So I really enjoyed being out there.”
As the top Canadian woman, Katherine Stewart-Jones spoke with Nordiq Canada about the tough competition, “It was really exciting to race today and having the Americans here I knew it was going to be a competitive race, and I definitely wanted to perform because, you know, you want to show that Canadians are also competitive,” she said.
“Overall, I was happy with my result. I didn’t think it was my best race. It was the type of race where the conditions are brutal, and nobody feels technically great, but you had to keep going. In warm-up I could tell it was hard conditions to ski in, so I gave myself a few technical cues during the race, making sure I reminded myself it was like this for everyone. I’m really happy with my effort.”
Sydney Palmer-Leger (University of Utah) earned the top spot in the women’s U20 ranking with a time of 12:36.8. She finished seventh overall.
With the women’s race wrapped up, the competition turned to the men who skied 2 x 5 k. In a reverse of the women’s results, it was the Canadians who took the top three spots led by Rémi Drolet (Team Black Jack) in a time of 22:50.2. Russell Kennedy (Canmore Nordic) finished second, +19.8 behind Drolet, while Antoine Cyr (Skinouk QC) rounded out the podium in third (+29.7).
Luke Jager (University of Utah) was the first American of the day in fourth (+37.4). Jager was followed by two fellow collegiate athletes, Kjetil Bånerud of Northern Michigan University, and Sam Hendry of the University. Bånerud is a native of Norway, while Hendry was also racing on behalf of Canmore Nordic, his home club. This leaves BSF Pro Team athlete Finn O’Connell as the next on the US SuperTour podium in seventh overall (+49.7), with Craftsbury’s Adam Martin third for the US in eighth overall (+50.1).
Like many of the top athletes, Drolet just recently returned from Europe after the conclusion of the World Cup circuit. He spoke with Nordiq Canada after the race saying, “I really went into the race today with zero expectations. I was thinking in my head that if I execute well and push hard, then I’ll be happy with the race, and the result just came so that was just a bonus for me.”
In soft and sloppy conditions there were a number of mishaps out on the race course and Drolet said, “I think with conditions like that it can be really easy to kind of sketch yourself out. I think a lot of people were doing that. But I think you can just kind of stay focused on skiing and not worry too much about the conditions, then everything will be okay.”
“You need to stay focused on skiing and not on the conditions. When you overthink it, things happen. I was really happy I was able to put together a great race today. This is where I strive to be, and it feels really good.”
Prior to traveling to Canada, Jager was competing at NCAAs in Soldier Hollow Utah where he and the rest of the Utes earned their third consecutive national victory.
The U20 men’s race was won by Tom Stephen (Foothills Nordic) in a time of 23:33.3. Stephen finished sixth overall.
Racing continues today, Monday March 21st, with a 10/15 k classic, followed on Wednesday March 23rd by an individual classic sprint. The sprint heats will be livestreamed; these be viewed here.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.