The pressure was on at Caledonia Nordic in Prince George, BC, for the trials that would be used to select athletes for World Championships in Planica, Slovenia, and U20/U23 World Championships in Whistler. The three days of racing is also a Nordiq Cup, which is a FIS tier 1 event equivalent to a US SuperTour or Scando Cup, but the focus was on earning a spot on one or more of the teams.
The snow conditions were trickier than usual for January. Prince George is the geographic centre of British Columbia, and is better known for cold weather than rain, but the atmospheric river that damaged California delivered warm and wet weather over a large part of the west. The weather also added excitement to travel, with some skiers missing ski bags after cancelled flights. Chelsea’s Tory Audet, a 17 year old who collected three open category wins in Eastern Canada Cups in December and represented Canada at U20’s last year, received her skis Tuesday night, with no chance to test in advance of Wednesday’s sprint.
For Planica, three athletes were preselected from World Cup results: Katherine Stewart-Jones, Antoine Cyr, and Graham Ritchie. That left five to nine selections open, with selection guaranteed for the top Canadian racer in each of the three races.
For Whistler, the team size is four to six athletes in each of the four groups (male/female, U20/U23), with no athletes preselected. The selection order is 1st place Canadian in the classic sprint, 1st place in the 10km free, and 1st place in the 20km classic mass start, then cycling through 2nd, 3rd until at least four athletes are selected.
Full details are in the selection criteria.
While most competitors were Canadian, a few younger international athletes stopped in on their way to Whistler. World Cup fans will have seen Poland’s Izabela Marcisz and Monika Skinder along with Estonian twins, Kaidy and Keidy Kaasiku.
Quotes are from interviews by Nordiq Canada’s Nathaniel Mah, unless otherwise stated.
Classic Sprint, Wednesday
It was +4C and klister for the sprint day. The top 30 qualifiers from both U20 and Open automatically went into the Open heats. Fondeurs Laurentides Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt won the 1.1km qualification in 2:47.09, 0.98 ahead of Skinder and Whitehorse’s Dahria Beatty. In the final, Bouffard-Nesbitt, Skinder, and Marcisz got a gap on the other three before a collision took Bouffard-Nesbitt down. Marcisz won ahead of Skinder, with Beatty dropping Katie Weaver and Liliane Gagnon to take third and the Planica selection.
“[It was] soft conditions, the tracks were completely gone by the time the heats came around,” Beatty told NC. “Try to be as efficient as possible on the climbs… It was really about being tactical in your positioning on the downhills, trying to give as much as possible on that final plateau and a draft into the finish.”
Beatty was feeling the fatigue from the Tour de Ski, and skipped the final two race days to get an early start on the pre-Planica altitude camp at Apex (at 1,800m elevation, near Penticton, BC).
Marcisz was a little surprised to win a sprint, as she sees herself as a distance skier, but the challenging course suited her.
Gagnon, in fifth, was the top Canadian U23 to book her trip to Whistler, along with Edmonton’s Alison Mackie who was top U20 in 8th.
For the men, it was Thunder Bay’s Julian Smith, who won the qualification in 2:20.62 and then won each heat from the front. Foothills’ Xavier McKeever was second and top U20 with Black Jack’s Julien Locke taking third.
“The course was so fun,” Smith said. “Caledonia did a great job putting on this event.”
Tactics were straightforward; on all three heats, I came into the downhill in third … and my skis were so free today,” Smith said. “Before the last little kicker, I would find myself in the lead, and from there it was just going as hard as I could to the finish.”
McKeever was happy in second, confirming selection for Whistler and (probably) Planica. “I definitely had some fun on this course, there’s a lot of good turns, and really technical sections. I just went out and enjoyed myself today.”
“It’s definitely a good downhill to slingshot on,” he said. “I got a slingshot into second, that’s where I wanted to be to get some draft, but Julian was really strong today.”
Whitehorse’s Sasha Masson, 6th in the final behind Orford’s Léo Grandbois and Canmore’s Russell Kennedy, was the top U23 finisher.
20km Mass Start Classic, Thursday
The men raced first, with Orford’s Olivier Léveillé and Kennedy getting a gap. Léveillé arrived late on Tuesday night and took Wednesday off to recover from travel and lost baggage.
“We started pretty hard, Russell and I, the second lap was even harder and that’s when we broke away, just the two of us.”
“We exchanged the lead for a little bit, but the last lap I was pretty dead,” he said. “I punch as hard as I could on the last uphill, and I made a little gap, just enough to hold him to the finish line.”
The winning time was 51:51.4, with Kennedy at 0.1 back and Grandbois taking third alone at 1:40.1 behind.
Léveillé is U23, but he may not accept the Whistler invitation.
“I don’t know yet, where I’m going to go next. I need to talk to my coach. Senior World Champs is a big goal for me this year. I got a top ten last year in World Cup and I really want to prepare myself to do well.”
Léveillé admitted that he is still feeling his Tour de Ski finish and after last year’s U23 individual podium, it makes sense for him to be looking ahead.
For the women, Nakkertok and U of New Hampshire’s U23 Jasmine Lyons grabbed the win in 1:02:10.4, 25.5 ahead of Gagnon and 48.1 ahead of Bouffard-Nesbitt. Lyons, Gagnon, Bouffard-Nesbitt and Keidy Kaasiku got a gap early and skied together for three of four laps.
“The last lap we picked up the pace a little, and I just tried to hammer up the hills,” Lyons said. “We were trading off [earlier]. Olivia was doing the brunt of the work a lot of the time, and especially on the downhills… She would often pull away and really push the pace.”
Lyons has been racing in NCAA and didn’t have a comparison to other Canadians going in, but that cuts both ways.
“Yeah, I just skied my own race. I really had no idea where I was compared to other people.”
Bouffard-Nesbitt was processing after Wednesday’s crash and now third.
“I’m trying to qualify for the world champs, and the only way to do that is to win a race.”
“I was just trying to track whoever was trying to lead the race, trying to save energy. When Jasmine started pushing the pace, I went with it and then I just blew up in the last lap.”
Mackie was top U20 again, finishing 9th at 3:13.2 back.
10km Individual Free, Saturday
The final day brought falling snow and extra pressure for athletes who hadn’t earned selection targets yet.
Marcisz again showed her form on the way to Whistler, winning the two lap 10km in 26:05.8.
“I really like [the skate course], I think it’s quite similar than Planica,” she said on Wednesday.
Keidy Kaasiku earned second, 30.3 seconds back, just edging out top Canadian Lyons at 33.0 behind. Gagnon continued her strong results in 4th at 56.0, followed by Kaidy Kaasiku and then Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt at 1:09.2.
Before the start, Bouffard-Nesbitt was absorbing two races that hadn’t gone to plan and focussing ahead.
“I think the skate course is a lot of fun, and I’m just going to go into it … and hope the result is what I’m looking for.”
With only the top Canadian guaranteed a trip to Plancia, hope would depend on the High Performance Committee and the more intricate parts of the selection criteria document.
Australia’s Zana Evans was the top U20 in 9th while Revelstoke’s Alexandra Luxmoore locked down her selection in 10th at 2:07.6.
For the men, Kennedy locked down his Planica selection with the win in 23:20.6. TBay’s Max Hollman took second and top U23 at 15.3 behind. Masson was third at 16.8 followed by Black Jack’s Rémi Drolet at 26.0 to put three U23 athletes in the top four.
“I like to leave it to the last day, I’ve done it with everything,” Kennedy said jokingly. “I think it’s a really good team going to World Champs, I’m excited to see what the young guns can do. Olivier’s looking good and we’ve got Max over here, he’s skiing really fast.”
Kennedy and Drolet both completed the Tour de Ski, with Kennedy wanting some recovery and training time before the next race.
“I’m just so happy to do a whole race without falling over,” Hollman said of his race. He fell in the mass start Thursday, but no one remembers any previous crashes, surely…. Hollman wasn’t sure he had qualified for Whistler, which means he spent less time than most with the selection criteria.
Masson knew what he needed to do to get to Whistler and was showing his excitement in the finish interview. “I think it’s going to be awesome,” he said. “I’m really excited [to go back to U23’s] because the gang of boys is really fun.”
The Planica announcement shows the maximum of 12 athletes were nominated.
The Whistler announcement confirms that Léveillé declined U23’s and will likely join the Planica altitude camp at Apex.
Nordiq Canada has selected the maximum number of athletes for both trips. This fits well with the stated goal of building experience for the 2026 and 2030 Olympic cycles.
There are a few missing names that readers might have expected to see. This is partly from having a high stakes selection in a four day period. One athlete had a minor injury in Prince George and missed all three races. With only six or seven recovery days between the last missed trial to the first Whistler race, it is probably not a surprise that the High Performance Committee didn’t use the injury or illness provision for a discretion selection.
Many athletes came to measure themselves and went home with lessons learned. The top athletes came with specific result goals and some of them are headed home with missed goals to digest.
“Cross country skiing is the greatest sport for life,” Head Coach Robin McKeever told FasterSkier last week en route to Prince George. “But we still need to absolutely understand what is high performance and what we’re up against on an international level. Because there is it’s about seconds that matter, 10ths of seconds in sprints. and it’s a hard environment to be successful in.”
Hard work, pain, and missed opportunities abound at the top level of this sport. All the more reason to celebrate the successes when they come.