Nordiq Canada Rolls Into 2023

Gerry FursethJanuary 18, 2023
Francesco de Fabiano (14) edges Tony Cyr (12) in stage 6’s 15km classic at Val di Femme. (Photo: Modica/NordicFocus)

Canada is in the rebuilding part of the success rollercoaster, with many changes to the High Performance team and the development programs.

Since May 1st, Chris Jeffries has joined Nordiq Canada (NC) full time as the High Performance Director, Robin McKeever has transitioned from the extremely successful Para program to become the Olympic Stream Head Coach. NextGen coach Eric de Nys and Dev coach Matt Smider are in their first full year in those roles and have shifted modes from planning to delivering.

This season, Canada returned to the Tour de Ski with three top ten finishes and is hosting the World Junior/U23 Championships.

The Tour de Ski was an obvious highlight, with all of the nine athletes and six of eight support staff experiencing the Tour for the first time.

“Yves Bilodeau has obviously has done a few Tour de Ski’s and Simon Boisvert was on the trip with us as a wax tech,” McKeever told FasterSkier, “but yeah, everybody else was pretty much rookies there, I think just the tech, so we were following the tech’s lead to learn from them as much as anything.” For non-Canadians, Bilodeau represented Canada at two Olympics before becoming a wax tech and VW bus driver for the Beckie Scott generation.

Asked to pick just one highlight, McKeever chose one result and one process goal: “My personal highlight from the Tour has to be Tony’s fourth place and coming ever so close,” he said, referencing Antoine Cyr losing a photo finish for a podium spot in Val di Femme the day after finishing 6th in the sprint. “That’s I think beyond some of our expectations through this year, but at the same time, it is belief in the system and belief for the younger up and coming athletes and others around him that it is possible. We need to get that back in the system. We’ve lost it since you know that Beckie, Chandra [Crawford], Sarah [Renner] years of Olympic medals, and with Alex Harvey’s retirement, things were kind of frayed. So it’s time to rebuild that and get positive focus forward and making sure that we’re looking at growth mindset and looking for positive solutions, rather than always complaining about the issues.”

Katherine Stewart-Jones (CAN) racing up the Alpe di Cermis in the final stage of the 2023 Tour de Ski. (Photo: Barbieri/NordicFocus)

Katherine Stewart-Jones, who has this season scored her first top 10 plus six top 20’s, and joined the red group as the 15th ranked distance skier, is another obvious highlight for Canada.

Canada will select athletes for U20/U23 Championships in Whistler and World Championships in Planica at the Trials event at Caledonia Nordic this week, with many younger skiers expecting to qualify. There is also a good field of older skiers planning to hand out some learning experiences on their way to Planica, which should result in exciting racing. Live timing and full results will beĀ here.

For Planica, three athletes were pre-selected: Katherine Stewart-Jones and Tony Cyr met the standard of two top 20s on the World Cup this season, and Graham Ritchie earned a discretion pick with a 17th, a 21st, and two top 20 sprint qualifiers. Everyone else is at Caledonia.

When FasterSkier was interviewing NC staff this season during race weekends, the phrases “that’s Julie” and “Julie does” got used a lot. Julie Beaulieu is in her second year at NC as Development Director. What does that role entail? It appears that it is mostly enabling the more visible staff members to succeed. The most visible of those is McKeever.

Robin McKeever stopped in at the Reino Keski Salmi Loppet on the way to Prince George for Trials, providing wax support to his family and answering questions for FasterSkier. (Photo: FasterSkier)

If asked about McKeever, most ski fans will remember his time guiding his younger brother to Para glory, or his leadership that brought Canada to the elite of the Para-nordic world. This has eclipsed his own history of podiums, multiple national titles, and Olympic experience since he joined the Junior National team in 1990. McKeever has been part of the National team system every year since then: the good, the bad, and the Nagano ugly.

From the outside view, McKeever never produces inspirational speeches that would make Hollywood proud. If he shouts, it is encouragement to a racer on course, and he is most often seen having a quiet one-on-one conversation. Every conversation loops back to “moving forward” and what can be learned to be better in the future.

So what makes McKeever a leader? He is surrounded by inspired people. Athletes produce year over year improvement. Retired athletes look back with a smile at their team memories. And there are a lot of “team” moments, among both the athletes and the staff.

Para athletes often talked about lessons learned from teammates and the support they felt. Asked how to bring the Para success to the rest of the team, McKeever focussed on culture.

“Para … it’s it’s a small community overall. Tiny,” he said. “So it’s a lot easier to create that team environment and attitude around our culture.”

“So the funny thing is, we think Nordic or cross country skiing is such a big community overall but compared to the world, it’s actually a fairly small community. I still remember a lot of people [on the World Cup circuit] from when I raced back in the late 90s, early 2000s. So this is a small community overall.”

And the next step is change.

“So changing the culture within Canada is about being open to others’ ideas. And we have gone to a decentralized program where athletes are training within their home environments. And then we’re camp-based. So we create our team environment in camps and on the World Cup in the winter. Bit more similar, probably, to what the US system is right now under Matt Whitcomb.”

While McKeever listens to others, he has a solid core of philosophy.

“And that culture is about being a positive influence on the program, always forward. No, we’re not always going to have successful days,” he explained. “But to come in and improve on the tough days and look at the positives, but also look at where we can improve every single day. And I think that just that philosophy and the culture that is behind that creates a safe environment where athletes are free to express themselves as they will. And they’re not scared to speak openly. And so when they do that, we can create a space where they can be happy to operate in, so that creates the smiles. Cohesion as a group and a team becomes the number one key focus that I try to look at.

With the decentralized structure, athletes work primarily with their club/personal coaches with support from the national system. This adds continuity as skiers enter and exit the World Cup and the National Team; it also helps knowledge trickle down into the clubs.

This fits in with an overall goal of integrating the National Team system more tightly with the clubs.

Next up in the Canadian series is the NextGen and Development changes, along with an explanation of why the USST’s Bryan Fish and Greta Anderson were using the same phrases as Jeffries and de Nys at the combined Nordiq Cup/SuperTour at Sovereign Lake in December.

Gerry Furseth

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