This year, the Haywood Canadian National Championships have been pushed back a week to accommodate a special group – Canada’s World Cup elite, which are returning in force to put on a show for the home crowd in Quebec.
With Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, Chandra Crawford and all the major Canadian stars slated to participate, the fields will be some of the deepest in North America all season. The Canadian World Cup squad has turned in no less than 12 World Cup medals this winter and will be back to entertain their native fans.
Hosted by Skibec Nordique and Club Nordique Mont Ste-Anne (MSA) for the first time since 2007, the eight-day competition will be held between two venues. Starting Saturday, the club team sprints will take place in Quebec City, one of the oldest cities in North America, on the historic Plains of Abraham. The individual open freestyle sprints are also scheduled for downtown Quebec on Thursday.
About 45 minutes north of the provincial capital, Mont-Sainte-Anne and its large trail network will hold the remaining races, including an interval-start classic race on Monday, interval skate on Tuesday and classic mass start on Saturday, March 24.
This year, Canadian nationals open with team sprints on the Plains of Abraham, a large downtown park and national historic site. Individual-start racing begins Monday at MSA with 10 k senior men’s and 5 k senior women’s distances. Tuesday includes 15 k men’s and 10 k women’s individual-start skate races.
The Open categories then have Wednesday to rest before heading south to Quebec City for Thursday’s 1.7/1.5 k freestyle sprints. The championships wrap up a week from Saturday with 50/30 k classic mass starts back at the club trails.
With the Canadian National Ski Team attending, racing will be some of the most competitive on this side of the Atlantic all season. After several of its athletes qualified for World Cup finals, many will arrive back in Canada on Monday and race from Tuesday on.
Harvey will be the highlight as he returns to race in his home province of Quebec. Kershaw will also be a big favorite as the all-around skier, who currently sits second in the World Cup overall standings.
Young Canadian sprinter Len Valjas also stayed in Europe after earning his first World Cup medal last week in Drammen, Norway. Another World Cup team member, distance specialist Ivan Babikov will raise the level of the field significantly at nationals; the two individual-start races are his to lose.
Outside of the World Cup, the depth of the Canadian men remains strong, particularly in sprinting.
NorAm leader Kevin Sandau (Alberta World Cup Academy/Senior Development Team) remained in Europe for World Cup finals, but the strong distance skier that raced his first Holmenkollen this season will be back to contest the 50 k classic at nationals next Saturday.
Veteran skier Drew Goldsack (AWCA/NST) had a bumpy ride over the course of the season, climbing as high as fifth place in the team sprint in Dusseldorf, Germany, before crashing hard in the final of a NorAm skate sprint in Whistler, B.C., where he suffered a concussion, injured his shoulder and broke his favourite pair of skis. Ever since his recovery, he’s been pushing hard for a positive result, especially in the sprints.
His World Cup Academy teammate, Phil Widmer will also be vying for a top spot in the short distances at nationals. The 29-year-old was consistent on the NorAm and earned a trip to Europe. In Scandinavian and Alpen Cup action, Widmer fought his way to the final in two sprints, facing Switzerland’s World Cup leader Dario Cologna in one of them.
One of this season’s top NorAm skiers at any distance, Graham Nishikawa (AWCA/NST) has been a consistent podium contender and earned some valuable World Cup experience in November and December. He collected four top-10 finishes on the mid-winter Alpen and Scandinavian Cup swing.
Two more Academy members, Jesse Cockney (NST) and Patrick Stewart-Jones are both threats in the sprint with plenty of experience in NorAm A-finals this season. Cockney is fresh off a trip to the U23 World Championships in Erzurum, Turkey.
Well-rounded Brent McMurtry (Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre/NST) stood on the podium at every NorAm stop this season, yet lost the NorAm World Cup spot to Sandau. McMurtry will doubtlessly be hungry after a winter without a trip to Europe.
As for younger skiers, Graeme Killick (AWCA/NST) finished in the top 20 twice at U23 Worlds. His U23 teammate, David Greer (CNEPH/Whitehorse) is also climbing the distance ladder.
Thunder Bay’s National Development Centre features a trio of strong males. Michael Somppi (NST) enjoyed a series of solid races on the OPA Cup circuit in Europe, Chris Hamilton picked up some international racing experience at U23 Worlds, and Harry Seaton emerged as a strong sprinter on the NorAm circuit this year.
On the women’s side, two of the nation’s leading women, Crawford and Dasha Gaiazova remained in Europe for World Cup finals along with Alysson Marshall (AWCA/NST), who claimed the NorAm World Cup slot.
Perianne Jones (NST) is back in Canada and primed for several national-championship events. After finishing in the top 30 in two World Cup distance races, she is a favourite for both individual-start races.
Emily Nishikawa (AWCA/NST) will be one of her challengers. A close runner-up to Marshall in the NorAm standings, Nishikawa notched 17th at U23 Worlds.
Watch out for 2006 Torino Olympian Amanda Ammar, an Independent racer from Canmore, Alberta, who is on a charge in her comeback year. Ammar picked up two bronze medals in the last NorAm in Orford, Quebec, and had a several top NorAm results throughout the season. She also won the Gatineau Loppet 51 k freestyle in February.
Kate Brennan (AWCA/Kanata Cross Country), who won the 5 k classic race at the final NorAm of the season, is a strong sprinter also enjoying her first full season back on the circuit. She was recovering from a shoulder surgery last year.
Andrea Dupont (Rocky Mountain Racers) is perhaps the biggest sprint threat, as she has made the finals in every NorAm sprint this season. Andrea Lee (NDC Thunder Bay/Strathcona Nordic) also had a breakout year, turning in a handful of top-10 results on the NorAm circuit, including her first win in the 15 k freestyle mass start in Orford.
Club skiers Zoe Roy (RMR) and Alana Thomas (Nakkertok) skied well enough earlier this season to earn a trip to Europe for international racing experience. Thomas went on to place eighth in an Alpen Cup 10 k pursuit in Switzerland.
While it is Canadian nationals, Quebec City’s close proximity to the Eastern seaboard and the extremely competitive field attracted some Americans.
The confirmation list featured about a dozen competitive U.S. skiers, including Craftsbury Green Racing Project members Dylan McGuffin and Tim Reynolds. Ida Sargent is back in Craftsbury after spending most of the season abroad on the World Cup, and wrote in an email that she would attend nationals and possibly race a sprint and a distance race.
U.S. Ski Team development member, Skyler Davis, who suffered from illness earlier in the season, is also registered along with Leif Zimmerman (Bridger Ski Foundation) and Bryan Cook (CGRP).
Simi Hamilton (USST) wrote in an email that he was heading to Canada and planned on racing the 15 k interval-start skate on Tuesday and Thursday’s individual skate sprint.
The Americans aren’t the only ones taking notice of the stiff competition at Canadian nationals. According to a Cross Country Canada press release, several notable French and Norwegian skiers will be there, thanks to a grant from Sport Canada’s International Hosting Program.
In the senior ranks, sprint specialist Roddy Darragon of France is of note as a World Cup and Olympic veteran. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he won silver in the sprint at the 2006 Winter Games. He was recently fifth in a World Cup freestyle sprint in Poland, and placed fifth in a team sprint earlier this year in Milan, Italy.
Two talented Norwegian juniors will test themselves in Canada. Both Junior World Championships medalists, Sindre Bjornstad Skar and Martin Nyenget are considered top-tier in their country.
For more information, visit skinationals2012.com and follow FasterSkier’s live coverage here.
For start lists and results, visit Zone4.ca.