The Canadian Olympic team was officially announced last week in Calgary, Alberta. While seven of the 11 team members were no surprise (most prequalified for the Games with their World Cup results last season), four of the newly minted Olympians earned their spots through the high-stakes week of Olympic Trials racing. Graeme Killick, Emily Nishikawa, Jesse Cockney, and Heidi Widmer, all of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and Canadian Senior Development Team (NST), managed to keep their nerves and fitness together to each garner their first trip to the big show — the 2014 Winter Olympics, which start in just over two weeks in Sochi, Russia. Here, we profile these Olympic newbies and their thoughts before heading to Sochi.
Killick, 24, scored his ticket to Sochi via a second place in the trials’ 15-kilometre classic race and a win in the 30 k skiathlon, and has been steadily improving over the past few years on the AWCA and NST. After placing 15th in his last U23 Championships in 2012, Killick made a smooth transition to a senior career with a handful of NorAm podiums in 2013, including a third-place finish in the 10 k freestyle at Canadian Nationals.
In a phone interview last week, Killick mentioned that the hardest part of qualifying for the Olympics this year has been the increased level of competition amongst the Canadian men.
“This year, more than any other Olympic qualifier in the past, the level of competition in Canada is at an all-time high,” Killick said. “I think that alone made it hard to achieve, but I think it was all the training [I’ve] put in the last couple years, [I’ve] been able to put it together for these two races.
“Every qualifier has been a challenge, like for U23 Championships and World Juniors, those are things that I’ve had to overcome over the years, and it all culminates to these trials,” he added. “I think being able to have a good result here [is from] all of the rest of the qualifiers that have helped me to put it together for this week.”
With less international-racing experience than most on the Canadian Olympic squad, Killick will primarily be looking to build on his experience and skills, but believes the Canadians have a shot at some good results.
“I think for these Olympics, and I think for myself, I’ll just continue to improve,” he said. “The more racing I get and the more international experience I get. I’m looking forward to the World Cups in Toblach [Italy] to prepare me for racing at the international level and at the Olympics. “
Nishikawa won the first distance race of the Olympic Trials, a 10 k, by almost a minute to secure her nomination to the Olympic squad. She also placed sixth in the 15 k skiathlon.
At 24, Nishikawa has a solid resume of international results. She competed at last year’s World Championships and placed 34th in the World Cup 15 k skiathlon in December 2012 in Canmore. Prior to that, she placed as high as 17th at U23 Championships.
This season, the Whitehorse native has been on a hot streak. Coming off of an especially consistent summer and fall of training, Nishikawa has had podium finishes in three out of the four NorAm races before the trials. Though she said she felt confident about her chances of making the team prior to trials, she is very happy everything came together at the right time.
“[Making the Olympics] is a childhood dream come true,” Nishikawa said. “I’m so thrilled, and so honored, and proud to represent Canada at the Olympics. I’ve definitely been working towards this goal for a long, long time, so yeah, everything’s come together for me, and to compete at the Olympics—I’m just thrilled.”
Nishikawa’s brother, Graham, will also be potentially racing a few weeks later in Sochi as a backup guide for Brian McKeever at the Paralympics.
Cockney was sick before the Olympic Trials. While he casually mentioned that he had been ill in a pre-trials interview, he didn’t seem too fazed by the situation. However, after the races, Cockney confessed that he had, in fact, been very sick, very “strung up,” and very stressed, what with hearing “Olympics” mentioned every day.
However, his dad, Angus Cockney, who was an elite nordic racer who got his starts in the Northwest Territories in the mid ’60s, knew what to do.
“My dad … really helped me calm down and relax, and made sure that I was enjoying the process and just dealing with what was in front of me,” Cockney said. “He’s good at keeping me positive.”
Cockney, 24 (and coincidentally sharing a birthdate with Emily Nishikawa), placed second and first in the freestyle sprints at Trials. Coming off an early season on the World Cup, Cockney had a weak sense of his fitness.
“The good days are a little different over there,” he said. “Instead of finishing on the podium like I feel like I would have in Canada, I was finishing in the 60’s over there, so it was a different feeling for sure.”
This was especially tough going into trials; Cockney said believing in himself was the toughest challenge for making the team.
“I think that, along with a lot of people that are going to the Olympics, the biggest challenge is really finding true belief that you can do it,” he said. “I struggle a lot with self-doubt and I’m pretty hard on myself with a lot of things so that was a big thing for me to be sure that I was confident going into the races.”
Cockney has had some of the stronger results of this class of Olympic freshmen. The Yellowknife native placed ninth in the Canmore World Cup sprint last year, and had eight podiums in last year’s NorAm circuit.
Along with the families of the other Olympians, Cockney’s family is trying to make it to Sochi, despite the complexities of Russian visa acquisition.
“I am not holding out a whole lot of hope that they’ll be able to go,” he said. “But they’re trying as hard as they can. I’m happy that they at least are in a position where they can do that, and one of my sponsors is being very generous and offered to help pay their way, so that’s amazing … [But if they can’t come] they’ll probably end up seeing more of me on TV than they would if they came to Russia.”
At 22, Widmer is the youngest member of the Canadian Olympic cross-country team. Coming from a strong skiing family (her brother, Phil, a 2006 Olympian, narrowly missed qualifying for this year’s team), she dominated the women’s freestyle sprints, placing second to Chandra Crawford in one race and winning the other (Crawford only raced the first race).
Last season, Widmer competed in the Canadian World Cups and had two podium finishes at nationals.
Hailing from Banff, Alberta, Widmer is still somewhat shell-shocked from her nomination. Although she had a strong season last year, she said that the realization of making the team has “sunk in in steps.”
“It wasn’t all at once, it was in chunks,” Widmer explained. “Each day I realized it differently.”
Widmer had no idea what to expect going into this season after sustaining a head injury this fall. She had to take several weeks completely off and temper her training carefully after that.
“Going into the season, I had no idea what to expect because in the fall, I was dealing with my head [injury], and I think that really challenged me to focus just on what I could do in each training session,” she said. “I wasn’t really looking too far ahead or anything. You’re very much living day by day when you’re dealing with an injury. So going into the season I kind of went in with that mentality of just being like ‘What can I do today?’ and just really being present in the moment and taking advantage of every opportunity that I was given.”
Clearly, that attitude paid off. Widmer departed for Europe this past Sunday, where over the course of the next few weeks she will compete in U23 Championships, the World Cup skate sprint in Toblach, and the Olympics, in quick succession.
Along with the American Olympic squad, most of the Canadians will be doing a training camp in Seiser Alm, Italy, before departing for the World Cup races Feb. 1-2 in Toblach, Italy.