What a year for Cross Country Canada (CCC). For the first time in history, its men’s team stood on a World Cup relay podium. Its top skier brought home his first World Championships gold and its women’s team pulled off its fourth-best world champs relay result on record.
With the release of Canada’s 2017/2018 national-team nominations earlier this month, FasterSkier caught up with CCC’s High Performance Director Thomas Holland and the World Cup co-coach Ivan Babikov to discuss the program moving forward.
What’s changed since last year? Not much. With a strong season behind them, an Olympic season ahead and a solid coach and tech crew on board, Holland supported a sense of continuity for the upcoming season.
“We’re not changing anything this year. We’re just making little improvements, which is a great thing,” Holland said on the phone on May 23. “We’ve got stable coaching, stable technical team …. We’re just adding one more camp. We used to always do four, with cutbacks we went to three, so now we’re stepping it back up to four.”
Almost all of the 14 athletes named to the senior team are returnees, but two made the jump from the World Cup B-team to the A-team: Knute Johnsgaard and Jess Cockney. With the advance, both Cockney and Johnsgaard will join A-team veterans Alex Harvey, Len Valjas and Devon Kershaw.
Babikov, a former World Cup skier who transitioned to coaching last year, works with team physiologist Jessica Kryski to write training plans for everyone but Harvey on the men’s World Cup team (despite Kershaw being based in Norway).
For the second-straight year, Babikov is teaming up with Louis Bouchard, Harvey’s personal coach and head coach of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH), who coaches U25 Team member Cendrine Browne as well. As World Cup co-coaches, Bouchard and Babikov are able to divide the workload and travel required throughout the year, and specifically, five months abroad.
“It’s hard to be on the World Cup circuit all the time for staff,” Babikov said on the phone. “[Louis and I] both have families, so it’s worked out well when we’re subbing for each other once in awhile so athletes have a national-team coach with them all the time. We have a good mix with his experience and my experience on the other side as an athlete. I think I’ve learned from him and it’s been great.”
While the World Cup A-team remains all-male, three women were nominated to the B-team: Emily Nishikawa, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt, and Dahria Beatty of the Alpine Insurance Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA). These women will work with Chris Jeffries, head coach of the AWCA, who plans to travel with the team on certain trips to Europe as well.
Tuesday, May 30, marked the last day of the team’s first official camp of the season in Mont-Tremblant, Québec, which started May 21 and included the entire national team minus Kershaw.
According to Babikov, Kershaw would be at the second men’s World Cup team camp in Park City, Utah, from June 26-July 11. A month later, those six men (including B-team member Graeme Killick) will head to Livigno, Italy, for their third camp Aug. 16-Sept. 3, while the women’s team and Jeffries head to New Zealand for an on-snow camp.
For the fourth and final camp, both the men’s and women’s World Cup teams, along with the Canadian U25 Team, which includes Julien Locke (Black Jack), Browne (CNEPH), Katherine Stewart-Jones (NTDC Thunder Bay), Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers), and the senior team’s only newcomer Gareth Williams (Telemark), will return to Park City for a dryland camp Oct. 5-24. An all-encompassing Alignment camp is scheduled for early July in Thunder Bay, Ontario, but due to other camps happening simultaneously, the World Cup team members will not be attending, Babikov said.
Heading into the upcoming World Cup season, Harvey remains Canada’s lone athlete in the Red Group (top 15 in sprint or distance World Ranking list) and is accordingly the only one receiving full funding for training camps. According to Holland, the six men that form the World Cup training group (World Cup A-team plus Killick) are receiving funding from Own The Podium (OTP). He reiterated that OTP allocates funds based on medal potential.
“They’re funding the medallist people, the potential people,” he said. “Primarily, that’s Alex Harvey. We did get a medal in the relay last year on the World Cup, part of that group [Harvey, Kershaw, Johnsgaard, and Valjas] is included as well. Len Valjas had a medal on the World Cup too, [in the team sprint] with Alex … and additionally, we want a training group. They support that idea of having a good training group here around Alex. That adds up to six men.
“After that, it doesn’t change much from last year,” he continued. “There’s not a lot of money outside of that [Own the Podium support] window. There’s support on the World Cup, etc., but your question was has it changed. … We don’t have more money, we have actually less money.”
Compared to past Olympics, CCC’s budget this year is about half of what it was for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and “a lot less than what we had in Vancouver,” Holland said.
“It’s a tight budget,” he added. “I’m not going to sit here and whine about money because we also had a tight budget last year. We’ve had cuts for three years leading into last year, and still — small team, small budget — we did pretty good. Our attitude is that we have a little bit more money this year we’re getting from Own The Podium and we’re doing an additional camp for the men. … We’re not changing a lot, except adding a camp and having good preparation. There’s less money, but we’re going to get the job done.”
From his viewpoint, ongoing annual budget cuts have especially hurt development programs with a “lack of money to really invest in the future,” he said. Yet development remains a priority.
“You’ve probably heard of the ‘NextGen’ funding. Expect that there’ll be some kind of announcement this year,” Holland said. “We have a plan in place, and we’re making changes, regardless of not having a lot of money, in how we go about that next generation, in testing and development.”
In order to continue creating opportunities for up-and-coming talent, CCC is now working more closely with clubs, permitting some national-team members to continue their work with club coaches, while simultaneously training with national team. Out of nine World Cup team members, seven are not affiliated with training centres (only Harvey is listed as CNEPH and Beatty is part of the AWCA).
“We’ve never said everybody has to join a training centre,” Holland said. “I guess what we’ve said is, if you’re on the national ski team, you had to be in a training centre. … That is an option for U25 athletes, but once you’re on the World Cup team, we still have a centralized model. What we’re doing is broadening.”
Since the training-centre model was instated in 2006, the level of coaching in clubs around the country has improved, Holland explained. That makes it less essential for an athlete to belong to one of three training centres.
“They provide education and good services in six or eight clubs across the country,” he said. “You’ve got to have a club that has a coach who is well-experienced, can write a good yearly training plan that makes sense. … There’s also requirements to come and be tested here [in Canmore], for those athletes, to participate in national ski team camps, etc. So it’s not just cutting them loose, it’s more of a closely integrated model. Trying to integrate more with the divisions and the clubs. When you do that, you know your dollar goes farther.”
Bottom line, Holland reiterated that CCC is “moving ahead despite not having the resources.”
“We ran a World Cup team program with significantly less money, but we’ve been pretty good at finding ways to do things inexpensively [through] collaboration with divisions and clubs,” he said. “We’re also extending some of our national senior team programming to the clubs. That’s a big change.”
Because of this change, 19-year-old Williams, in his first year on the senior team, will continue to work with his club, Telemark, while also training with the national team.
Financially, not much separates Canada’s World Cup B-team from its U25 (Under 25) Team.
“In terms of support, there’s not a lot of difference,” Holland said of the two teams. “I think it’s mainly an age factor. If you’re coming through U25, you’re expected to meet a little higher standard for that B-team. Whereas Gareth Williams, we want to look at that as more talent development. … By the time they hit the B-team, we expect them to be at the World Cup level.”
In addition to his international results last season (including an 11th place in the skiathlon at Junior World Championships), Williams was also named to the U25 development team because of the value seen in the years ahead of him.
“Gareth, as a junior, has a few years to develop for us, to put into his program,” Holland said. “We have clearly defined benchmarks of who gets on the team. For Gareth, it’s written in our criteria, top 12 at World Junior championship result.”
“We have to look to the future and look ahead and develop younger guys and give them a nod and give them recognition so they have something to work for,” Babikov said.
A few of the senior team nominations, including Bouffard-Nesbitt, who was injured in a car accident in February, and MacIsaac-Jones, who struggled with a foot injury and had surgery this spring, were based on the “force majeure” clause.
“Some people who were sick at the wrong times last year,” Holland said. “Health is a big concern … that’s a primary thing that we’ll be on top of this year. Then the other people, I wouldn’t call health. … Athletes get injured, we like to stay with them as long as we see that there’s a good recovery plan and the injuries are taken care of. I won’t say that those injuries aren’t serious. As the hockey players say, it’s day-to-day on the comeback.”
As for which Canadian skiers you can expect to see starting World Cup Period 1, Holland confirmed there will be at least 11: seven men and four women. The seven men include the five A-team members who “have met the Olympic Winter Games (OWG) Nomination Criteria outlined in CCC’s OWG Internal Nomination Procedures for the Olympics”, according to Holland, with standout results last year (in individual or team events). Killick will also start the season on the World Cup, as will Russell Kennedy as the Continental Cup leader.
The four women all competed at 2017 World Championships: Stewart-Jones (who is also the Continental Cup leader), Nishikawa, Beatty, and Browne.
And Nishikawa, Beatty and Killick all met “alternate qualifying criteria” for the Olympics.
The Olympic team size is a minimum of four men and four women, Holland explained in an email. “The primary criteria takes precedent over the alternate criteria if the maximum number of athletes is established under the primary criteria.” Olympic selections will be finalized in January.
But in the meantime, CCC will aim to host selection races for Period 1 World Cup starts on Frozen Thunder in Canmore in early November.
“We don’t have criteria yet, but potentially we would add one or two more male sprinters, and at least another female athlete,” he said of the Period 1 team. “I’m not going to get into specifics, because we still have to write the criteria, but that’s the intent coming out of our spring meetings. You’ve got a pretty good World Cup group there in November/December.
“I think it’s good to note we’re a little different, the way we do things, than the U.S.,” Holland added. “After we see what happens in December, then we look at our Olympic trials, which will be in Mont-Sainte-Anne in January. That’s how we’ll pick the rest of them.”
In terms of medal potential at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February, Holland said the goal is one, for starters.
“We’re just looking for a medal,” he said. “Always, two is better than one, but our focus … [is on] where our medal chances are. How do we maximize those opportunities for each? Certainly in the relay, we’ll be shooting for the bronze because we’ve done the analysis. For Alex, he’s going to ski in as many events as he can. So it depends on day to day, how he comes into the games. You know he can medal in sprints, he can medal in the 50 k, and everything in between. We’re just optimizing every opportunity.”
— Gerry Furseth and Alex Kochon contributed reporting