QUEBEC CITY – Two tiny specks charging toward the finish, Graham Nishikawa and Jesse Cockney appeared to merge into a single lane, and then suddenly jolted in opposite directions.
Whatever made them move must have been significant, and it could have explained why Nishikawa lost his lead and ultimately the classic team sprint at the Canadian Ski National Championships on Saturday.
Turns out it was just water in the tracks on a balmy afternoon at the Plains of Abraham.
Usually Alberta World Cup Academy teammates, Cockney and Nishikawa were competitors in the club event on the first day of nationals. With one lap to go in the open men’s relay final (each racer did three alternating 1 k loops), Nishikawa of Whitehorse decided to test his AWCA training partner. He immediately moved to the front of the pack on the first hill out of the stadium.
Cockney (Foothills Nordic) followed close behind until the final stretch, where Nishikawa slipped on some standing water and shifted to another track, causing Cockney to react as well. Both found themselves in lesser-used lanes, and Cockney powered ahead to win by 0.3 seconds.
“’[We] kind of both left the fast track and we were just skiing down some tracks that hadn’t been skied in,” Cockney said. “Thankfully, I closed it to the line.”
After Cockney secured the victory with Foothills teammate Brent McMurtry in 14:52.7, Nishikawa and David Greer were second for Whitehorse, and Nakkertok’s Steffan Lloyd and Patrick Stewart-Jones placed third (+31.9).
McMurtry as the scrambler and Cockney, the anchor, worked to stay in front of the 10-team pack early in the final. They led through the first exchange, but Nishikawa overtook Cockney at his trademark spot on Saturday: the first gradual climb.
McMurtry made his way back in front during his remaining laps, but not without the help of his teammate and NorAm competitor.
“In the last exchange I was telling Brent, ‘You gotta go! You gotta go!’ because Nish was hammering,” Cockney said. “I knew he’d have a lot left for the final.”
The Foothills racers never got much more than a second ahead or behind Whitehorse, but made up the time when it counted: at the finish. Nishikawa knew sprinting was Cockney’s strength and not necessarily his or Greer’s, and anticipated a close result regardless.
“We raced it perfectly,” Nishikawa said. “I was coming into the stretch in the lead and hit a bit of water and got lost my balance a bit. Jess is a really, really strong finisher; that’s what he’s known for. I would have taken my chances, but that was the best I could do.”
“I was lucky not to fall, but I don’t know if I would have beat him if I stayed upright,” Nishikawa added. “My strategy was to go for it and try to make him hurt as much as possible. We know everybody’s strengths and we’re a bit better distance and not as good at sprints versus those guys, but it was just fun. No stress.”
Three years ago, Greer and Nishikawa, former Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre teammates, also placed second in the team sprint. They wanted the win this year.
“But it was still a good race,” Greer said. “Team sprints are just a good warmup for the rest of the races, too. It’s always fun.”
“It’s the one time of year, domestically at least, where we get to race not for ourselves, but for representing our club, wearing different suits,” McMurtry said. “It’s kind of cool, something I look forward to.”
“It’s good to race side by side,” Cockney added.
McMurtry was glad to be racing with Cockney as well.
“It’s nice knowing I have a strong partner and a guy that beat me to the line a few times this year,” he said. “I was pretty confident with him coming on the last leg.”
McMurtry and Cockney won the first men’s qualifying round to advance to the final. Greer and Nishikawa also won their opening relay, as did Skibec’s Etienne Richard and Raphael Couturier after Stewart-Jones fell a few meters from the finish.