MONT SAINTE-ANNE, Québec — Whipping along the first of two downhills on a chemically enhanced sprint course at Canadian Ski Nationals on Thursday, Chandra Crawford could feel the vibrations in the stadium.
Everyone there could.
A helicopter soared directly ahead, swaying above one end of the 1.4-kilometer freestyle sprint loop to the other for an unrivaled viewpoint of the nation’s cross-country skiing finale. Spectators buzzed that the mayor of Québec was inside.
In fact, it was the CEO and president of Alex Harvey’s sponsor, a paper company called Cascade. His last name was Lemaire, which means “the mayor” in French.
Crawford didn’t care who was inside. This was cool, the Canadian National Team member thought.
Surging ahead of Ida Sargent (U.S. Ski Team/Craftsbury) to take the lead in the A-final, Crawford one-skated beneath the swirling chopper, playing the White Stripe song “Blue Orchid” in her head.
You got a reaction, you got a reaction, didn’t you?
While people on the sidelines held onto their hats and race organizers chased runaway V-boards, Crawford attacked the final hill and skated away to national title.
She beat runner-up and teammate Dasha Gaiazova by 1.37 seconds, completing the course in 3:30.7. Earlier in the day, Crawford won the sprint qualifier in 3:17.15, nearly two seconds ahead of the second-fastest female in the time trial, Sophie Caldwell (Dartmouth College).
Crawford went on to win her quarterfinal and semifinal, beating Alysson Marshall (Alberta World Cup Academy/Senior Development Team) for the top spot in the first heat and Gaiazova in the second.
In the A-final, Crawford did her best to lead the six-person field, getting out front to start and then tucking behind Sargent before kicking hard out of the stadium. American Jennie Bender of Central Cross Country (CXC) worked her way to third (+2.44) and Sargent finished fourth (+2.96).
“The finish was so exhilarating with the helicopter and everyone cheering,” Crawford said after defending her national freestyle sprint title from 2010.
“I was just like, ‘Oh I can go race again I just felt so good.’ ”
Last year, Gaiazova was the classic sprint champion at nationals, and Crawford took second. Both were coming off long trip back from Europe on Monday and raced in Tuesday’s 10 k freestyle race. Crawford wouldn’t have done it any differently.
“Québec is so fun to race in, the best place in the country to race in, I just love it so much,” she said. “Canmore’s amazing as well, Callaghan’s great, but the passion of the Québec people for the sport; there’s a helicopter. It’s kind of another level. It’s nationals and there’s a helicopter. I think that’s quite impressive.”
She fueled her optimism with some melatonin sleeping pulls for a good night’s rest and woke up excited to race. She always felt grateful to do so, she said. Just because the season was winding down, Thursday was no different.
After clocking the fastest qualifying time, Crawford made a point to lead each heat from the start. She was tired and wanted to control the pace.
She advanced out of the quarterfinal with Marshall, who ultimately finished sixth in the A-final, and set out in the semifinal with her younger sister, Rosanna. In their first race together, Rosanna, a Canadian biathlete, moved up alongside her sister in front and went on to place fifth in the heat.
The three women in front, Chandra, Gaiazova, Marshall and Norwegian Britt Ingunn Nydal, advanced to the A-final. Rosanna finished 10th overall.
“I was surprised to qualify in seventh and fourth Canadian,” Rosanna said. “I knew it was going to be hard, the stamina all the way to the finals if I made it. The quarterfinal was fine, but the semi was a little bit rough. I wasn’t used to people pushing and shoving so I should have been a little bit more aggressive, but it was fun.”
“My sister was awesome,” Chandra said. “I’m so happy for her and she skied so well. When I went to the front, I tried to preserve a space for her, but she just blew those booster jets in the middle. I have the same physiology, I know how that feels.”
In the final, Crawford tried to play a similar pacing game, and Gaiazova followed.
“Dasha’s really strong so if she had the lead, she would probably grind me into a fine grain of pain,” Crawford said. “But because I had the lead, I took it out pretty slow.”
That was OK by Gaiazova.
“I’m really, really tired and burned out from the whole season so I knew I didn’t have much energy to begin with,” Gaiazova said. “I had to be strategic where I make my moves and try to conserve as much as I can in the beginning and fight for it at the end.”
Had the course been a little bit longer or involved more climbing, Gaiazova said she probably could have challenged Crawford more.
“I’m really happy with my silver,” she added. “It was good considering that we just flew in from Europe. … This morning I felt absolutely horrible, and actually now after racing, I feel much better.”
Bender, who won her qualifier and semifinal, was relieved to make the podium after placing 12th in the 5 k classic individual start on Monday. She had taken some time off after winning the American Birkebeiner 54 k classic race in late February.
Based on the way she felt in Monday’s classic race, she wasn’t sure that was the best decision.
“I was kicking myself like ‘Nooo, I’m really hoping that this didn’t screw me over,’ ” Bender said. “I was hoping for a good race today so I could feel like, ‘OK, I’m back in it.’ ”
She was sixth in the qualifier to initially calm her fears. Last year, Bender finished third to Gaiazova and Crawford in the classic sprint at nationals, and was happy to repeat the feat.
“Everyone who’s good in Canada is here,” Bender said. “It’s definitely fun to see how they sprint.”
On Thursday, Bender and Sargent had to skip the awards ceremony to drive back to Craftsbury, Vt. There, they would gear up for the SuperTour Finals, which start with a freestyle prologue on Saturday.
A clear-cut leader coming into the finish of her quarterfinal, Sargent was surprised to advance to the semi. About 50 meters before the finish, she poled between her legs while transitioning from a free skate and fell forward.
“I faceplanted, got a bloody nose and still made it,” Sargent said. “It took me a while to get up so I took my bib off. I thought I was done. That was kind of a nice surprise.”
Sargent, who qualified in fifth, also fell in the qualifier after she caught her ski in a rut on a corner before the finish. She rebounded from the adversity, placed second to Bender in the semi and landed a spot in the A-final.
There, she started in the back row behind Crawford, Gaiazova and Bender, but managed to pull ahead after the last hill.
“I finally got by them and went for it but ran out of steam just in the last bit,” Sargent said. “I was also a little timid in the lanes; those lanes were really icy. I probably should have gone for it more, but I just didn’t want to faceplant again.”
Sargent said racing against World Cup sprint veterans like Crawford and Gaiazova was always a great experience. She also appreciated advancing through the heats.
“On the World Cup, I never made it to the final so more heats than I’m used to,” Sargent said. “That’ll be good going into Craftsbury.”