To kick off this World Cup season, Cross Country Canada (CCC) had planned to send four women for Period 1. After its men’s team has gathered most of the attention in recent years, the Canadian women are now in a position to develop depth at the top level of the sport.
In her third full World Cup season, Emily Nishikawa, of Canada’s World Cup B-team, will be joined for Period 1 by national U25 Team members Dahria Beatty and Cendrine Browne. Maya MacIsaac-Jones was scheduled to make the trip but a minor foot injury at the end of October turned into a longer recovery.
“Things have been going well,” MacIsaac-Jones wrote in an email last week, “And I’ve been able to ski pain free while still seeing improvement in my foot.”
Her plan to test her recovery from sesamoiditis, with pain at the forefront of her foot, in an Alberta Cup last Saturday was derailed by a minor cold, but she remained in good spirits.
“I used to race in triathlon competitively until I was around 14,” wrote MacIsaac-Jones, a 21-year-old Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) skier. “Having that background helped because it meant that I was able to start getting good quality training in the pool right away.”
For the women’s team, CCC’s primary goal this period is to get top-30 finishes and World Cup nation’s points to maintain its quota for World Cup starts. The Canadian women have four quota spots plus the Continental Cup (COC) leader this season. As Beatty is COC leader, there is one quota spot open. According to CCC High Performance Director Thomas Holland, the top choices for that spot are out: U25 Team member Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt is “recovering from injury that kept her from doing any weight bearing training until this fall,” Holland wrote in an email. “Doing well in training/racing but not ready for the World Cup yet—needs to be cautious at this point.”
Then there’s another U25 Team member, Katherine Stewart-Jones, who declined the Period 1 trip to focus on selection trials for U23 World Championships.
“Our women’s team, they’re developing, but their best chance of getting nation’s points is in the relay, team sprints, those kinds of things,” Holland said in a previous phone interview in early November following CCC’s World Cup team trials. “But we’re not just going [to Europe] just to do the relay. It’s important [for skiers] like Dahria Beatty, who is more sprint-oriented and got her results there last year, they’re chasing World Cup points, is the primary goal.”
The World Cup is very much a European tour. North American athletes spend months in hotels scheduling calls home around the six- to nine-hour time difference. European athletes don’t just benefit by keeping the same mobile phone number on the road and avoiding jet lag. At the start of Ski Tour Canada, France’s Maurice Magnificat told FasterSkier that he went home after “every weekend” during the World Cup season. Last season, Nishikawa was the only Canadian woman racing World Cups in Europe for most of the season. While many of the European athletes recovered at their homes, Nishikawa spent time with the American women when possible.
“It was not super-bad, but I’m excited to have Canadian women there with me,” Nishikawa said in a phone interview in October.
When she first spent a few months on the World Cup circuit following 2013 World Championships nearly four years ago, Nishikawa, now 27, had teammate Perianne Jones to look up to.
“That was great to learn from her and have her there showing me the ropes of World Cup racing,” Nishikawa said.
This season, she will be sharing her experience with the younger three.
“I really don’t know how [Nishikawa] did it,” Browne, 23, of the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, said on the phone.
All three said they view Nishikawa as a leader and mentor.
“She’s much more calm than we are,” Browne said. “We are still all excited and sometimes a little bit stressed out. She brings something else to the group, she tells us some tricks sometimes, or tells us stuff we should do.”
“Emily’s had a few years of experience now,” said Beatty, 22, of the AWCA. “And she’s been able to bring a wealth of knowledge of what we need to make that jump and help us with that.”
“To have enough women to fill a relay team is awesome,” Nishikawa said in October of her three teammates (before MacIsaac-Jones was injured). “To improve the women’s program in Canada, we need to have women there [in Europe]. I’m really excited about it.”
Preparing for Europe
For Canmore-based Nishikawa, Beatty and MacIsaac-Jones, elevation training is an everyday activity, with an elevation of 1,400 metres (nearly 5,000 feet) at the front door and 2,800-metre peaks (9,000+ feet) visible from the couch. For Browne, who lives and trains near sea level in Quebec, elevation trips are an important development step.
“This year is my third time in Park City, I feel already much better than the first year I was here,” Browne said during the team’s Utah camp in October.
She completed two elevation camps this season: first in Park City, Utah, and in mid-November, 10 days in Davos, Switzerland, before the World Cup opener in Finland.
There has been an increased emphasis on alignment camps this year, with more women training together. A two-week camp in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, was followed by two and half weeks at Park City in October. All the women were happy to spend more time with a bigger group.
“I would like to train more with them because they’re stronger than the people on my team,” Browne said.
An additional highlight from the Tremblant camp was the lake. “It was really nice to have the lake right there and go for a swim afterwards,” Beatty recalled. In and around Canmore, the water is colder, and “you just jump in and jump out,” she said.
Nishikawa, Beatty, and MacIsaac-Jones added a summer snow camp to their schedule, going to New Zealand for three weeks of skiing in August, which they paid for themselves.
“We rented our own car,” Beatty said. “We kind of were there without a coach, so it was a little bit scary thinking about it, but it went really smoothly and everyone was really helpful.”
The Canadian Para-Nordic and biathlon teams were also there and provided some external support. For all three women, it was a volume block. “Lots of skiing and less intensity than in a regular block,” Beatty explained..
“It was incredible,” MacIsaac-Jones reflected. “The conditions were amazing while we there and it was probably my best training camp of the season.”
“That was my first time to New Zealand,” Nishikawa said. “It’s like the perfect training setup […] staying at Snow Farm Lodge. It was a really successful camp and I definitely want to go back there next year.”
During the offseason, Beatty said she addressed an injury. She missed the final classic stage of Ski Tour Canada with back problems and worked through the summer realigning her classic posture to prevent a repeat.
“When I did a classic time trial in NZ, it came back a little bit, but I’ve been working a lot on trying to strengthen my core and the areas around it. It doesn’t bother me for everyday training,” she said.
The Park City alignment camp in October was fully supported by CCC, with 15 to 18 women training together when possible.
“It’s nice to have such a big group to train together,” Beatty said of the camp. “To have so many girls all in one place.”
MacIsaac-Jones made the biggest changes of the four this year, joining both the national team and, for the first time in her career, a training centre.
“I guess the biggest difference would be having such a big group of coaches and physiologists and strength coaches and people to help me with my training,” MacIsaac-Jones said of the World Cup Academy.
She estimated that her new program costs about the same as training with Rocky Mountain Racers, also based in Canmore, with the added national-team funding offsetting the higher fees for the Academy. But European travel adds to the costs as well.
“At this moment, I’m budgeting about, my guess is around $6,000 for the Period 1 World Cup,” MacIsaac-Jones said in October.
Beatty and Browne opened the season with the classic sprints in Kuusamo, Finland, last Saturday, Nov. 26, placing 50th and 62nd, respectively, in a stacked field.
After the qualifier, Beatty explained she was “a lot less nervous” and had a better sense of how European World Cup sprints work after experiencing it for the first time.
Now, “… I feel like I can treat these race starts more like any other race I would do!” she wrote.
The next day on Sunday, Nov. 27, Beatty described being less-than-satisfied with her 10-kilometer classic race, where she placed 74th. (Browne placed 58th, just ahead of Nishikawa in 59th.)
“The race didn’t going very well for me but my back’s not a problem, so that’s a big positive going forward,” Beatty explained. “At the start of the season one good race of two isn’t that unusual for me. I was happy with the sprint and I am really looking forward to the mini tour in Lillehammer.”
Last season at the Ski Tour Canada, which doubled as World Cup Finals, five Canadian women completed the eight-stage Tour. Nishikawa, Browne and MacIsaac-Jones were three of them, along with Bouffard-Nesbitt and Canmore’s Annika Hicks. Beatty didn’t complete the final stage, but she notched a career-best 15th in the Canmore classic sprint.
Asked how those World Cups starts affected her confidence for this season, Browne wrote, “I feel like I belong here and that I am a World Cup skier like all these other girls. I feel like I’m part of them now.”
Heading into this season, Browne had 17 World Cup starts to her name, ahead of Beatty with 16 and MacIsaac-Jones with 15. Despite their collective experience, Browne and Beatty were glad to have Nishikawa’s guidance in Kuusamo.
“I think the best thing Emily helped with this week was suggesting we get breakfast food to make in our condo,” Beatty wrote. “It definitely saves an extra stress on race mornings.”
Nishikawa skipped the sprint to focus on the 10 k classic the next day.
“It was great cheering on Dahria and Cendrine, and made me so excited to put a bib on!” Nishikawa wrote after watching the sprint. “It is lots of fun having them here and we are looking forward improving together as a team this season. We can’t wait for Maya to join us when her foot is healed up.”
All programs in all countries go through phases. Looking back a decade, the World Cup scene was very different.
In 2005/2006, Norway had a rough year, most notably placing fifth in both genders at the Olympic relays in Torino, Italy. Despite health struggles, Marit Bjørgen did win the Overall World Cup despite (by six points over Canada’s Beckie Scott), but the country was feeling pain after a disastrous Olympics. With his first World Cup podium (in a skate sprint in March of that season), Canadian Devon Kershaw helped elevate a men’s program that had been largely funded by the women’s success. Also that year in Borlänge, Sweden, in the same race that Kershaw broke through, Kikkan Randall recorded her first World Cup top 10, placing fifth in the skate sprint. At the time, she was the star of a tiny U.S. team. Then at the iconic Holmenkollen women’s 30 k freestyle, Italy was the only country with two athletes in the top 10.
Will 2016/2017 be the watershed year for the Canadian women’s team? As with the continuously emerging U.S. women’s team, we won’t know for a few years, but it will be fun to watch.