Looking up from the finish line on Sunday, Canada’s Len Valjas saw something he would never forget. Amidst a sea of waving Swedish flags, a trio of men ran toward him. Their arms were outstretched and a chorus of cheers escaped all three as they charged toward their teammate.
Just a week ago, Valjas had celebrated his first World Cup win in the men’s team sprint with teammate Alex Harvey. Seven days later, after anchoring the final leg of the Canadian men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay team in Ulricehamn, Sweden, Valjas would celebrate another first.
But this time, the first was not his alone. It was one for Canada as well.
Prior to Sunday, no other men’s team sporting the red maple leaf had reached the podium in a World Cup relay. The closest Canada had come to was fifth place in 2012 in Gällivare, Sweden, with Valjas, Harvey, Devon Kershaw, and Ivan Babikov.
A little less than five years later, with Babikov as Canada’s new World Cup coach and Knute Johnsgaard having joined the relay-race crew, history was made.
For the first time on a World Cup, four Canadian men — Kershaw, Harvey, Johnsgaard, and Valjas — would raise their arms in celebration while standing on the third podium step on Sunday, stealing the spotlight from Norway’s first place finishers and Sweden in second.
“As a small cross-country skiing country, we don’t have two teams at the start line,” Babikov said on the phone afterward. “We barely assembled one team, but that team made a miracle today, so we only needed one.”
Even if scraping together a squad did not take place until last week — Johnsgaard only flew into Sweden a few days ago and skipped Saturday’s 15 k freestyle to rest up for the relay — Canada has been aiming at a team podium for a while.
For Babikov, especially, standing on the relay podium alongside his teammates had been a longtime dream. And though it wouldn’t occur while he was skier, watching his athletes (three of them former teammates) climb onto the third podium step was just as momentous for Babikov.
“I’ll never forget this day,” Babikov said. “We’ve had individual podiums and individual medals, but the relay is special because it’s a show of strength for the whole team and the whole staff behind this team.”
Just half of a second out of first — which went to Norway in a time of 1:06:47.5 — Canada’s third place finish is an indication not only of the team’s depth, but potential to place even higher.
“I’ll never forget this day. We’ve had individual podiums and individual medals, but the relay is special because it’s a show of strength for the whole team and the whole staff behind this team.”– Ivan Babikov, Canadian World Cup coach, on the men’s relay’s historic third-place finish on Saturday
Since distance relays are also one of the primary ways Own The Podium evaluates how much funding Cross Country Canada (CCC) receives, Sunday’s performance may also incentivize an increase in financial resources for the Canadian World Cup team.
As Harvey explained, most his teammates are not currently getting financial support from CCC due to budget cuts from previous years. As a result of Sunday’s performance, that could change.
“Because the results over the last couple of years internationally have been not stellar as a team, a lot of funding was cut for us,” Harvey said on the phone after Sunday’s race. “I think this result will really help those guys to be fully funded again.”
Regardless of what exactly happens with the future funding, Canada’s relay members and coaches alike were smiling, speechless and simply stoked.
“I felt honored to anchor such a hard working team,” Valjas said on the phone. “I didn’t want to let them down, so it was easy, there was only one thing to do, just get on the podium. They all did their work, and I wasn’t going to be the guy who lets it all go to shame.”
Canada in Close Quarters, Krogh Out Sprints Halfvarsson for the Win
In the words of Babikov, relay days are somewhat like the “lottery,” with decisions on which leg to designate to each athlete a gamble. With Sunday’s first two legs classic and the second two skate, Canada selected Kershaw and Harvey to start the team off, followed by Johnsgaard and Valjas.
“Our strongest guys [were] on the first two legs, Devon and Alex, that’s where most of the damage was done,” Babikov said.
Kershaw started things off for the Canadians, skiing in bib 7 and positioned in 10th place until just before 2 k, when he made a move to the outside right of the tracks to the front. However, he didn’t lead for long. By 4 k, Russia’s Sergey Turyshev had overtaken him, followed by Sweden’s Daniel Rickardsson and Italy’s Dietmar Nöckler.
Coming into the exchange zone, it was Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin in the lead, and Kershaw in fifth. Kershaw tagged off to Harvey for the second classic leg.
Within the first half a kilometer, Harvey was at the helm of the leading pack of nine.
“I knew that the heavy hitters were on my leg, but it was good,” Harvey said. “It was hard on the big hill, but then over the top I had really fast skis.”
At 2.5 k Finland’s Iivo Niskanen and Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh traded off leads. Within another 4 k, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby moved to the front. The Norwegian maintained the lead through the exchange zone, while Harvey chased from five seconds back.
Sundby passed off to Norway’s Anders Gløersen, and Harvey to Johnsgaard for the third leg and first freestyle portion. Despite considering himself a ‘World Cup rookie’, Johnsgaard, of Canada’s U25 Team, maintained his position within the middle of the lead pack.
“Alex tagged me off in a good position, and my job was to hold that, and give Len the same opportunity I had to ski in the group in a good position,” the 23-year-old Johnsgaard said.
Johnsgaard did his job and tagged off to Valjas within five seconds of Gløersen’s tag to Norway’s Finn Hågen Krogh.
Seven skiers still remained in the front pack with Krogh, Sweden’s Calle Halfvarsson and Italy’s Sebastiano Pellegrin in the lead. Valjas spent most of his first lap in fifth, following as close to the leaders as possible.
“On the last lap, I was totally blocked on the hill, so I couldn’t actually empty the tank, which was probably a good thing for me, and then just after the hill I built up some speed, and passed five or six guys just double poling,” Valjas said.
By the final 300 meters, the Canadian had moved up to second behind Halfvarsson in first. As the group rounded the final corner, however, Krogh moved around to the right of Halfvarsson and Valjas.
“I gave him a meter in the final turn but I entered the final stretch in good speed” Krogh told NRK of his final maneuver.
Krogh edged Halfvarsson and Valjas by half a second for the win in 1:06:47.5.
“I would have like to have won but Finn Hågen is fast,” Halfvarsson told NRK of his final maneuver.
In his first time anchoring a team relay, Valjas views the moment as one he’ll never forget.
“I’ve never been the anchor in a relay. I’ve been the second leg in some team sprints, but today was special, the best feeling I’ve ever had skiing, seeing my three teammates sprinting towards me at the finish line,” Valjas said. “I don’t think anything will ever top that, the first relay [podium] for Canada.”
The U.S. men fielded a team with Andy Newell handing off to Erik Bjornsen, followed by Noah Hoffman, and Simi Hamilton, who anchored them to 10th (+1:16.5).
U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover explained that while Newell maintained contact with the pack during his first lap, he lost it during his second time around.
“The second time up the big climb he got stuck behind a Russian who was fading,” Grover said on the phone. “By the time he got around, he lost contact with the lead. Then coming down into the stadium he had a fall. And then after that, he was maybe 16 seconds behind the group in front of him. That really took us out of contention.”
Newell tagged Bjornsen in 13th, 23.2 seconds out of first. From there, the U.S. men steadily picked off the places, with Bjornsen moving into 12th by the second exchange, Hoffman improving to 11th by the last exchange, and Hamilton finally finishing 10th.
— Chelsea Little, Jake Ellis and Aleks Tangen contributed