Back on Jan. 15, 2017, current Canadian World Cup B-team member, Len Valjas was beaming. Valjas, along with podium-regular teammate Alex Harvey, had won a World Cup team sprint in Toblach, Italy. The next weekend, Valjas and three teammates (including Harvey) rocketed to third in the men’s relay at the World Cup in Ulricehamn, Sweden. The results, at the time, looked to be a good indicator for the ensuing 2017 World Championships in Lahti, Finland.
Days before the Lahti events, during a gym session, Valjas felt his upper back between his shoulders give out. He felt little initial pain, but with compromised breathing, his results fell flat in Finland. As the remaining 2016/2017 World Cup season came to pass, Valjas hadn’t yet determined the exact cause of his physical ailments. His fitness and confidence suffered.
Prior to Lahti, Valjas was ranked 13th overall on the sprint list. By season’s end, he had dropped to a very respectable 16th in the sprint standings.
Coming into the 2018 Olympic season, Valjas remained frustrated. He knew something was off. A pattern of poor performances continued through his most recent World Cup campaign. In the big picture, this past World Cup season left a bad taste for Valjas.
“Last year, I had so many bad feelings from the year,” Valjas reflected on the phone on May 22. “I could never train in the summer because I was always injured and compensating. I could not double pole on rollerskis. My back would hurt. All these little things … The last season obviously wasn’t by any means a good smooth season for me. I did have a good Olympic race which I am super proud of, but, overall, other than that one good day, I had one of my worst and least-fun seasons I have ever had. I was dealing with an injury for the last year and a half in my back.”
At the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, Valjas reached the semifinals in the individual classic sprint and ended the day in seventh for his best result at his second Olympics.
Canada’s Olympic sport-funding system emphasizes championship medals and results. Harvey and Valjas set new Olympic benchmarks this February for Canadian men’s cross-country skiing, with Valjas’s contribution being seventh overall in that classic sprint.
“It is what they wanted,” Valjas said of Cross Country Canada’s priorities. “The end goal they wanted — Olympic results this season. Alex and I set records in the individual races anyway, three new Canadian records. Alex had two of them. I had one. It was one of our most successful Olympics ever. They should be extremely proud, especially when the season wasn’t going very well for a lot of us. We had an off-year and still were able to beat three of the Canadian records at the Olympics. I think they should have been very proud.”
Valjas, 29, hasn’t felt healthy since before Lahti 2017. The year and a half he endured at less than 100 percent has literally sapped him. During his most recent interview with FasterSkier, there was a tone of lament in his voice — not anger, just a simple melancholy from an athlete known to have a mellow demeanor. From Valjas’s telling, the wires between getting a full diagnosis from the Canadian team for his original back ailment and the pressure to continue training and racing got crossed.
“At World Champs [in 2017], I was begging for an MRI or some sort of check just to see what I did,” Valjas said. “But I kept getting turned down because my symptoms weren’t so bad. I didn’t have weird nerve feelings in my hands. It was kind of frustrating for the rest of that season.”
According to Valjas, he asked again in the spring of 2017 for an MRI.
“We should check to see if it is nothing, at least we will see that it is nothing,” Valjas remembered saying at the time.
Again, Valjas said, he was denied the test. He trained all summer with frequent setbacks. His 2017/2018 World Cup season began in Kuusamo, Finland, with him finishing 44th overall in the three-day mini tour. The next weekend he placed 59th in a classic sprint in Lillehammer, Norway. Valjas said he had been working with a U.S. Ski Team physiotherapist in Lillehammer due to shoulder discomfort and nerve pain.
The pair continued their work together through the rest of December 2017. After their conversations regarding the pain, physical limitations and sensations, they linked what Valjas was experiencing to the moment in the gym before Lahti 2017 when he felt the “pop” in his upper back.
“[The physio] said, ‘I don’t think this is a shoulder injury. I think this is in your back,’ ” Valjas recalled. “And that is when he kind of tied in my mind to, OK, we are dealing with the same thing when I hurt it before Lahti if he thinks it is in my back. It all made sense. … And finally, I told the team I am leaving. I am going home and getting this checked out myself.”
Valjas clarified that the shoulder pain was in fact referred pain originating in his back.
Upon his return to Canada, Valjas received an MRI authorization from a trusted physician he had worked with in the past.
“Turns out it was a herniated disc at T2-T3. And I fractured a vertebra at T4,” Valjas explained. “So it was quite a bit worse than I thought at first.”
The T4 fracture Valjas incurred was not a threat to his spinal cord. The break occurred where the rib meets the vertebrae rather than along the spinal cord. The personal physician consulting Valjas also explained he had signs of arthritis in several joints around the injury zone. A consequence of working through the injury, Valjas was told, rather than taking time off. His doctor ultimately cleared him for racing since it was an Olympic year.
But, according to Valjas, it was a grim six-week buildup to PyeongChang. There was little effective training, scores of physio sessions, and the rare on-snow intensity effort to “salvage shape”. Then there was his seventh place at the Olympics. After his herculean effort in PyeongChang, he pulled the plug on the season. Time for rest, rehab, and reflection.
“To be totally honest, I kind of thought after the Olympic cycle I would be done, too,” Valjas said of the rumors swirling about his potential retirement. “That is why I probably started my own rumors, just saying that I was planning to retire.”
Several times Valjas mentioned how proud he was of his Olympic result. But the season-long canvas of results, he felt, was not reflective of his World Cup racing capacity.
“I just didn’t feel like I was finished this last year,” Valjas said. “I only raced, I don’t know, 13 races or something. Crazy low. I didn’t have the results I wanted in the end beyond the single Olympic one. It wasn’t the season I was hoping for. So I am hoping to get healthy and have a last season that I am proud of. I might not have the seventh-place result, but I just want to race well and be pain free.”
The path to pain-free racing will initially involve building up his strength while delaying his rollerski-specific training. With expected massive financial cuts looming across the board for Cross Country Canada (CCC), Valjas explained he will be based out of Canmore, Alberta, this summer with bare-bones support. Canadian World Cup coach Ivan Babikov will be writing his training plan, but according to Valjas, CCC has eliminated its physiologist and strength-trainer positions.
“It is me and Ivan, which, for what I am going through right now, is actually good,” Valjas said. “Through all this, he would fight for me. He believed me, let’s just say. There are only a couple of people who trusted what I said and the rest kind of left me out to dry there. I am happy to work with Ivan this year because, he actually knew all along. He did what he could. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to lose his job. He was working on my side for sure.”
Valjas is still processing how his medical condition was handled and how he responded. An athlete going against team wishes can have repercussions.
“It is hard to go against the team right away,” Valjas said. “If I got the MRI and there was nothing there, they might not be too happy with me either.”
Valjas hung on to the party line for months. Not exactly a “suck it up” directive, but messaging from the team that didn’t correlate with the distress and inability to rebound that Valjas experienced.
“When I told them my symptoms, the answer was always, ‘Oh, you have anxiety, your back is healthy. You have anxiety,’ ” Valjas said.
He also mentioned that he endured numerous back manipulations under the recommendation of team health care providers. Procedures, he said, that he’s now been banned from at the risk of inflaming his injury.
“It is just unprofessional how they just assume that it is anxiety and they get me manipulated probably 30 times in that year,” Valjas commented. “It could have been way worse. I feel lucky that … my spinal cord is totally fine.
“I am more worried about the future. If you break your leg, it is pretty obvious you broke your leg. It is more straightforward. If someone has a nagging spine injury, I hope that they learn from this,” he continued. “But so far I don’t feel like they have. I hope they learn you need to take these very seriously. Because you can have your athlete back in half the time if you don’t jeopardize their whole career over it. If I knew right away that it was herniated and broken, I probably could have taken a few months and gotten stronger. But the way I did it, it was a year and a few months of constant atrophy in my back and spine. I can feel it. I am weaker in the upper body than I have ever been.”
Valjas remains focused. His new competition singularity is the upcoming freestyle team sprint at the 2018 World Championships in Seefeld, Austria. The plan is to contest the race with Harvey. A healthy Valjas could allow the tandem to revisit the emotions of their former World Cup team sprint win.
“I am doing it really just as much for me as I am for [Alex],” Valjas said of continuing in the sport and supporting his longtime friend and teammate. “It for sure helps to have a race to look forward to, even if it is a team race. It is going to help me in the rehab and the training to have something to train after, an end goal.”