For most of the 88 racers at the Canmore Nordic Centre on Tuesday, it was a chance to train with a race bib on. But for some top male sprinters seeking World Cup starts, it was already one of the most decisive days of their season.
The Frozen Thunder classic sprint followed a King’s Court format, a more casual approach that guarantees all racers three heats. After the qualifier, competitors were divided into groups of four based on their finish times, regardless of gender or category. In each heat, the top two moved up one group and the bottom two moved down one group.
As an example, Canadian Para-Nordic standout Mark Arendz qualified 64th and shared his first heat with three junior women. After winning two heats, Arendz reached the final, where he lined up alongside Friday’s female distance winner Chelsea Holmes and two junior men.
The format resulted in a relaxed day for most, with evenly matched heats. As with Friday’s 7.5- and 12-kilometer freestyle interval starts, everyone used the same wax for qualification. The addition of a no-double-pole zone for the qualifications ensured that everyone chose grip.
For the Canadian male sprinters who hadn’t already qualified for World Cup Period 1, the pressure was on. For the winners of the sprint qualifiers on Tuesday and Thursday (with a freestyle sprint qualifier only on Thursday at 9 a.m. Mountain time), they would each be rewarded with one of two remaining World Cup spots.
On Tuesday, Jess Cockney of the Canadian World Cup B-team staked his claim, winning the classic-sprint qualifier in 3:51.66, 4.09 seconds ahead of World Cup A-team sprinter Len Valjas. Distance specialist Graeme Killick posted the third-fastest qualifying time, 6.98 seconds back and 0.49 seconds ahead of fourth-place finisher Knute Johnsgaard, completing a top-four sweep for the Canadian national team.
“It’s a huge help to be on snow this early for us and the fact that it’s available in my hometown is incredibly lucky,” Cockney, who trains in Canmore, wrote in an email about the Frozen Thunder trials races.
The other favourites for the remaining World Cup spot finished fifth through seventh: Bob Thompson, of the Thunder Bay National Development Centre (NDC), who was 9.12 seconds behind in fifth; Simon Lapointe, of the Pierre-Harvey Training Centre (CNEPH) in sixth (+9.95), and Julien Locke (U25 Team/Black Jack) in seventh (+10.26).
After Tuesday’s races, Cockney explained that he expected to be chosen for the first World Cup period as a result of his qualifying win.
“I haven’t heard anything official but that was the understanding I had of the criteria,” Cockney wrote.
According to Cross Country Canada’s published criteria, sprint selections for World Cup Period 1 “may be made” based on the race winner or winners in each of the two Frozen Thunder sprints. If unable to select the winners (i.e. pre-selected athletes win), second-place finishers may be chosen. There were other possibilities, in less preferable order, and ultimately, a five-person selection committee will determine who gets to go.
Cockney skipped the heats, explaining that he felt “under the weather a bit [Monday] and I’m trying to make sure I don’t make it any worse.” Killick and Valjas skied two heats before ending their days early due to similar concerns.
In the heats, Locke, a national-team rookie, won all three of his heats to take the overall victory. Brian McKeever of the Para-Nordic Ski Team placed second and John Hegman of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) in Idaho was third.
“I was happy to see my teammate Jess Cockney ski very well and make the criteria,” Locke wrote in an email. “Personally, I had a subpar ski in the qualifier but everything went well in the heats. I felt that I was skiing well technically in the soft snow and I’m satisfied with where the shape is at right now. I am looking forward to the final selection on Thursday.”
Locke was one of several skiers excited by live TV coverage: “For the first time that I have seen in Canada, there had a TV crew on-site broadcasting the races live. Great work Shaw [TV Calgary]!”
Canadian television stations typically edit and delay broadcast of nordic races.
“These races are a fun way to get into the racing spirit!” McKeever wrote in an email. “Other than that, I don’t put any importance on them seeing as how it’s October and the big races are a long ways off.”
He appreciated the casual-sprint format for training purposes.
“King’s Court is a good way for every starter to get a full set of rounds in a sprint, regardless of qualification time,” he wrote. “It also pits people against others of similar ability which can be fun instead of getting shelled by the top guy/girl in the quarterfinal as happens sometimes. However, it does take a lot of time to get through the series of races and it makes for a lot of fatigue. I think I’m more tired after today than after a long Ski Classics race!”
Fatigue was a common theme among the racers as most are in the middle of a high-volume, on-snow block. Johnsgaard finished sixth in the A-final after qualifying in fourth.
“I feel really good about my race today,” Johnsgaard wrote. “I’m fortunate to already be qualified for Period 1 on the World Cup, so I can focus on the road ahead rather than the races this week. The conditions were slow but everyone was on the same wax, at least for the qualifier so we all suffered together!”
In addition to Johnsgaard, of Canada’s U25 Team and Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), pre-selected skiers for the World Cup Period 1 include Valjas, Killick, Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, and Andy Shields.
Killick was also in training mode, but as with most elite athletes, the competitive urge is always there. “I took the qualifier pretty seriously,” Killick wrote. “It’s a good chance to gauge my speed with all the top guys competing for a spot over-seas.”
Pre-selected Beatty Top Female Qualifier; Phinney Wins Final
With all of the national-team senior women prequalified for World Cup Period 1, the women’s qualifier and heats had a more relaxed feel, especially for an American like Kelsey Phinney. The Sun Valley skier won her final and explained in an email that she’s enjoying her first visit to Frozen Thunder.
“King’s Court sprinting was really fun! I liked that it allowed the women and men to do heats together, and that it gave the day a relaxed feel,” she wrote. “I’ve done King’s Court sprints in training before, and I like that everyone gets the experience of racing a full round of heats. I was skeptical at first with so many racers, but Zone4 did an incredible job timing and it ran really smoothly. The big difference between regular heats and King’s Court is that your qualification place matters more because there are only a couple heats to move up to get into the A final.”
Phinney qualified 49th in 4:40.40, 4.14 seconds behind Canadian U25 Team member Dahria Beatty, who was the first woman in 44th. Annika Hicks (AWCA) qualified in 47th as the second woman, 1.57 seconds back.
In the third heat, the organizers pulled the top women together for their own A-final. There, Phinney beat out Beatty and Hicks.
“I’m happy with today!” Phinney wrote. “I love racing heats, so I’m always happy to get a full day of heat racing with speedy competitors. We’ve put in a big volume week on snow and so it was good to end this block with a fun day of sprinting. I was pleasantly surprised that I felt pretty fast despite being tired from a big week of training. Also there was fresh snow on top of the man made loop, so we had some tricky conditions. It was definitely a good day to work on skiing in tough conditions.”
“My race was alright,” Beatty wrote in an email. “I definitely feel like I am still missing my top speed but that’s what these races are for. They are the perfect opportunity to get tuned up for the race season and remind the body how to move really fast.”
Hicks rounded out the podium with enthusiasm. “I felt strong today and it was a good confidence booster going into the start of the season,” she wrote. “Qualifying second behind Dahria was a huge surprise though! I’m usually not a strong qualifier but felt like I skied really well today.”
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