Canada National Team Preview
by Gavin Shields
The 2015-16 World Cup season will be a special one for Canada's National Ski Team. Significant, not because of where it begins – in Ruka, Finland on Nov. 27-29 – but rather because of where it ends . . . in North America with Ski Tour Canada 2016 on March 1-12.
The prospect of capping off the 2015-16 World Cup season with eight races on home snow – in Quebec's Gatineau, Montreal, Quebec City and in Canmore, Alta. – promises to be a highlight for both North American teams and spectators alike.
Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth made it clear, saying, “This year, everything goes into the Ski Tour Canada – basically it's our World Championships.”
Cross Country Canada (CCC) High-performance Director Tom Holland echoed those sentiments: “In order to prepare and be rested for Ski Tour Canada, the team will skip the World Cup in Lahti, Finland, Feb. 20-21. A training camp [at altitude] will be held in Canmore, and following this, they'll swing back to Gatineau for the start of the Tour across the river from Parliament Hill.
“Our target for this event is three podiums,” Holland continued. “We also have a goal of having one athlete in the top six or higher in the overall World Cup ranking.”
Furthermore, Ski Tour Canada opens up interesting opportunities for toptier domestic skiers with a quota of 14 male and 12 female starts. Canadian skiers will be itching to hit the snow come March 2016 to gain World Cup experience and to garner results good enough to move them onto the National Ski Team.
To the list of Team goals, Holland added, “We would also like to achieve five top-30 results in this Tour from non-world-cup-team athletes.”
The senior World Cup team comprised of Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, Ivan Babikov and Len Valjas will be joined by Emily Nishikawa, Graeme Killick and Jesse Cockney. Last season's Noram leader, Michael Somppi, will also race during Period One.
Harvey has proven to be one of the top cross-country skiers in the world, and after a successful leg surgery in the spring, his training is reportedly going better than ever. He is primed for the 2015-16 season, which will climax with hometown support, particularly in Quebec City. If Harvey is sitting in contention for the overall World Cup title, it could be a colossal season end for Canada and a huge boost for the sport across the country.
While Harvey is the tip of the spear, Wadsworth is hoping other athletes shine as well, saying, “I really want to get multiple athletes on the podium again. Last year, we only had Alex.”
The task of getting more international results lies with National Ski Team coaches Wadsworth and Louis Bouchard. According to Holland, “Tor-arne Hetland's [from Norway] one-year coaching contract last season served as a good program stimulus and brought some desired energy to help us meet our objective of podium success.”
Kershaw, 32 and Babikov, 35, are World Cup veterans, and Wadsworth aims to capitalize on their experience while optimizing their training to get them back into the top-20 consistently and hopefully onto the podium.
“Both [Devon and Ivan] have so much base work under their belts from over the years that they don't have to keep pumping out huge hours like the younger athletes. I think we realize some of the mistakes we made last year, and we're ready to learn and move forward to get them back on the podium where they both belong.”
The next generation of 26-year-olds – Valjas, Killick and Cockney – has shown real promise. Valjas, already a World Cup medalist, is now into his second season of injury-free training. Killick had a superb 19th-place finish in the men's 50km CL at Falun last winter, while Cockney shocked everyone with a second-place qualification time in the skate sprint at the World Cup in Canmore back in 2012.
“We're all training together as a team,” says Wadsworth. “Ivan and Devon were a big part of getting Lenny on the podium [in 2012 and 2013]. And now, Ivan has been training a lot with Graeme, and he has a lot of experience he can pass along.” Wadsworth predicts Killick is ready to take a major step
forward in his ski career. “Overall, our team just needs to be strong and keep working together. I'm really pleased with where everybody's at,” he added.
Rebuilding the Women's Team
With Perianne Jones retiring at the end of last season, which followed the loss of Chandra Crawford and Daria Gaiazova the previous year, the 2015/16 season signals an important time in rebuilding the women's team.
Canada was once a powerhouse in woman's cross-country skiing, with Becky Scott and Sara Renner leading the charge, but times have changed, as the men's team has moved into the spotlight.
“CCC is making sure the opportunities are there. If you look at our development team, it's weighted very heavily to the women's side,” says Wadsworth.
One such initiative put forth this year was a women's-only training camp held at Mont-ste-anne, Que. over the summer. World Cup Academy Coach Pavlina Sudrich elaborated: “The recent National Women's Team camp in Quebec reminded us that Canada has a strong cohort of passionate and dedicated female skiers from juvenile all the way to senior.”
Sudrich contends that Nishikawa, Canada's top female skier, had her best World Cup season last year. “She broke into the top 30 and posted a career-best 23rd-place result in Lahti,” she commented. “This season, Nishikawa aims to break into the top 15.”
Sudrich is also confident about National Ski Team athletes such as Dahria Beatty, Cendrine Brown, Olivia Bouffard-nesbitt and Katherine Stewart-jones, who are developing into World-cup-calibre athletes.
In January, they will get their first taste of racing abroad with the B Tour, along with some Period Two and Period Three World Cup starts. “What CCC is also trying to balance is making sure the women who do have World Cup starts are prepared enough to make it a positive experience,” Sudrich explained.
Wadsworth knows that Canada can't compare numbers yet with the U.S. or Norway. “We have athletes who can do it, but it's not going to happen over- night. We really need a group of skiers who want to bond and work together and be in it for the long term . . . then we'll have a woman's team.”
Wadsworth and Sudrich are optimistic and excited to be a part of the process, while agreeing that to break through internationally is largely a matter of confidence for younger athletes who often aren't exposed to competition against the best athletes in the world. “It's clear the CCC has recognized and identified that Canadians don't get to race against fast-enough skiers domestically, and we are working to change that.”
That's why Ski Tour Canada at the end of the season is so important, and as Wadsworth says, “We need to have lots of skiers there, with lots of opportunities, and to work hard to capitalize on it.”
The World Cup opener begins in Ruka on Nov. 27-29 with four stops until the 10th annual Tour de Ski that runs from Jan. 1-10. Period Three starts with the sprints in Norway on Feb. 3, with Lahti, Finland on Feb. 20-21 the last stop before the Ski Tour Canada finale from March 1-12.
On the domestic front, Canadian skiers open their season at the U.S. SuperTour in West Yellowstone, Mont. on Nov. 27-28, while in Canada, the Haywood Noram Series gets underway in Canmore on Dec. 5-8 and makes one more stop in Sovereign Lake, B.C. on Dec. 12-13 before the Christmas break.
Some Canadians will attend the U.S. Nationals in Houghton, Mich. on Jan. 3-10, then Lappe Nordic hosts the World Junior/under 23 Trials in Thunder Bay, Ont. on Jan. 14-17. The Haywood Noram Series visits Mont-ste-anne on Jan. 30-31, followed by the Eastern Canadian Championships in Cantley, Que. on Feb. 5-7.
The Western Canadian Championships take place in Prince George, B.C. on Feb. 18-21 and then it's off to the FIS Nordic Junior/u23 World Ski Championships in Romania on Feb. 23-28. Finally, the domestic cycle comes to a close in Whitehorse, Yukon with the 2016 Haywood Ski National Championships on March 19-26.