A local Nordic skier and his coach went a little deeper underground to build and maintain their skills this summer.
Alexander McDonald, 19, and Callaghan Valley Nordics assistant coach Maria Lundgren went to Sweden and Norway earlier this summer to take advantage of some prime training conditions. The sojourn kicked off in Torsby, Sweden, moved to Lillehammer and Oslo, Norway and wrapped up back in Sweden in Idrefjall. McDonald was one of five British Columbian athletes, aged 17 to 19, to make the trip. Other athletes were from Vancouver and Salmon Arm.
"It's been something we've wanted to do for years," said Lundgren, a native Swede. "It's been a dream to bring the B.C. skiers over to Europe and just learn about the different ways of training."
Lundgren noted her employer, Cross Country BC, had planned similar trips before. However, it was usually held over Christmas break, a time when it can be difficult for athletes to go.
"They used to annually go to Norway, but it's tough to get away over Christmas break. They used to go for racing, but we wanted to try something different," she said. "Athletes are off in the summer, so we'll try to go over and learn about training and get a bigger benefit from that."
The most obvious difference for athletes came right away in Torsby, where there is a dedicated underground tunnel for skiing. The temperature is set at -5 C to create what Lundgren called "perfect hard wax conditions." The tunnel is about 1.5 kilometres long and for convenience, is even attached to the hotel where the skiers were staying.
McDonald enjoyed trying out the tunnel, but acknowledged it was certainly quite a different experience than a typical Canadian winter day.
"You definitely needed some music for longer skis, for two hours. It's just a different experience, really," he said. "It's like an eerie silence, almost. They have a little bit of music playing, but it's darkish in some spots and it's all enclosed in concrete. It's really weird."
One striking part of the camps was seeing how dedicated the Scandinavians were to the sport, something McDonald hopes to keep with him as he prepares for the 2015-16 season.
"It was a great experience to see what the best skiers in the world in our age group were doing and what some people in different countries were doing to be better than us, really," he said. "I definitely learned I need to see what they're doing, and do a little more. Everything they do is for skiing, so I need to focus a little more."
McDonald said the loop in Norway was the most fun he's had while roller skiing and he appreciated the opportunity to visit the Olympic legacy sites from the 1994 Winter Olympic Games.
In Idrefjall, the Canucks met up with the Swedish junior national team, which had capped the camp size at roughly 100.
"For us, if we had a big camp, it would be about 20," Lundgren said. "We were lucky to get spots."
Among the differences in approach were how often the Swedes shunned the poles and relied on their upper-body strength.
While the Canadians garnered plenty of information they'll use going forward, it wasn't entirely a one-way street.
"They also learned a lot from us. There are certainly areas where Canadians are way ahead of what they're doing in Sweden," Lundgren said. "They may be very focused on the training, but a lot of things that are crucial around the training, they are almost forgetting a little bit. Recovery is a good example. They basically don't do anything for recovery."
Lundgren said the group has already been invited back for a return engagement next summer, to which she hopes to bring a larger group. One major advantage of making the trip more of an institution will be creating an opportunity to fundraise, as each athlete had to round up their own funding in just two months to take part in the trip.
The goal is to make the arrangement a true exchange, as the Swedes have looked into making a West Coast trip in the spring.
Chief among the attractions is the High Performance Training Centre in Cheakamus Crossing, with Lundgren stressing the hydrotherapy offerings and easily accessible gymnasium as features not found in Europe.
"We were blown away when we were mentioning Whistler, how well recognized it is within cross-country and within Sweden," she said. "Basically everyone put their hand up and wanted to come here as a dream."