Three days of racing ended on a high note for the Canadian Cross-Country team at the Viessmann FIS Cross-Country World Cup and 2010 Games test event at Whistler Olympic Park.
In the team sprint event on Sunday, 20-year-old junior racer Alex Harvey and partner George Grey placed third overall, with a little luck and a lot of hard work. The two racers, each making three laps of a 1.6 km course, posted a combined time of 19 minutes, 44.47 seconds - just 0.3 seconds back of the Italian team of Fabio and Renato Pasini and 0.6 back of the Swedish team of Robin Bryntesson and Emil Joensson.
It was a career-best result for both of the Canadian racers, and a sign that Harvey - the world junior champion last season - has all the potential his coaches and teammates believe.
It was also the first time that Canadians have made the podium in a World Cup team sprint event, showing a depth of talent that is unprecedented.
As of press time, four members of the men's cross-country team have earned medals this season, including Devon Kershaw and Ivan Babikov. And while the women's team has not been on the podium this season, Chandra Crawford is healing from her foot injury while Sara Renner is improving with every race.
"This means we can do it at a World Cup and we can do it at the Olympics," said Harvey. "I was in a bubble coming into the stadium and couldn't hear anything. I just told myself to go and I fought as hard as I could. This is so awesome."
Everything went according to plan. With upwards of 3,000 spectators on the sidelines, most of them cheering for Canadians, Grey passed off to Harvey in the final lap after hanging back a little but staying within a few ski lengths of the leaders. Harvey was eighth out of 10 racers in the final lap, when he started to charge the leaders. He moved up to fifth, and then to fourth when an Italian skier fell on the hairpin turn on the downhill into the stadium. It was then neck-and-neck in the charge to the finish between Harvey and Russian Alexi Petukhov, with Harvey just nipping the Russian for third place. Less than a second separated the top four teams.
The son of Pierre Harvey, Canada's most successful cross-country skier with three World Cup wins in the '80s, Alex also posted a career-best 12th in the individual pursuit race on Saturday.
Grey, who is a veteran of the team at 29 years old, had posted a career-best ninth place result at the Tour de Ski the previous week, and brought that confidence back to Whistler Olympic Park.
"Once you start breaking into the top-10 anything is possible," he said. "I have been at this a long time and it is just so great to finally break through."
Only the top-10 teams made it to the semifinal in the Team Sprint, out of 17 teams at the start line. The other two Canadian teams did not make the finals.
On the women's side, the first Italian team took the gold medal with a 10 second gap, followed by Germany and Sweden. The top Canadian team, Madeleine Williams and Brooke Gosling was 11th, and just missed qualifying for the finals.
Usually there would be at least twice as many teams and athletes, but with World Cup events the weekends before and after the Whistler competition some teams and athletes opted to stay in Europe. However, many of the World Cup leaders and contenders in the overall points race did make the trip, and there were no easy medals.
The low turnout was most noticeable in the men's 30 km pursuit event on Saturday, with just 37 men at the start line. A typical World Cup pursuit start would have 80 to 90 athletes at the start.
Canada's Devon Kershaw stayed with the top group out of the start and even led after the 15 km mark when athletes switched from classic skis to skate skis for the second half.
With so few teams in the field, it turned into a road cycling race with four Italian skiers and three French skiers drafting Kershaw, then working together to take over the field. When Pietro Piller Cottrer at last took the lead, the Italian pack slowed down the chase group enough to give their leader an easy race to the finish.
Kershaw started to experience some cramping and struggled to hold onto the lead pack, while teammate Ivan Babikov recovered from a crash on the classic stage, regained about 19 seconds, and pulled up to the chase group to finish sixth. Kershaw was 10th and Alex Harvey - who broke a ski tip in the classic leg - 12th, giving Canada three athletes in the top-12.
Babikov was positive about the result.
"That's how it worked out because I crashed on the last lap of the classic leg and spent a lot of energy to get back to the pack," he said.
"There was definitely some team tactics today, Pietro broke away and the other guys took it very easy. If we had three or four guys in the lead group, we would do something different."
Babikov was one of the skiers who said the skate section was too easy, and expressed hope that organizers would add more climbs and descents before the Olympics.
As for Kershaw, he had more things to say about his teammates than his own race.
"I know I'm very happy with the way I skied, and with the Canadian program," he said. "It's great. Ivan was sixth, and he had a crash, and Alex broke the tip of his ski but still managed to stay in contact with the lead group.
"We also understand that we were given a gift today, there were 37 skiers in the start compared to 80 or 90 at a World Cup, but at the same time there were some really top athletes here.
"Again, in a normal World Cup you wouldn't have the team tactics we saw today because there are so many people from so many nations, but today, yeah. There were four Italians and me, Pietro in front, and I could see the coaches telling the other skiers to take it easy - why blow yourself up to chase your teammate who's going to win? Those guys were tired and the last thing they wanted to do was drag me up to Pietro."
Piller Cottrer placed first in one hour, 13 minutes and 1.5 seconds, followed by Jean Marc Gaillard of France and Valerio Checche of Italy.
In the women's 15 km pursuit race, Sara Renner stayed with the top women through three laps, then dropped off the pace slightly when the leaders broke up.
Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland pulled ahead and brought Marianna Longa of Italy with her. Together they pulled ahead with every lap and finished with times of 40:41.3 and 40:48.9 respectively. Arianna Follis of Italy broke away from the chase group and picked up the bronze in 41:27.3.
Canada's Renner, who dropped back after the classic stage, held onto sixth place.
"It's my second top-10 since I've come back (after having a child), so I'm on the road again," she said, noting that she's been improving steadily with every appearance. "I just think I'm more in the game with every race. At the same time I still feel like the underdog, I still have something to prove, I still have steps to take, and that's exactly where I want to be heading into the Games."
Renner, who is better at classic than skate, made a decision at the beginning to challenge the leaders as much as possible.
"I'd say I took a risk at the start to try and stay with them," she said. "That's how you become good, taking those risks and seeing how long you can survive. This time I had to back off, but at the same time I was able to hold onto the next girl that came by."
On the first day of competition, the individual sprint on Friday, Devon Kershaw was the top Canadian in eighth place, second in his group in the small final. Sean Crooks was 15th.
Emil Joensson of Sweden took the win, followed by Ola Vigen Hattestad of Norway and Josef Wenzl of Germany.
In the women's individual sprint, Alena Prochazkova of Slovakia was first, followed by Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, Anna Olsson of Sweden. Renner was 15th.
The Nordic Festival continues this weekend with World Cup ski jumping on Friday and Saturday.