Despite fluctuating temperatures, weather that ranged from sunshine to blizzard, and some of the top cross-country ski racers from around the world turning up to check out the 2010 venue, Canada’s national athletes looked very good at last week’s Haywood Ski Nationals.
Most international athletes passed on the first event, the Team Classic Sprints, on March 16. In the University category, the University of Calgary placed first on the men’s side, followed by Okanagan College and Augustana.
On the women’s side Lakehead University took the top spot, followed by Laurentian University and Carleton University.
In the Junior Men’s sprint the Banff Ski Runners were first, followed by Nakkertok and Sovereign Lake. For the Junior Girls, the Foothill Nordic team was first, followed by Nakkertok and Sovereign Lake.
In Open Men, Olympic veteran Phil Widmer and Stefan Kuhn placed first overall for the Canmore Nordic Centre, followed by two teams from the Foothills Nordic club. The second team featured Robin McKeever, who guides his visually impaired brother Brian McKeever in the Paralympics.
On the women’s side, Americans Laura Valaas and Kikkan Randall were first by a long margin, followed by teams from Nakkertok and Mont Sainte Anne.
In the 5 km short course race on March 18, Kikkan Randall of the U.S. placed first for the Open Women, while Canada’s Olympic gold medalist Chandra Crawford was second. Liz Stephen of the surprising U.S. team picked up the bronze. Sara Renner, who took last season off to have a baby, placed fifth.
In Open Men, Stefan Kuhn placed first for Canada, followed by Ivan Babikov and George Grey.
Whistler’s Tyler Mosher, a member of the Canadian 2010 Team, was third in the Para-Nordic standing category, falling back from second after a fall on the descent — one of many costly falls for the Canadians last week. A Japanese skier, Yoshihiro Nitta, was first.
Things got a little more interesting on March 19 in the medium distance race. Babikov, a Russian skier living in Canmore for the past four years, at last earned his Canadian citizenship in December. He raced under the maple leaf for the first time against a strong international field in the nationals with the goal of representing Canada in the 2010 Winter Games.
“This is an important event for me for many reasons, but it is nice to be here now as a Canadian,” said Babikov, who won the race by 35 seconds. “It is the Olympic venue and I am trying to get comfortable out here so I’m ready in two years.
“The heavy snow makes these conditions really tough. It is hard to plant your poles in the fresh snow, but I do find the course challenging with good climbs and I think that is one of my strengths.”
Graham Nishikawa of Whitehorse was second, followed by Lars Flora of the U.S.
On the women’s side, Sara Renner poled her way to third place behind Americans Liz Stephen and Kikkan Randall.
For Renner, who is used to the colder weather of Canmore, the fresh snow and warm temperatures were a learning experience.
“You need to have an amphibious mindset here because it is wet with lots of precipitation,” she said. “It can be challenging here because it is really different from a lot of World Cup sites. The weather here is like no other.”
In the individual sprint on March 21, two of the top-ranked Swedish racers put on a clinic with Emil Jonsson in first and Peter Larsson in second. Devon Kershaw was the top Canadian in third, one spot ahead of Olympic champion Bjoern Lind.
“It was a good race and I tried all of the tactics needed to make it happen,” said Kershaw. “Coming third is bittersweet for me, but to be the national champion is the icing on the cake for me.”
On the women’s side Sara Renner moved up one spot into second, just behind Kikkan Randall of the U.S. American Lindsay Williams was third.
Crawford, an Olympic and World Cup medalist in sprint, did have the lead heading into the finish but planted her pole inside her ski and tripped. She finished in sixth place.
The final day, March 23, was also the toughest for the racers with about 20 cm of new snow overnight and temperatures warming through the day. Some racers opted to skip the wax in favour of “hairying” the bases of their skis with sandpaper to get a better grip on the slush.
Whatever their strategy, it was a long race for most competitors. Babikov picked up his second gold medal in the men’s 50 km classic, ahead of Torin Koos of the U.S. and Ryan McKeever. Babikov was on course for 2:22:02, or about 15 minutes longer than the top racers at the Olympics.
“It was definitely challenging out there today,” said Babikov. “I was really slow on the downhills but made up time on the climbs.”
Renner finished on top of the women’s 30 km race, followed by Crawford and Canada’s Dasha Gaiazova.
“Our wax technicians definitely have an advantage here now as they are really getting to know these conditions,” said Renner. “They did a great job in preparing our skis.”
While Crawford is more comfortable in the sprints, she was happy with a second place finish.
Tyler Mosher raced in the 15 km Para-Nordic race, finishing second among Canadians and third overall.
Complete results are available at www.zone4.ca.