From his perspective, Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth figures they are now a package: the three best athletes in the sport – Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, Norway’s Petter Northug and hard-charging Devon Kershaw.
Oddly enough, the only guy who doesn’t think that is the 29-year-old Sudbury native who added to his World Cup success Friday, by winning his second gold medal.
“Cologna and Northug are generational skiers,” a humble Kershaw said after taking a skate sprint event in Szklarska Poreba, Poland. “They only come along every 40, 50 years. You can’t mention my name with theirs.
“But it’s been a great last six weeks.”
Over the last six weeks, Kershaw has placed fourth in the demanding multistage Tour de Ski, won two World Cup events and twice finished third. Friday’s effort may have been his best for sheer drama and determination.
At one point, Nikolay Morilov of Russia bolted from the pack like a startled rabbit. Kershaw, who was sitting fifth, was caught off-guard. But on the final downhill, he dropped his “head down and said, ‘I’m going to lose myself in this effort.’ The fact he came back to the pack was a shocker. I thought it was over.”
Coming back to the pack is a nice way of saying Kershaw hunted down the unsuspecting Morilov, who raised an arm in celebration thinking he was about to finish first. Instead, Kershaw nipped him at the line by a ski tip, drawing cheers and high praise from an admiring Wadsworth.
“You could see Devon was coming. At the final downhill, he really skied it well and had an open lane. That was important,” the coach said. “For him to be racing well and to be consistently placing in the top three, he’s right there with Northug and Cologna. He’s one of those guys now.”
Kershaw has been on a significant upswing since the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where he and the men’s Canadian cross-country team (Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov) earned rave reviews by turning in gutsy races and narrowly missing the medal podium. Last season, Kershaw and Harvey made good on that promise by winning gold in the sprint relay of the world Nordic championships.
This season, Kershaw has been gaining confidence virtually by the week. He enhanced his fitness level through the team’s in-season strength-training program. He battled hard among the leaders before striking gold in a 15-kilometre mass start in Rybinsk, Russia. That made him only the second Canadian male to win on the World Cup circuit since Pierre Harvey, Alex’s dad, did it last in the late 1980s.
Kershaw, who now sits third in the overall cross-country point standings, behind Cologna and Northug, couldn’t help but think of what it has taken for him to rank among the best on narrow skis.
“I’ve been at this game a long time. I’ve gone through so many coaching changes and other changes, not all of them positive,” he recalled. “I’ve been broke. I told people I was in cross-country skiing and they’d say, ‘You go to the Olympics and finish 40th? That’s amazing.’ Now, people expect us to win. What a ride it’s been. I’ve seen it all.”
With three races left on this season’s agenda, the plan for Kershaw remains unaltered: Compete hard, concentrate on the technique, not the results and build towards the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“Last year was a step up after the Olympics. This is another step,” Wadsworth said. “The biggest thing is to keep it going for two more years.”
To do that means trading sprints and hill climbs with the World Cup heavies and reminding Kershaw he’s now one of them.
“It’s been a pretty staggering run. I don’t know how to explain it. … On this [Canadian]team, we believe in each other,” he said. “All of us believe we can do it.”