Canada’s cross-country ski team is poised to make Olympic history next month.
While Canadian women have stood on the Olympic podium in the sport, a Canadian man never has.
Led by Alex Harvey of St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., and Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., that drought could end on the Psekhako Ridge in Sochi, Russia.
The hard goal of Canada’s cross-country team is to claim at least two medals in Sochi. It’s the men who have the best chance at winning them this time.
“I really feel if this team doesn’t get two medals I’ll feel a bit of disappointment or maybe we did something wrong,” Canadian head coach Justin Wadsworth said. “That doesn’t mean we’re incapable of four or five medals.
“This is an amazing team. We could do better than two medals. We could blow other teams out of the water if everything comes together.”
The 11 skiers who’ll represent Canada in Sochi were introduced Tuesday at an elementary school with six being present for the announcement. Harvey, Kershaw, Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Alta., Daria Gaiazova of Banff, Alta., and Perianne Jones of Almonte, Ont., were in Europe and en route to a World Cup event in Poland.
Chandra Crawford and Jesse Cockney of Canmore, Toronto’s Lenny Valjas, Graeme Killick of Fort McMurray, Alta., Heidi Widmer of Banff and Emily Nishikawa of Whitehorse will join their teammates in Italy next week for pre-Games training.
Cockney, Killick, Widmer and Nishikawa claimed their Olympic berths at last week’s trials in Canmore. They, along with Valjas, will make their Olympic debuts while the rest of the team has previous Games experience.
Harvey won two races and finished in the medals four times in this season’s Tour de Ski, which is a gruelling series of 10 races spread over 16 days and three countries. Harvey and Kershaw finished first and second, respectively, in the series opening race.
“I feel like our team is in a really good place,” Wadsworth said. “We started out slowly this year. The results weren’t good early and we’ve built and built. I feel like we’re in a place where we’re building still in confidence. We haven’t peaked out in any way shape or form.
“I feel like the whole team is starting to rise and it’s how we wanted to time it.”
Wadsworth is married to Canada’s Beckie Scott, whose bronze at the 2002 Winter Games was eventually upgraded to gold when two Russians ahead of her were disqualified for doping.
Scott was the first North American woman to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. Scott and Sara Renner combined for team sprint silver in 2006 before Scott retired.
Canada’s cross-country skiers were shut out of the medals at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., although the men posted seven top-10 finishes.
Harvey and Kershaw were fourth in the team sprint and Babikov fifth in the 30-kilometre event. Kershaw was fifth and an agonizing half a second from the podium in the 50-kilometre event.
Harvey and Kershaw won world championship gold in 2011 in the team sprint. The men’s sprints are fertile ground for Canada, but Babikov is also a contender in distance events. Those three and Valjas also give the Canadian squad a strong men’s relay team.
Medal prospects are thinner on the women’s side, although Gaiazova and Jones won World Cup bronze in a team sprint in Sochi last year.
Crawford, the 2006 Olympic women’s sprint champion, is a wildcard. The women’s sprint Feb. 11 will be a skate-ski race again as it was in 2006.
The women’s sprint in 2010 was a classic race and not Crawford’s forte. The 30-year-old is more in her element in skating races than in classic, the striding technique requiring more finesse and less power.
But Crawford has struggled first with injuries and then burnout since 2006, to the point where she cut her 2012-’13 European racing season short and returned to Canmore. She trained on her own last summer instead of joining the national team at training camps.
The 30-year-old isn’t shouldering the same weight of expectation she did prior to 2010.
“It’s so different than Vancouver. It’s not our Games. We have to . . . there was more of a have-to feeling,“’ Crawford said. “Just the amount of interest was hard to process as well.
“This feels like a real gift and I really appreciate the opportunity.”
Cockney is the first athlete of Inuit descent on the Olympic cross-country team since sisters Sharon and Shirley Firth raced in their fourth Winter Games in 1984.
Cockney’s father, Angus, is Inuit. Cockney was born in Yellowknife and learned to ski there before his family moved to Canmore.
“It’s great to have a strong connection to distinct people,” the 26-year-old said. “You kind of feel a little bit more unique and for sure a different experience growing up.
“My dad was a cross-country skier at a high level when he was younger and he got my sister and I involved when we were quite young. We had ski trails behind our house when we lived in Yellowknife all the way to the nordic centre.
“A lot of dark, cold days in Yellowknife, cross-country skiing in the middle of winter, but that hardened us up and made us stronger.”
Killick beat decorated Paralympian Brian McKeever out for a spot on the Olympic squad by winning the 30-kilometre event and finishing second to McKeever in the 15k at trials. McKeever was eighth in the 30k.
McKeever, from Canmore, is a legally blind skier and winner of 10 Paralympic medals who qualified for Canada’s 2010 Olympic team.
He was poised to become the first Paralympian to compete in a Winter Olympics, but the team’s coaches decided to enter four other skiers in the 50k and not McKeever.
The 2014 Olympic cross-country ski competition opens Feb. 8 with the women’s 15k race.