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Canadian cross-country team skis through adversity

Perianne Jones (right) of Almonte, Ont. and Dara Gaiazova of Banff, Alberta do a chest bump before accepting the bronze medal in team sprint competition at a FIS cross country World Cup and Sochi Olympics test event in Sochi, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013.


It's been a cascade of calamities, a hand injury followed by a "munched" ankle followed by bouts of food poisoning, a separated shoulder and a team veteran pulling up skis and heading home because of burn out.

All that in half a season for a star-crossed Canadian cross-country ski team that has managed some encouraging results – Daria Gaiazova and Perianne Jones were third in a recent World Cup team sprint – just not enough. Too many oddities and miscalculations have proved disruptive and that has team members looking to next week's 2013 world Nordic championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, as a pivotal marker.

The goal is to win two medals to propel the team's one-year build-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Given how things have transpired to this point that's a lofty ambition and head coach Justin Wadsworth knows it.

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"Last season was such a clean season, no injuries or people getting sick. This season we've had a lot of things that have not gone our way," Wadsworth said. "One medal [at the worlds] would be great but we feel we're better than that."

Coming off a podium-filled 2011-12 campaign, both on the World Cup and Tour de Ski circuit, the Canadian squad felt poised for more of the same. But before the first World Cup in November, Len Valjas broke a bone in his left hand and had trouble holding a pole. Devon Kershaw slipped on some ice while coming down a set of stairs and tore a ligament in his left ankle. ("I really munched it," he said.) The team chose not to publicize Kershaw's injury. He later got food poisoning – twice – and, just as the team was feeling better, 2006 Olympic gold medalist Chandra Crawford revealed she was going home to Canmore, Alta., to physically and emotionally recharge for Sochi.

Little wonder the last three-and-a-half months have felt like an uphill ski.

"The season's not over," Kershaw said, "but at this point this is the worst season I've had in a long time, a very long time. I'm trying hard to focus on what I need to do and the worlds coming up."

Kershaw and Alex Harvey – he's coming off a training fall earlier this month that left him with a separated a shoulder – are the defending world champions in the team sprint. Harvey was top three in a Tour de Ski event last month but Kershaw has yet to record a podium finish. He's hoping that with his ankle finally feeling better he's capable of regaining his confidence.

"It's not hard to stay motivated; it's hard to stay positive," he explained. "For me, it's not about the result; it's a feeling, a feeling I know I have when I'm racing well. Just letting things flow through me, that's what I'm chasing. This year, I haven't had a single race like that."

Kershaw said he shouldn't have competed in the opening two World Cups in Scandinavia, that he should have rested his tender ankle. Wadsworth believes he should have rested his athletes and not made them travel overseas then back for World Cups in Quebec City and Canmore prior to the start of the Tour de Ski series in Europe. It was a travel/competition schedule none of the other nations put their top racers through.

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Wadsworth described it as a matter of "trying to do everything" and paying the price for it.

"Quebec City was a total bust for us," he admitted. "When Alex fell [in the team sprint], that started a downward spiral. We came out with our tail between our legs and came to Canmore and, while some of the developmental skiers stepped up to the plate, we didn't produce the way the athletes wanted to. It was too much travel, racing, too much training to keep our shape for the Tour de Ski. I take blame for a lot of it.

"I should have had the foresight and confidence to skip the World Cups in Scandinavia."

Cross Country Canada's long-range planning for 2014 will take into account what has happened so far this season. The devil will be in the details – how hard the athletes should train, how often they should rest and which competitions they should miss.

Harvey wants the turnaround to begin in Italy.

"It's hard to be on the podium in November, December and hold that form. Some guys can do it but if you really want your best chances at the worlds, you have to sacrifice some things," he said. "We've made our choices. We want to defend our world title."

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