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The Globe and Mail

Canadian has unparalleled natural ability that could change cross-country skiing

Canadian cross country skier Len Valjas is photographed after a day of training at the Canmore Nordic Centre in Canmore, Alberta on Friday, November 15, 2013.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

There are moments when he is right there with his teammates, talking snow, talking skis, talking what wax should go on what skis, because for cross-country racers this is all very important stuff.

And then there are moments when the lively mind of Len Valjas waxes over and he daydreams of Hawaii and righteous waves with faces five metres high beckoning him to try his luck. Oh, how he'd love to be back out there on the ocean, sitting on his board. Waiting for the sun and the surf to rise.

"I'd be up on the water at 6 a.m.," he says with contentment in his voice. "You'd never get me out of bed for skiing at 6 a.m."

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His teammates have a multitude of nicknames for him – Big Lenny, the Friendly Giant, Surfer Dude. They view Valjas as a wondrous, perplexing contradiction: A 6-foot-6 racer among smaller rivals who does less cardiovascular training than most and yet could end up being spectacularly more successful. Maybe even the Surfer Dude who changed cross-country skiing. His teammates are into that.

They know how naturally blessed Valjas is and it amazes the daylights out of them.

"Lenny can be more than just great; he can be history making," says Devon Kershaw, the veteran Canadian skier and a 2011 world champion.

"This is an endurance sport, one that takes many hours of training and years and years to build a base to compete over longer distances. Lenny doesn't fit that mould and yet he can be competitive with people that have trained double or more than him every year for years."

"That just doesn't happen in our sport," Kershaw added.

The Toronto-born Valjas, headed to Sochi next month and his first Winter Olympics, is a different breed, all right. His parents were carrying him around in a baby backpack when they cross-country skied in Southern Ontario. While Valjas learned to love the sport, too, he also excelled in mountain biking and would spend his summers at his grandparents' cottage water skiing, wakeboarding, windsurfing. You name it; he tried it and was naturally good at everything.

A favourite Big Lenny story: Last year, close to Christmas, the Canadian team was in Davos, Switzerland, before a Tour de Ski race there. Kershaw, Alex Harvey and Ivan Babikov spent their time training twice a day, then resting to conserve energy. Valjas saw it was snowing and decided to go alpine skiing, all day, for days on end. His teammates couldn't believe it.

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"[Valjas] would come back with stories and excitement in his eyes over how great the conditions were on the mountain and the powder lines," Kershaw says. "All of us were little worried, 'Shouldn't he be training ahead of the Tour?' … Of course, we never should ask questions like that since he got to the tour and hit the podium twice."

Valjas, 25, has been on a steady rise in his cross-country career. In 2011, he had a pair of fifth-place finishes internationally. In 2012, he scored his first podium result – a second in Norway – then followed it with a pair of third-place showings at the World Cup finals in Sweden. His last came in a 15-kilometre distance race, the kind he doesn't overtrain for.

"The high I got off that [Norway] race was amazing," Valjas says of his first World Cup medal. "I was leading in the sprint final. I said to myself, 'I'm leading a World Cup. I have to do something. I have to attack.' I blew the whole field open. I figured I was going to go down swinging. Only one guy caught me."

Being 6-foot-6 is a significant advantage in cross-country skiing. Valjas's poles are 177.5 centimetres in height – as tall as some of his fellow racers. (By comparison, Kershaw's poles are 157 cm.)

Canadian national coach Eric de Nys explains what that means: "Len has more force production over the length of that pole. It's like trying to lift a big rock. If I have a 157-cm long lever, I can move the rock. If I have a 177-cm lever, I can move the rock much easier."

Couple that leverage with a snow-eating stride and his prime athletic aptitude and it's easy to understand why many believe Valjas boasts grand possibilities.

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The question is: How does he get to the next level in his career? Will he have to be driven, kicking and screaming, into heavy endurance training with his bulldog teammates?

National team head coach Justin Wadsworth isn't sure that's the right way to proceed with such a free spirit.

"Lenny has the size and the aerobic capacity with all the genetic skills for cross-country skiing," Wadsworth says. "His potential is mind-blowing if he had the drive for skiing that Alex, Devon and Ivan do. But it's not him. I've tried to force it a bit and it doesn't work. Rehabbing his knee [following summer surgery to clean up some wear and tear], it's been a challenge for us. He's his own guy."

And a lovable one, at that. None of Valjas's antics elicit anger; they tend to charm and defy.

Another Big Lenny story: before the start of last season, he injured his hand. It happened when a buddy threw a football at him. You know, guys being guys. The ball broke a pinky finger and a bone in his left hand. Valjas raced the first five weeks of the cross-country schedule with a cast on his wounded hand. He never missed a weekend of competition all year.

"I love skiing but the guys talk about it all the time. I'm amazed at how much they can talk about it," Valjas says. "I'm like, 'Can we talk about something else?' … Devon would say, 'Surfing is not training.' I beg to differ. I spend six weeks in Maui in the spring. I go surfing and windsurfing every day. When I'm surfing, my head is in a better place and I come back healthier."

So far, that seems to be working more than adequately. His teammates can't figure out how he does it, but simply marvel when he does.

"Lenny's like [Olympic track champion] Usain Bolt," Kershaw gushes. "Both are quite tall and ridiculously co-ordinated and wicked fast."

Just think: a Canadian Surfer Dude ends up changing cross-country skiing. Now, wouldn't that be a gnarly kick?

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