SUNSHINE VILLAGE, Alta. - The men are ready to share in the glory on Canada's cross-country ski team after years of the women owning the spotlight. Beckie Scott, Sara Renner and Chandra Crawford won all the Olympic and world championship medals over the last decade. But 2010 has brought change. Scott and Renner have retired, while Crawford is looking for a bounce-back season because injuries and post-surgery rehabilitation hampered her performance last winter. The Canadian men's team posted an unprecedented seven top-10 results at the Winter Olympics in February, giving them the confidence and know-how to get onto the international podium more often.
Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Alta., George Grey of Rossland, B.C., and Alex Harvey of St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., lead the 11 athletes into this World Cup season which opens Nov. 20 in Gaellivare, Sweden. The team Canadian departs Sunday for Europe. "Our men's team is poised to be what I would say is best in the world almost in all disciplines across the board," new head coach Justin Wadsworth said Tuesday. "Our women's team has made great strides forward and I'm excited about what's coming for them. The men's team, I expect some podiums this year for sure."
Crawford, from Canmore, won Olympic gold in 2006. She and Dasha Gaiazova of Banff, Alta., make up the women's World Cup squad. Paralympic gold medallist Brian McKeever of Calgary leads the para-Nordic team that also includes Mark Arendz of Hartsville, P.E.I., Saskatoon's Colette Bourgonje, Jody Barber of Smithers, B.C. and Robbi Weldon of Thunder Bay, Ont.
Several skiers were getting in last-minute altitude training by roller-skiing Tuesday on the roads near Sunshine Ski Resort west of Calgary. There wasn't enough snow at the lower altitudes yet to break out their skis.
Harvey and Kershaw combined for a fourth-place in the men's team sprint at the Olympic ski races in Whistler, B.C. Kershaw was fifth in the men's 50-kilometre event on the final day of the Olympics, missing the podium by less than two seconds. Babikov was fifth in the 30k.
While they fell agonizingly short of the Olympic podium, that competition was a major breakthrough for Canada in men's international cross-country skiing. "It was a the first time at a championship where I think the whole team came together as a group and really kind of threw down," Kershaw said. "We hope to build off our Olympic successes, absolutely."
The world cross-country ski championships, held every two years, run from Feb. 22 to March 6 in Oslo, Norway. It will still be a battle for the Canadian men to get on the podium there. The men's races have more competitors than the women's. The Scandinavian countries, Russia, Germany and Italy have long dominated because, unlike Canada, they have thousands more skiers to choose from and a population that follows the sport avidly. "In Norway, skiing is the NHL," Kershaw said.
The national team also had a home-field advantage at Whistler they won't have in Europe. They had a team of experts working in the months leading up to the games matching ski waxes and bases to all the possible snow conditions in the Callaghan Valley. Wadsworth is the Canadian team's third head coach in as many years. He's a former skier on the U.S. team and married to Beckie Scott, a gold medallist at the 2002 Olympics. "I feel like the drummer in Spinal Tap that keeps self-combusting," Wadsworth joked of Canada's coaching carousel. "I hope I'm not here for just a year. My whole goal and message to the team is I'm here for the long run. I'm committed for four years and plan to stick it out."
The athletes want Wadsworth around long-term. "I hope our organization is doing what it takes to take some of the load off him," Kershaw said. "He's got a young family. Beckie knows exactly what it takes to win and the dedication from the staff, so we're extremely lucky that Justin's spouse is Olympic champion, but at the same time, it's a lot of pressure on him. "I'm praying for some continuity. Change happens, but I really hope we can nurture the relationship so he can go the distance."
Robin McKeever, brother of Brian, is the new head coach of the para-Nordic team. He'll continue to be his brother's guide. Brian, who is blind, met Cross Country Canada's qualifying criteria to race in the 50k at the Olympics, which would have made him the first winter athlete in the world to compete in an Olympics and Paralympics in the same year. But coach Inge Braten made a last-minute decision to leave him out of the race and went with Harvey, Kershaw, Grey and Babikov instead. Brian, 30, is continuing his quest to race both Games in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. He competed at the 2007 world championships and wants to qualify again for Oslo. "I'll probably try and go to Europe and do more international races to try and retain that focus on going fast internationally," Brian McKeever said.
Robin said the para-Nordic team's budget was slashed by about 56 per cent from the almost $600,000 it had to work with in 2009-10. Brian McKeever was the only fully-funded athlete on the team this season until Cross Country Canada asked for, and was granted, extra funding from Own The Podium to pay Arendz's expenses this winter.