The Beijing Winter Games are now only a year away and athletes across Canada and the world are doing their best in a pandemic to work toward realizing their Olympic dreams. Cross-country skiers are on that list, and Canada's team of 11 is competing in Europe on the World Cup circuit with an eye to next February.
The Canadian team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang was led by Alex Harvey, who skied to multiple top-10 finishes, including a fourth-place performance in the 50K. Harvey, the best male skier in national history, retired in 2019, passing the torch to the next generation of Canadian elites.
Katherine Stewart-Jones and Russell Kennedy are two of those who have gladly picked it up.
Stewart-Jones, 25, grew up in Chelsea, Que., and she spent much of her childhood skiing in nearby Gatineau Park. She came close to qualifying for the 2018 Games, and while that was her a goal, she says in retrospect it was probably for the best that she didn't make the Canadian team.
"I don't think I was going to perform if I made it," she said recently. "I wasn't prepared enough."
That's not the case this time around, and Stewart-Jones's improvement in the ensuing four years is evident in her start to the 2021 season.
In four individual races to kick off the season, she has skied to three top-30 results, including a career-best 17th-place finish in a 10K classic event at a World Cup event in Falun, Sweden, on Jan. 30. Next up for her and Kennedy are the sprints in Ulricehamn, Sweden on Saturday.
"That race in Falun has to be a career highlight so far," she said, adding her goals coming into this season were to "be consistently in the top 30 this year in World Cup races, and so far I've been achieving that."
Helped McKeever win gold
On the men's side, Kennedy, 29, is leading the way for Team Canada's younger athletes. Kennedy, whose father is Canadian, was raised in Truckee, Calif., not far from the Nevada border, and he says his parents had him on skis from the age of two. After graduating from high school, he moved north of the border to train in Canada and chase his childhood dream of skiing in the Olympics.
In 2018, Kennedy realized that goal as a member of Team Canada in PyeongChang, competing in three events. He finished 49th and 54th in individual races and a shared a ninth-place finish in a relay. Shortly after at the Paralympics, he skied as a guide for Brian McKeever, a visually impaired skier and the most decorated Paralympian in Canadian history. Working with fellow guide Graham Nishikawa, Kennedy saw McKeever to three gold medals and one bronze, bringing his Paralympic total to 17 medals (13 of which are gold).
"That has been an amazing experience for me," Kennedy said. "Brian and Graham, they're both extremely talented skiers, and they've been mentors to me in the past few years."
Kennedy said he plans to continue guiding McKeever, although the pandemic might prevent them from teaming up this year.
Individually, Kennedy has had a strong start to the season. So far, he has a pair of 29th-place finishes, which he says was a goal coming into 2021. "With that accomplished, now I want to move up in the top 30 and work to be as relevant as possible in every race."
'Sports is unforgiving'
The main goal of the next 12 months, however, is to not only qualify for his second Olympic team, but to arrive at the Games ready to compete.
"I was in pretty good shape last Olympics, but this sport is very unforgiving, and if you're not in the right form at the right time, it shows," he said. "I want to be better prepared next year."
Kennedy and Stewart-Jones have both grown as athletes since the last Olympics. Missing out on the Games (but still coming close to making the Canadian team) showed Stewart-Jones that, while she had the potential to compete with the world's best, she was still a few steps away from being ready. Kennedy learned a similar lesson in PyeongChang, and although he made the Olympics, he saw it would take much more to be competitive on that stage.
These lessons have gotten Kennedy and Stewart-Jones to where they are today, competing with skiers from cross-country powerhouses like Norway and Russia, and they hope to be well equipped to deliver some big results in Beijing.
While the current generation of Canadian skiers are right in the thick of their careers, members of Canada's next Olympic generation are still finding their way in the sport, and as strange as it may sound, the pandemic could play a big role in their futures.
Explosion of interest
When COVID-19 hit last March, Canada saw an explosion of interest in outdoor sports. People everywhere started running, bike sales skyrocketed, golf courses were packed from sunrise to sunset. Outdoor sports gave people something to do.
The country now is in an almost identical situation to the one we experienced in March with lockdowns and strict COVID-19 guidelines in place, except now it's winter sports that are seeing a boom in interest and some Nordic skiing centres are thriving.
Highlands Nordic, a skiing centre in Duntroon, Ont., northwest of Toronto, has seen season pass sales close to double this year compared to last.
"Our total season pass sales in 2020 were just shy of 600," said Kelly Sinclair, the facility manager. "This year, we're well over 1,000."
As for single-day trail tickets, Sinclair said she and her team sold about 8,000 in 2020, and this year they have sold about 9,300 with two months left in the season.
Sinclair said that equipment sales are way up as well. With cross-country skis and other gear in such high demand, it's tough for retailers to keep their stores stocked. When the Highlands Nordic pro shop ran out of skis, Sinclair said they decided to sell their rentals as well, noting that they simply want to get as many people into the sport as possible.
"What took people so long to figure out how cool cross-country skiing is?" she said with a laugh. "We always knew it was cool, but it took everyone else so much longer."
The leap in ticket and equipment sales is not unique to Highlands Nordic or even just Ontario, and there's a chance that the sudden nationwide interest in cross-country skiing could lead to a bigger pool of elites in the next generation of Canadian skiers.
"It is certainly super exciting for skiing to see so many people giving it a go, and many of our clubs across Canada are experiencing growth," says Kate Boyd, high performance director of Nordiq Canada. "With that, you hope that people get the bug and want to continue with it. Our next Olympians could for sure be in that group."