Chasing the frozen ghosts of 2010, three Canadian national team cross-country skiers will return to the scene of their Olympic dreams next week, bent on inspiring another generation of Nordic athletes.
Perianne Jones, Dasha Gaiazova and Ivan Babikov will return to the Callaghan Valley ski trails for the first time since the Olympics for the 2013 Haywood Ski Nationals, which kicks off with the team sprints on March 23. The bulk of Canada’s talented national cross-country ski team will be in attendance, however Devon Kershaw, who missed an Olympic medal in Vancouver two years ago by three-tenths of a second, will miss the races, as will Alex Harvey and Chandra Crawford.
Hundreds of athletes will attend Ski Nationals, which will provide only the third chance this season for Canadians to catch a glimpse of their top skiers on home soil.
Jones and Gaiazova teamed up for a World Cup bronze medal in the team sprint in Sochi, Russia, earlier this season and will be the ones to watch in the individual sprints in Whistler, even if they’re approaching the race with a relaxed attitude.
“It’s the end of a long season, so it’s nice to do a few races in Canada and be in touch with the Canadian ski community,” Jones said. “This will be my first time back on snow in Whistler since the Olympics. It will be fun to come back. So much went into the venue, and it’s nice to use it again.”
Jones will represent the national team, as well as Nakkertok Ski Club from Ottawa, which will try to defend its title as Canada’s best ski club. Jones’s brother is Nakkertok’s head coach.
“They have a huge contingent and won the overall the last few years at nationals,” Jones said. “It’s nice to stand on the podium and remember where I came from, and see the younger racers along the same path I was on when I was racing.”
Gaiazova can’t remember how many national titles she’s won (she has nine), but she remembers the excitement of her early nationals competition.
“I was stressed as all hell. I remember one year Beckie Scott and Sara Renner came to Val Cartier, and I was too intimidated to even watch them from afar,” Gaiazova said.
“I think it’s really important that we’re there to sign autographs and inspire the next generation.”
She’s flying straight from World Cup finals in Sweden to compete at Ski Nationals, so she’ll be jet lagged for her races, but is counting on the memories of the Vancouver Games and the sight of friends should energize her performance.
“It brings a lot of memories back. I’m really excited about the sprinting. To me, the sprint at the Olympics was such a big deal. I know the race course so well,” Gaiazova said.
Babikov is coming off the best season of his career, which culminated with a fourth place finish at the Nordic World Championships in Val Di Fiemme, Italy. The tireless worker is someone Canadian coaches want their athletes to pay attention to, as his doggedness on the World Cup scene is legendary. He’ll race the sprints, 50-km race and 15-km race as long as his health holds up.
“Whistler is a special place. I haven’t been there since the Olympics,” Babikov said. “When we ski for Canada, we ski for our country. We have a responsibility for those younger skiers to help and inspire them. I remember as a kid in Russia, I would see the Russian national team and it was a big impact. It’s the same here.”
The team has had a challenging year on the World Cup circuit. Despite Harvey’s bronze medal at the world championships, the team failed to live up to its own lofty expectations. Coach Justin Wadsworth wants Nationals to be a chance for the team to have fun racing.
“Nationals is more relaxed for them. There are some titles and some prize money up for grabs. It’s a time for them to enjoy the last part of their year,” Wadsworth said.
More importantly, Canada’s developing racers will use the race to measure themselves against the World Cup crew.
“You have to pay your dues. You forget when you’re winning races in Canada where you have to be, so it’s nice to get pushed,” Wadsworth said.
The event will have plenty of local competitors involved as well, including members of the local Whistler Nordics development team and up-and-coming skiers based out of the Callaghan Valley Training Centre. Visit www.seatoskynordicfestival.ca for full event schedules and details.