Brent McMurtry was as close to going out on top as one can get at a Canadian cross-country ski championships, while biathlete Zina Kocher showed she’s more than capable of racing without a rifle in capturing the event-closing distance races at the Haywood Ski Nationals.
McMurtry, who announced his retirement earlier in the week of races at Whistler Olympic Park, won the men’s 50-km Canadian title Saturday (March 30) in a time of two hours, four minutes, 55.2 seconds. He finished a half-second back of overall winner Torin Koos of the U.S. in a sprint to the finish, but only Canadian athletes can win national titles.
“It’s a little bittersweet. Obviously, I would have liked to win outright,” McMurtry said.
“I had a feeling it would come down to a sprint. I just didn’t quite have the gas to get around him.”
Kevin Sandau and Brian McKeever took the silver and bronze, respectively.
Kocher was strong from start to finish to win the women’s Canadian 30-km skate title Saturday. Bettina Gruber of Switzerland won the race overall, but Kocher was clearly the fastest Canadian on the day. Kocher has several national biathlon titles, but this was her first Canadian cross-country gold medal. Heidi Widmer was the second fastest Canadian, followed by Brittany Webster, while Whistler’s Selina Meier finished 20th overall.
“It’s pretty awesome. I always wanted to do a long distance sometime in my career and I had some time after the World Cups,” Kocher said.
“It’s definitely a different type of racing than biathlon, but it’s a lot of fun. I think I prefer biathlon, but this is good training, especially the mass starts.”
In Thursday’s (March 28) classic sprints, Daria Gaiazova followed up her March 26 victory in the 10-km classic with another win. The World Cup star, who arrived from Russia just hours before winning on March 26, upped her count of Canadian titles to 11.
“I’m so tired it’s ridiculous, but the body seems to be holding up, so I can’t be happier,” she said. “I haven’t been sleeping at all with the jet lag and everything. It’s amazing how much the body is capable of.”
Len Valjas dominated the men’s classic sprints, leading most of the day en route to his third national title.
“I was out here to enjoy the day and have fun. It’s been a long season. It’s good to feel better than I have the last two weeks on World Cup. I really didn’t feel that good, so it’s good to get back in there,” Valjas said.
Temperatures soared on the day, turning parts of the Whistler course into slush. That suited the Toronto native well.
“This is fine,” he said. “I didn’t have much grip, so I had to make all of my moves over the top and work the downhill.”
Graham Nishikawa took the men’s silver and Phil Widmer claimed bronze.
Doak hits podium on final day
Lauren Doak of the Whistler Nordics saved her best performance for last, grabbing a bronze medal in the junior girls’ 7.5-km skate race after battling her way from the back of the pack.
“I was so happy, I never expected this at all,” said Doak. “Actually, my goal was to come in the top 10, but I never imagined getting a bronze medal, so that was just amazing.”
Wearing bib No. 31 for the mass start race, Doak had to reel in a number of racers in the field of 60-plus to put herself in medal contention. She then surpassed the fourth-place finisher on a final sprint to earn the top-three finish.
“I thought they were way further ahead of me, but I was gaining on her quite fast, so turning the corner into the finishing stretch into the stadium, I passed her in the final few metres and it was amazing,” said Doak.
Many of Whistler’s younger entries had solid results to wrap things up Saturday. Jenya Nordin finished 14th in the junior girls’ race, while Nicki Murdoch placed 16th in her 20-km junior women’s race. At the juvenile boys’ level, Austin Reith wound up 11th of 73 skiers in his 10-km event.
Reith was 28th and Nordin 29th in their respective divisions for the junior and juvenile sprint finals held last Wednesday (March 27). See www.zone4.ca for full event results.
—with files from Eric MacKenzie