The last time I saw cross-country skier Devon Kershaw, he was skiing on snow from the previous winter that had been stored in a giant-sized shed under a blanket of sawdust.
A short trail of it had been spread out in Canmore, Alt., in Rocky Mountain country. He went round and round the little loop, which languished in the shadow of the Three Sisters peaks, and it was well before Halloween.
Kershaw was about to leave Canada on what amounted to a cross-country skiing crusade across Europe. He's still on it and hasn't been home since. Nearly five full months later, the 28-year-old native of Sudbury, Ont., has got some racing left to do. He's a Canadian Nordic knight constantly searching for new territory to conquer.
The thing is, Kershaw has gone further than any cross-country skier from this country has ever gone before. He's put in more miles, spent more time on the road and had more success than anyone might have imagined.
At the time of this writing, Kershaw stood second overall in the World Cup standings in arguably the deepest and most hotly contested of the winter sports. It is a sport that has been dominated by eastern Europeans and Scandinavians in the past; a pursuit that has, for the most part, eluded North American men until Kershaw came along.
"It's hard living out of a duffle bag," Kershaw chuckled.
We had reached him on his cell phone. He was traveling on a bus from Stockholm to Falun, Sweden to compete in the last three races of the campaign. This season he has raced more than 30 times and covered an incredible distance of trail. Not one of the events he has taken part in has been on home snow.
"I'm exhausted to be perfectly honest," he admitted. "When I started this and I would say things like I wanted to finish in the top 30, people would say I'm crazy."
They're not saying that anymore.
Kershaw has, in the company of a few teammates like Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov and Len Valjas, made a huge impression on the cross-country world this season. He alone has been on the podium four times, had two wins and finished an inspiring fourth overall in the grueling nine-stage Tour de Ski through Germany and Italy.
Kershaw is now amongst the elite of an age-old sport and is just approaching his maturity. Still, he is anxious about maintaining his exalted status as the season draws to a close.
"The job is not done," he said. "Ask me on Sunday. It's a little like asking someone who's doing the marathon when they still have a couple of kilometers to go."
Indeed, there are very few points separating Kershaw from his closest pursuer on the overall tote board, namely Marcus Hellner of Sweden, who bumped him off the podium at the Tour de Ski. There is still the matter of three races: a 3.3 km effort and two 15 km grinds, one a mass start and one a pursuit. Kershaw, being a multi-discipline athlete, competes in every distance that cross-country skiing offers.
"I'll be really disappointed if I don't finish second," he said from the bus. "And if I don't finish third I'll be crushed."
Historically speaking, Kershaw occupies the high water mark for a Canadian man on the World Cup circuit. He finished seventh overall last season and this time has vaulted to a position where he accompanies the elite. He is akin to a rock star in parts of Norway and legions of admirers ask for his autograph wherever he goes.
It's a little different back in Canada, where he is, at times, next to anonymous.
"It never crosses my mind," Kershaw said when asked about the lack of recognition from the folks at home. "I'm not in it for the recognition. I'm in it because it's a beautiful sport. My biggest supporter is probably my mom. We see ourselves as ambassadors for the sport, and Canada is a great cross-country skiing nation."
There are three races to go in a long, long season. But for Kershaw it still won't be over. The national championships take place at Mt. Ste. Anne next week and he's bound and determined to compete there.
He continues to blaze a new trail for Canada in an age-old sport, and Devon Kershaw is doing it on his own terms.
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