Breakout Games for Canada's cross-country men

Traditional Nordic powerhouses owned the cross-country skiing events at Whistler Olympic Park, with Norway winning nine medals and Sweden taking seven.

Traditional Nordic powerhouses owned the cross-country skiing events at Whistler Olympic Park, with Norway winning nine medals and Sweden taking seven.

Canada didn't reach the podium, but there was plenty to boast about for the men — recording the country's best-ever finishes in four events.

Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., had a hand in two outstanding performances, where Canada narrowly missed the podium.

Paired with Alex Harvey of St-Ferréol, Que., in the men's team sprint, Kershaw hung with the leaders throughout the final, sprinting to the lead for parts of his final leg. He handed off to Harvey in a medal position.

The 21-year-old Harvey didn't have the sprint legs to move with the world's best in the final push to the line, but he skied an impressive leg to hang on to fourth place — the best-ever Canadian finish.

"Alex Harvey is the most talented skier I've ever, ever trained with, or raced with," Kershaw said.

Norway's Petter Northug was a force for the entire Games, missing the podium only twice in six races, taking home two gold medals.

The 24-year-old Northug is known for his devastating kick, and in each of his four medal races, he never lost contact with the leaders, timing his finishing sprint to perfection.

Northug hard to overcome

One of his gold medals came in the 50-kilometre classic mass start — the marathon of skiing — traditionally held on the final day of the Olympics.

It was also the scene of another historic Canadian performance courtesy of the 27-year-old Kershaw. He never let the leaders out of his sight, determined to give himself a shot at the podium. It came down to a final sprint, and nobody could match Northug, who was timed in 2:05:35.5.

Kershaw was fifth in 2:05:37.1. Just 1.6 seconds separated him from gold.

"I paced that race perfectly," he said. "I did everything exactly as planned and I got beat by four stronger skiers."

The 50-km race was also supposed to be Brian McKeever's Olympic debut. The legally blind skier was hoping to become the first athlete to compete at both the Olympics and Paralympics.

But Team Canada could only enter four skiers in the race, and selected its top four ranked athletes — Kershaw, Harvey, George Grey and Ivan Babikov.

Earlier in the Games, those four athletes proved that Canada is on the verge of becoming a major player in the sport, with all placing in the top 16 in the 30-km pursuit. Babikov's fifth-place finish was a Canadian all-time best.

Three Canadians — Babikov, Harvey and Grey — were in the top 10. No other country could boast such depth in the event.

As a result, there were medal hopes for Canada's 4x10-km relay team. Unfortunately, this time, Kershaw couldn't hang with the leaders, and after his first leg, the Canadians were well back in 10th place.

Harvey, Babikov and Grey pulled the team up to seventh in the finish, another Canadian all-time best.

Renner's swan song

In the women's competition, veteran skiers Chandra Crawford and Sara Renner were the leaders of the Canadian team, which was coming off a surprise two-medal performance at the 2006 Torino Games.

But two skiers, Norway's Marit Bjoergen and Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk, dominated the field in Vancouver.

The 29-year-old Bjoergen won three gold — in the 15-km pursuit, the individual sprint classic and the 4x5-km relay — along with a silver and a bronze in the 30-km mass start classic, and 10-km free.

Kowalczyk won three medals, one of each colour, taking gold on the second-last day of the Games in the 30-km mass start classic.

Crawford, who won the individual sprint in Turin, struggled in the event in Vancouver, for good reason. Four years ago, the sprint was in the skating technique — Crawford's strength — but in Vancouver, it was in the classic technique. She finished in 18th place.

"It was such a long shot," Crawford said. 

"Did you see my bib number? It was 47 — out of 54 girls — that was my ranking. I was down there with the exotics. I think I was in a Kazakhstan sandwich. No offence Kazakhstan."

The sport's governing body made the reverse switch in the team sprint relay, changing it from the classic style to the skating technique. In Turin, Canada's team of Renner and Beckie Scott won silver.

But the Canadian team of Renner of Canmore, Alta., and Daria Gaizova of Montreal finished seventh this time around.

Future is bright

The 33-year-old Renner, competing in her final Games, said the future is bright with 26-year-olds Crawford and Gaizova hitting their prime. 

"I think our sport will do nothing but grow," Renner said, "having the Olympics in Vancouver and exposing young people to the sport."

Renner ended her career with a 16th-place finish in the gruelling, rain-soaked, 30-km mass start classic. As she crossed the line, she gave a triumphant wave to the crowd, thanking them for all the support.

Petra Majdic of Slovenia also captured headlines during the cross-country skiing competition, fighting through the pain of four broken ribs and a collapsed lung — suffered while crashing going down a hill and falling into a gully during a warmup — to win bronze in the individual sprint.

For her perseverance, Majdic was named as one two recipients of the Terry Fox Award, receiving the honour along with Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette.

With files The Canadian Press