Canadian men's cross-country team making waves
Coach believes the team is only getting better
Confidence can be a powerful impetus.
Canadian cross-country coach Justin Wadsworth saw it transform his wife, Alberta skier Beckie Scott, into an Olympic champion.
Now 10 months into his tenure as the men's national team coach, Wadsworth is witnessing a similar occurrence — albeit on a smaller scale — with his young skiers.
Sometimes you just know the exact moment a program is making a significant turn upward. Wadsworth believes that time is happening right before his eyes.
In the prestigious Tour de Ski — the sports' second-most important event of the season, which took place in Germany and Italy — the Canadians gave perennial powers Norway and Sweden a stiff challenge.
The gruelling competition forceed 17 nations to take part in eight races, including sprints and marathons, during a 10-day stretch.
Last Wednesday produced a historic moment for Canada as Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ontl., became only the third Canadian to win a World Cup race, joining Pierre Harvey (1987 and '88) and teammate Ivan Babikov (2009).
His victory in the 1.3-kilometre sprint came on the heels of two silver medals, and he went on to add a bronze in the penultimate tour event in Val di FiemmeI, taly, giving the 28-year-old four podium finishes in the span of a week.
What made Kershaw's victory in Toblach, Italy, even more impressive was his ability to easily leave top skiers Petter Northug (Norway), Nortec and Dario Cologna (Switzerland) in his wake while pulling away at the finish.
"So much of competition is confidence," Wadsworth told CBCSports.ca. "And that kind of confidence and the belief that he can do it, I think, is worth everything. So now, every time he steps to the line he knows he can win."
Kershaw, who sat as high as fourth overall heading into Sunday's finale, would wind up seventh in the Tour de Ski standings. Harvey, 22, of St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que., finished 10th overall. Babikov, from Canmore, Alta., ended in 21st place.
Cologna won the series, with Northug the runner-up.
Despite his age, Kershaw calls Harvey the "greatest cross-country skier" to ever come out of Canada, even better than his dad.
Wadsworth also sees the team, which also boasts Russian transplant Babikov and George Grey of Rossland, B.C., making significant strides against top-level nations.
"Where we are at this point in the season, even Europeans are mostly shocked," he said. "The Norwegians and Swedes [are surprised] at how well we're doing over here at the moment in the Tour de Ski. It's basically [uncharted] territory where we are with the men's team right now."
To a novice skiing observer, Wadsworth's optimism may seem premature. But when you consider that the program has been virtually dormant for more than a decade, this week's performance by Kershaw and Harvey further proves how far the Canadians have advanced.
Between Pierre Harvey's run in the late 1980s and Babikov's victory in the final stage of the Tour de Ski two years ago, the Canadian men were deemed irrelevant. In fact, the squad only featured one man, Donald Farley, on the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic team.
The program also endured instability with its coaching, making several changes prior to Wadsworth's appointment last April.
"In the 2002 Olympics, we had one man start the Olympics — that's it," said Kershaw. "Now we have guys who are knocking on the door for podiums. Having won, it's been amazing to be apart of it, for sure."
After Babikov's win in 2009, the men continued to improve.
One month before the Vancouver Olympics in February of 2010, Harvey and Grey combined to win a bronze medal in the men's team sprint event in Whistler, B.C., giving Canada its first-ever podium result in the ski event.
At the time, former CBC Sports analyst Jack Sasseville said the young Canadians were definitely a team to watch heading into the Olympics. While no medals were won, Harvey and Kershaw came close, finishing fourth in the team sprint. Kershaw also placed fifth in the 50-km race.
So what's been the difference?
For starters, the team's use of physiological experts and strength trainers — the same people Olympic triathlon champion Simon Whitfield visits — is beginning to pay off.
And during the recent run of success in the Tour de Ski, the Canucks are equipped with a luxurious tour-style bus, which helps the athletes recover faster.
Wadsworth came up with the idea and a portion of the cost is being picked up by B2ten, a group of Canadian business people who sponsor Canadian women's cross-country star Chandra Crawford, along with Harvey and Kershaw.
The gradual assent of the men has also provided another benefit for the long-term health of the program. Junior skiers now have top-notch Canadian athletes they can look up to.
"It's been kind of a smooth path for me because when I came on the senior team two years ago, Devon had won two World Cup medals and Ivan won his World Cup medal," said Harvey. "So for me, I've only seen the part where the men are good.
"Before that it went all the way back to my dad in 1987 and '88. But for those guys they didn't really have a [role] model. For me when I arrived in 2008, the guys were already world-class."
With files from CBC Sports' Teddy Katz