Canadian cross-country ski team seeks to maximize experience gained at Olympics
Delivering season-best performances in Beijing key to long-term success, coach says
After experiencing a major boom at the start of the century, Canada's cross-country ski program is now undergoing a serious rebuild. But that doesn't mean expectations aren't high for its nine young athletes competing at the Beijing Olympics.
"I want to see [that] they're skiing their best races of the year right here," said Erik Braten, head coach of the national cross-country ski team at Nordiq Canada since 2018, said from Zhangjiakou, China.
It's not enough to be at the right fitness level -- in order to achieve their goals, athletes must also be able to deliver their best performance at the crucial time, Braten said.
If, when crossing the finish line at the Games, they can say they've achieved their best race or their best result of the year, it means they've figured out a key skill they can use "in every championship to come," the coach said.
"Because a lot of really fit athletes out there are struggling with just that piece. They win all the training they do in the fall but when it's the critical time, it's just not there," he said.
"So, I really hope they can do their best race of the season right here, that would be an excellent achievement."
For the most part, the team members have little experience on the international scene. Seven of the nine are competing in their first Olympics. Only Cendrine Browne and Dahria Beatty went to the Pyeongchang Games. The four men on the team are between the ages of 20 and 23.
Braten agreed the program in undergoing a major transformation. In the early 2000s, strong female athletes were its driving force, but over the eight to 10 years that followed, men were largely at the forefront, he said. Now, it's more of a "next gen" team, with members of both genders on their way up, he said.
"So that's kind of an exciting shift, because now we're kind of getting into those results starting to [be] happening. So, we're pretty excited about that," Braten added.
"It's a young crew, we have nine athletes here, two of them have been to the Olympics before, the rest it's [their] first time, so it's a lot of experience to be getting here and most of them will for sure do more than one Olympics more, so we have a young team coming up and that's super cool."
Team member Olivier Leveille said competing at the World Cup at the start of the year allowed the crew to set realistic goals for the Olympics.
"We're mostly going to focus on gaining experience during these Games. Some have a better chance at medalling, but for sure we're here to gain as much experience as possible," the Quebec skier said.
Those goals largely centred on quality of performance for the athletes who gathered Wednesday, before one of the team's last training sessions.
"I don't like focusing on the result because I don't want to put pressure on myself," said Browne, the group's most experienced member. "More than anything, I want to feel good, do well on technique and give it my all. If I manage to do that, the results I want will come."
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Teammate Antoine Cyr noted everyone's goals are unique, adding he prefers to keep his under wraps for now to promote "mental preparation." But he promised to reveal if he achieved them.
"What we want is to come here with confidence and deliver good performances. To be in the game in every race," he said.
It's a tough course and it's also because it's so cold, it gets very slow.— Canada cross-country ski team coach Erik Braten
Organizers have set the bar high with the course they've created at Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Skiing Centre.
"It's a typical championship course: extremely difficult," Cyr noted. "It could be similar to what we saw at Soldier's Hollow in Park City [Utah]. It's not a totally unfamiliar course, because we've seen similar ones, but it's unique in its own way."
'We're trained for elevation'
Adding to the challenge are the cold and the altitude — the starting line is 1,650 metres above sea level.
"It's a tough course and it's also because it's so cold, it gets very slow. So it's a tough course in slow conditions, so it's a bit of a double-up there," Braten said.
The elevation also makes it "a bit of a technical piece," he added. "But that's kind of cool. We're trained for it, so we're ready for it."
Browne said that while she finds it hard to ski at that elevation, "that's why we did several training camps at high altitude this season."
"So far, I feel good, but it will be different during the race: exerting yourself that much for that long, the oxygen supply to your muscles will be lacking. I'm confident, but it's the hardest course I've skied."
The cross-country skiers will compete in 14 events from Feb. 5 to 20.