In just his third season on the World Cup, the 23-year-old Torontonian headed to the start line in the birth country of the sport, and led the world’s best on the historic 1.2-kilometre Drammen city sprint like a seasoned veteran.
Progressing through his quarter- and semifinal head-to-head heats with the top-30 qualifiers, Valjas took advantage of his fast skis, wasting no time jumping to the front of the six-man final and leading the Norwegians on their home track.
The lanky 6’6” Canuck hammered the flats and powered his way up the hills lined with thousands of screaming passionate Nordic ski fans. Valjas carried the lead until the finishing stretch where Norway’s Erik Brandsdal edged him out at the line for victory. Paal Golberg, also of Norway, claimed the bronze medal.
“I never would have thought I’d win a medal this early in my career, but to have the first medal come in Norway is really special. This country has been really good to me over the last couple of years,” said Valjas. “I just wanted to get to the front and attack on the hills. I had great skis and was able to do that. I felt good all day.”
Valjas’ teammates and fellow World Cup medallists this year, Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw, who became the first Canadians ever to win a World Championship title last year when they accomplished the feat one year ago down the road in Oslo, also qualified for the finals. The two stars of the Canadian men’s program were knocked out in the round of 30. Harvey, of St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que., finished 16th, while Kershaw, of Sudbury, Ont., placed 23rd.
“Training with Alex and Devon has had a huge influence on me and me getting to the podium,” said Valjas. “Just watching how these guys train with such intensity is huge for me.”
Meanwhile, the historic day for Canada did not end in the men’s race. World Cup medallists, Chandra Crawford and Daria Gaiazova, both posted their career-best classic-sprint race results in the women’s race on Wednesday.
Focusing the last decade on improving her classic-skiing technique, Olympic Champion Chandra Crawford, of Canmore, Alta., finally broke through in Norway, narrowly missing the podium in fifth spot after advancing her way into the final.
“I was not expecting it go that well,” said Crawford. “I have been relentless on improving my classic skiing. My stride has opened up and is much longer. I am very happy, but more excited to see Lenny get on the podium today. It couldn’t happen to a better guy and I’m so happy for our program.”
Gaiazova, of Banff Alta., also had a stellar day. Feeding off a 13th-place finish last weekend in Lahti, Finland, the 28-year-old’s podium hopes came to an end in challenging semifinal heat, but her eighth place finish was still the best individual result of her career on the World Cup.
Norway’s Marit Bjoergen won the women’s race. Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, also of Norway, finished second, while Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk locked up the bronze medal.
Two other Canadian women also suited up in Drammen but did not qualify within the top 30. Alysson Marshall, of Salmon Arm, B.C., was 52nd, while Perianne Jones, of Almonte, Ont., finished 61st.
The Canadian squad now heads to Oslo for a 30- and 50-kilometre classic ski race on Saturday.
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Complete World Cup Results: http://www.fis-ski.com/uk/604/1228.html?cal_suchsector=CC&;event_id=30412
Top-5 Men and Canadian Results:
1. Erik Brandsdal, NOR; 2. Len Valjas, Toronto, CAN; 3. Paal Golberg,NOR; 4. Alexander Panzhinskiy, RUS; 5. Emil Joensson, SWE
Other Canadian Results:
16. Alex Harvey, St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que.; 23. Devon Kershaw, Sudbury, Ont.
Top-5 Women and Canadian Results:
1. Marit Bjoergen, NOR; 2. Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, NOR; 3. Justyna Kowalczyk, POL; 4. Maiken Caspersen Falla, NOR; 5. Chandra Crawford, Canmore, Alta., CAN
8. Daria Gaiazova, Banff, Alta.; 52. Alysson Marshall, Salmon Arm, B.C.; 61. Perianne Jones, Almonte, Ont.