—Valjas leads Canadians in 22nd on tricky day for world’s best cross-country skiers—

RUKA, Fin.—The 22nd-place result may not be worthy of getting a medal around his neck, but in Len Valjas’ eyes he is certainly well on his way.

After battling a sore knee following surgery two years ago, the 27-year-old Valjas was the lone Canadian to qualify for the head-to-head heats in a classic-ski sprint race as the top Nordic athletes in the world kicked off the 2015-16 edition of the World Cup in Ruka, Finland on Friday.

“I have to be happy for sure. I have had an injury to deal with every year it seems and today I felt healthy and was happy to get in the points. That was the goal – to race pain free and get into heats,” said Valjas.

The heats include the fastest 30 athletes following a qualifying round with six athletes racing head-to-head. The top-two athletes in each heat advance to the next round along with the next fastest two times.

The Torontonian had a solid quarter-final heat, but changing weather conditions from wet, heavy snow to ice sent wax techs into a frenzy, and may have been the difference in the lanky Canuck moving onto the next round.

“We nailed the grip today. I got off to a great start but was missing a little speed on the first downhill and got passed by three guys so we’ll need to look at that as a team and see if it was the glide or my ski choice,” added Valjas. “My (opening) heat was good thought. I just got caught in the back of an Italian skier on an icy track that had a lot of glare so it was tough to move up.”

The Norwegians swept the men’s podium. Sondre Fossli captured the first gold medal of the season. Erik Brandsdal was second, while Petter Northug locked up the final step on the podium.

“It is a such a tough sprint. Half of the field (in the heats) was spoken for by the Norwegians and Finns so the rest of the world was fighting for the remaining spots to qualify in the top-30. I was happy to get in. That was the main goal today.”

It has been a long road back to this point for Valjas who racked up five World Cup podium finishes prior to undergoing knee surgery in 2013.

“Two years ago I didn’t think I’d ever be fast again. I have had two full years of training, and I now see flashes of my old self. I feel like I’m getting back to where I was,” said the 2014 Olympian. “It can be very mentally challenging when you’re not healthy. We put a huge effort into our training so when that doesn’t pay off it is tough. At least, I now feel positive and it is fun again.”

Other Canadian men’s results included: Alex Harvey, of Saint Ferreol les Neiges, Que in 47th.; Jesse Cockney, of Canmore, Alta., in 65th; Devon Kershaw, of Sudbury, Ont., placing 88th; Ivan Babikov, of Canmore, Alta. finishing 96th; Michael Somppi, of Thunder Bay, Ont., 97th; and Graeme Killick, Fort McMurray, Alta., in 103rd spot.

Emily Nishikawa, of Whitehorse, was the lone Canadian in the women’s field and finished 58th.

Norway’s Maiken Caspersen Falla won the women’s sprint. Sweden’s Stina Nilsson celebrated the silver, while Ragnhild Haga completed a five-medal day for the Norwegians placing third.

The Ruka Triple continues on Saturday with a women’s and men’s 10- and 15-kilometre pursuit race.


Top-5 Men and Canadian Results:

1. Sondre Fossli, NOR; 2. Erik Brandsdal, NOR; 3. Petter Northug, NOR; 4. Andrew Newell, USA; 5. Emil Joensson, SWE

Canadian Results:

22. Len Valjas, Toronto; 47. Alex Harvey, Saint Ferreol les Neiges, Que.; 65. Jesse Cockney, Canmore, Alta.; 88. Devon Kershaw, Sudbury, Ont.; 96. Ivan Babikov, Canmore, Alta.; 97. Michael Somppi, Thunder Bay, Ont.; 103. Graeme Killick, Fort McMurray, Alta.

Top-5 Women and Canadian Results:

1. Maiken Caspersen Falla, NOR; 2. Stina Nilsson, SWE; 3. Ragnhild Haga, NOR; 4. Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg, NOR; 5. Ida Ingemarsdotter, SWE

Canadian Results:

 58. Emily Nishikawa, Whitehorse, CAN