ULRICEHAMN, Swe.—Canada’s Nordic rock band has had a lot of gigs lately.
A tradition created five years ago to play air guitar at the finish line after winning a medal, the Canadian men’s cross-country ski squad was at it again on Sunday in Ulricehamn, Sweden.
This time it was a historic playing by the new Canadian fab-four following a bronze medal in the team relay. It was the first time in the history of the program that Canada has reached the podium in a men’s World Cup cross-country ski relay.
Three Olympic veterans, Devon Kershaw (Sudbury, Ont.), Alex Harvey (Saint Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que.), and Len Valjas (Toronto) teamed up with a 24-year-old World Cup rookie, Knute Johnsgaard (Whitehorse), to clock a bronze-medal time of 1:06:48.0 in the men’s 4×7.5 kilometre relay.
“The team relay and the 50 kilometre are the biggest races in our sport by far so this means the world to us,” said the 34-year-old Kershaw, who skied onto the podium for the first time in three years. “We have talked about this medal a lot when I first came onto the World Cup. It is something we have always wanted, and weren’t able to get it done in previous generations – even back to the Pierre Harvey days. Even when Lenny, Alex and I were all winning multiple medals individually a few years ago we weren’t able to get it done so it shows how hard it is.”
How big was this performance?
Bro-Hymn from Pennywise cranked on the Ipod, the bubbly corked, shirts being shredded, the concert turned into a full-on mosh pit in the Canadian wax trailer once the squad returned from the podium – celebrating history Canadian style!
“Winning individual races is awesome, but to stand on the podium with four guys from your country is the greatest feeling in the world. The relay is the only way to show the depth of program. Our team is on a shoe- string budget right now – especially compared to the rest of the world. We have been given every opportunity to fail and we are still doing this. It is a testament to the hard work of our entire staff and team so I am doubly proud of that,” added Kershaw.
The three-time Olympian skied the fastest opening classic leg on the new stop for the World Cup which leads the top skiers in the world on a track up and down short hills, with twists and turns through a packed stadium.
Kershaw handed off to the 26-year-old Harvey, who along with his back-to-back gold medals, and has hopped onto the World Cup podium in three straight races. Harvey won the 15-kilometre individual start race on Saturday in Sweden. He and Valjas also won gold last Sunday in a team sprint relay.
“It is incredible. We’ve been chasing this feeling since I’ve been on the team and for some reason we just could never get all four us on the same day,” said Harvey, who also skied classic. “Winning individual medals you enjoy it but you can’t share that enjoy as much with your teammates. When you do this together it is so emotional.”
It certainly was for all involved in the Canadian tent including the coaches, wax techs and therapists that pieced the team together.
“Seeing Yves Bilodeau, (lead wax technician) who has been at this sport for more than 30 years in the finish with Babs (Ivan Babikov) crying was amazing. Both of them weren’t able to win this as athletes and we are so happy they are now a part of this. You need the whole team including the support staff clicking to make this happen. They are the ones making sure we are ready. It is just so special for all of us.”
A last minute decision to come over to Europe on Thursday with a handful of World Cup starts under his belt, Knute Johnsgaard strategically sat out Saturday’s race in an effort to be fully prepared to hit the start line in the team relay.
Regularly found hunting game in his downtime on the lands near his home in Whitehorse, the young buck was chasing down the top Nordic athletes in the world in Sweden while skiing beyond his limits in the opening skate-ski leg.
“I’m speechless. It is pretty amazing and one of the best days of my life. Everything just came together,” said Johnsgaard, who started walking away from the race course after his leg before Harvey and Kershaw told him to get back with Valjas showing promise for a podium finish.
“This is all so new to me. It was only my second relay ever so to see Len come into podium position was an unreal feeling,” said Johnsgaard. “This distance is really good for me. I only lost five seconds to the top guys. I knew Len was in really good shape so if I could keep contact with the top guys in my leg he could potentially come through for us. I am glad I was able to pull out a good race for the boys.”
Johnsgaard handed off to Valjas five seconds back of the leaders in seventh spot where the six foot seven Canuck put down a monster effort to secure the bronze.
“I was just fighting so hard with my head down. I fought right to the end and when I looked up I saw the three guys running at me. I put out my arms and grabbed them all like a big fish net. They were my brakes and it was the best feeling I have ever felt in cross-country skiing to have them in my arms,” said Valjas. “Normally I feel pressure watching my sister compete at the Olympics but not when I’m on the start line myself. But watching the other three guys perform I just felt pressure to keep the momentum going that they all started. I just tried to play it smart.
“I wanted to experience this feeling of being the last one to cross the finish line. It was amazing. We have wanted this for so long. Dancing to the music just cranked in the wax room is something I’ll never forget. We were the happiest team out there for sure.”
Norway won the gold medal with a time of 1:06:47.5. The Swedes edged out Valjas and the Canucks at the finish line with a time of 1:06:48.0.
The only other time a Canadian cross-country ski team won a World Cup relay medal came 30 years ago when a women’s foursome of Angela Schmidt-Foster, Carol Gibson, Jena McAllister, and Marie-Andree Masson won the bronze in Canmore, Alta.
Working with the men’s athletes, Cross Country Ski De Fond Canada established a podium strategy this year to focus on the relay. The plan came through in its first test.
“It was really inspired by our fifth-place finish in Nove Mesto last year,” said Tom Holland. “The key was to have complete buy-in from everyone on the men’s team to focus on this team goal recognizing if all the parts came together – we had a podium chance. After sitting down with the team, we got that buy in and today shows what can happen. This is a big day – a huge day for our program.”
Top-Five Men’s Results:
- Norway, 1:06:47.5; 2. Sweden, 1:06:48.0; 3. Canada – Devon Kershaw, (Sudbury, Ont.), Alex Harvey, (Saint Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que.), Knute Johnsgaard (Whitehorse), Len Valjas (Toronto), 1:06:48.0; 4. Switzerland, 1:06:49.3; 5. Italy, 1:06:50.1.