Valley skiers strike gold
The fastest cross-country skier in the world is from Canmore. The fastest downhill skier is from Banff.
Devon Kershaw and Jan Hudec proved it on Saturday (Feb. 4) as both claimed World Cup gold in historic fashion.
Kershaw struck gold in the 15 kilometre mass start skate ski event in Rybinsk, Russia with a time of 36.47.5 in frigid conditions. The historic win is the first World Cup cross-country distance gold medal for Canada since Pierre Harvey won gold in 1988 and the victory propels the skier into the argument of Canada’s best of all time.
“I’ve been at this game a long, long time. To know on the day you’re the best skier in the world obviously feels great,” said Kershaw, who now has three career World Cup victories, plus several Tour de Ski stage medals.
“For the first time in my career, with 400 metres to go, I knew I was going to win. I got to the top of that last climb in third and I looked around and said ‘I’m going to take this one’,” said Kershaw. “I felt so comfortable today in the pack. I just knew at the top of that hill I was going to win. That is a really good feeling.”
Kershaw blasted by Russia’s IIia Chernousov, who finished second at 36:48.4. Germany’s Tobias Angerer grabbed the bronze with a time of 36:49.1.
Meanwhile in Chamonix, France, Hudec reached the top of the podium for the first time since 2007, serving notice to the world that he’s still one of the most remarkable athletes on the planet.
Much ink has been spilled over Hudec’s six knee surgeries, back issues and the 1,000 hours plus of sports rehabilitation he’s undergone. However, on the day, joined on the podium by teammate Erik Guay who finished third, talk returned to his remarkable natural skiing ability.
“Living a life of mostly rehab can get tedious after a while and frustrating,” said Hudec, who is ranked ninth in the world in downhill after Saturday’s result. “I never stopped believing I could be back. I obviously had no idea how long it would take or when it would happen. I could just kind of smell it. To be on the podium after all these years and all these injuries is just an amazing feeling.”
Looking for revenge after he and Guay were denied podium spots the day before (he finished sixth while Guay was fourth), Hudec’s blistering Chamonix run was won on the flats at the end of the course. Hudec knew relaxation was what his body needed, and he was actually playing drums in a bar the night before the race (although not drinking) in preparation.
“Erik and I kind of got our revenge from yesterday, being so close to the podium,” added Hudec of Friday’s downhill in Chamonix.
It was the first time Canada had two athletes on a World Cup podium in five years. Ben Thomson of Invermere, B.C. also turned in a strong performance, finishing fifth in the race.
“For us to have a race like this with three guys in the top five, I mean, I think we blew everyone out of the water today,” said Hudec. “I think everyone who was up on the hill was either impressed or stoked for us, or both.
“It was incredible. It was against the odds, but I think we’re doing everything in our power to put ourselves in that position.”
Since Hudec’s 2007 win, so much has been printed about his countless injuries and comebacks, the fact he is one of the most talented skiers on the circuit has been lost. Injuries alter his training regime, and he often skips training runs to give his aching knees and back a rest.
However, on Saturday in Chamonix, he reminded the world that when he’s on his game, he’s tough to beat.
Canadian Coach Paul Kristofic said the win had a special meaning.
“This is one of the guys who has some of the best natural talent and incredible skill to carry speed on the skis – and he’s determined,” Kristofic said. “I’ve been there for every one of his podiums and his two wins now – each one of them has been very special for me.
“It’s always special when you see a guy who’s struggled with injury and other things to succeed and really sort of triumph on a day like today.
During the past five weeks, Kershaw has entered another stratosphere, as he won bronze in Moscow sprints two days prior and his first gold since winning a skate sprint in Toblach, Italy 13 months ago.
Finishing fourth in the Tour de Ski, the toughest collection of races of the season, motivated the Canmore skier to reach the next level. Conversations with the elite skier reveal an athlete in the zone – one who feels completely comfortable and focussed when on his skis.
He has no explanation other than being in the best shape of his life. He even followed up his gold medal performance with a sixth-place finish the next day
“The last five weeks, the body’s been going super well. I can’t explain it,” Kershaw said. “It’s huge. The biggest thing of my career was the world championship, but this and my sprint win last year are definitely second.”
Cross-country head coach Justin Wadsworth has overseen the unprecedented season for the Canadian team, which has placed a racer in the top five every weekend this season. The distance win reaffirms the opinion Kershaw is truly an elite racer.
“It’s great for the team, him and our program. Distance wins are hard to come by. Winning one means you’re for real and on the scene. Only the best in the world win them,” Wadsworth said. “There aren’t many names that win these races.”
The wins could also be considered a carry-over from Canada’s investment in athletics during the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Canada has had unprecedented success this season in its winter sports, something organizations hope will result in continued funding.
Own the Podium funding ensured teams have the proper support, and while Hudec was forced to pay his own way early on this season, he and Kershaw credited the entire staff for the win.
“The staff, the coaching – it takes an entire team effort to win. That doesn’t go unnoticed,” Kershaw said.
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