Widmer leaves Canada for Switzerland
Thursday, May 07, 2015 06:00 am
Olympic cross-country ski sprinter Heidi Widmer says she’s lost faith in the Canadian development system and will race for Switzerland next year.
The 24-year-old Banff native made up her mind after she was left off Canada’s national team following a bumpy season one year removed from her Olympic debut.
“I felt like I didn’t believe in the program. It’s not the fit for me. It’s not that it’s not adequate, but I lost trust in the system,” Widmer said.
Long one of Canada’s top world cup prospects, Widmer’s departure is the latest in a long list of female skiers leaving the system. Perianne Jones, Alysson Marshall and Brittany Webster all announced their retirements this spring, while Chandra Crawford and Dasha Gaiazova left last year.
With the Tour of Canada approaching in 2016, Widmer was expected to get five world cup starts for her country. Instead, she could be on the start line in Canmore in a Swiss uniform.
Widmer had discussed the move with the Swiss national team earlier in the year, when she initially thought she might simply train overseas and still ski for Canada. The Swiss team countered with an offer for her to join their ‘B’ team. Once Widmer was left off the Canadian team, it made her final decision easier.
“They said they’ve watched me race and train and offered me the spot. For me, I wanted to race until at least 2018 and to make that realistic, I had to make a full commitment. Financially, mentally and physically, it sounds scary, but I feel better about it the more I think about it,” Widmer said.
Since her father was born in Switzerland, Widmer has dual citizenship and is able to join the team at the beginning of June.
For several years, Widmer has been touted as Canada’s best prospect on the women’s team, cracking the top 30 at the U23 World Ski Championships in 2014. After the Sochi Olympics, she was expected to earn a spot on the world cup, but struggled to establish herself, recording a 47th-place in Finland. She felt her development had stalled, and she needed a change if she was to reach her goals.
Being left off the national team was disappointing, but Widmer said it was the push she needed to make a change.
“It was always at the back of my mind, but when the national team announcement came through, this may be harsh, I was misled by CCC. At the same time, this is the best thing they could have done for me,” Widmer said.
Cross Country Canada high performance director Thom Holland wouldn’t comment specifically on Widmer’s departure, but said national team criteria is specifically laid out and becomes very tight once an athlete is over 23.
Widmer did not meet criteria to earn a Canadian national team spot, as she would have needed a top-30 world cup result to keep her spot and funding.
“We’re using a lot of data to create these podium pathway markers. At any age, based on data, to see what a junior should be, what a 23-year-old should be and what a 25-year-old should be,” Holland said.
He said there is a difference between high performance standard and a national-level standard and, with tight resources, the team supports athletes on specific pathways towards podiums.
“Olympian is a nice title, but it’s a domestic standard. This is about international standards. The pathway for other women in the program is about looking out four years ahead,” Holland said. “If an athlete is at a point where they’re not interested in doing that stuff, they’re not part of our program. The strength of our program has been on sports science.”
No Canadian women made world cup criteria this year, and the ‘B’ team is also expected to have very few women. Emily Nishikawa is the lone Canadian woman with a top-30 world cup result to her name.
He said the door is open for Widmer to return to Canada should she wish, and noted there is room in the Canadian program to help identify outliers who may not hit the high performance markers at the right time
“We allow three years. There are a lot of outliers between 18 and 20. There aren’t too many at 25, and you can come back in to the stream. We’re building out to 2022 right now … and it’s important for athletes that they know what their pathway is,” Holland said.
For seven years, Widmer worked with the Alberta World Cup Academy, which has helped her develop from a junior into an Olympian. She doesn’t fault their work, and said she needs a change.
“You can’t push a rope. I have no bad feelings towards the coaches. It’s just this is a much better option. I’ve already spent time with the team and it’s worked really well,” Widmer said.
AWCA head coach Mike Cavaliere said he wishes Widmer the best, noting she is capable of coming back after struggling last year to crack the world cup team. Widmer had several strong races in Europe late in the season.
Olympic gold medallist Chandra Crawford, a longtime proponent of strong women’s teams, said the national team system isn’t doing enough. She said she’d do the same thing if she were in Widmer’s shoes.
“It’s so disappointing that our national team system isn’t creating the development environment and opportunities for some of our top female athletes at the moment. I’d love to see a women’s team with a critical mass of, say, five athletes training together. That was so effective for Sara Renner, Beckie Scott, Milaine Theriault and the Fortier sisters in the ’90s and continues to work well for the American women’s team,” said Crawford.
“Creating a team is the way to go. It’s not overly complicated to support the top five women in the country in a cohesive way and would make a huge difference.”
Widmer said she doesn’t have a solution to the Canadian system and is thankful for everything it’s taught her, but she believes changes are needed if the nation is to restore its program.
“I don’t know what the answers are, but you don’t have to look far into the system to know it has to change. I think cohesion is what Canada needs. It’s not easy to do in such a wide and diverse country. I’m so, so grateful that I had the opportunity to ski for Canada.
“At the end of the day, it’s my life and experiences. It’s about ski racing, but more than that too,” Widmer said.