Tablets and smart phones tuned into the Olympics had skiers gathered around their screens at Otway Nordic Centre between their races on the weekend for the Haywood Nor-Am Western Canadian cross-country skiing championships.
Dave Wood was among that group of interested spectators.
Like the rest of the country, he's disappointed with the performance of Canada's cross-country team in Sochi and Sunday's 12th-place result in the men's relay was yet another tough pill to swallow for Wood, the Prince George born-and-raised head coach of the national team program from 1998-2010.
"I'm surprised the results have been as poor as they have been, and I don't know why," said Wood, who quit the national team in June 2010 and moved to Rossland, where his wife works as a nurse.
"I think in the press it's almost been a foregone conclusion there's going to be all these medals from Canada and U.S., but you have to race before you go to the awards ceremony. If you start believing all that stuff a year out from the Games you lose perspective on what you have to do well to do it. Certainly they've underperformed quite significantly."
Now coach of the Black Jack Ski Club in Rossland, Wood took over the national team in May 1998, a few months after Canada turned in sub-par results in the Nagano Olympics. By 2002 he helped Beckie Scott win gold in the 10-kilometre classic, becoming the first North American cross-country skier to ever reach the Olympic medal podium.
With Wood calling the shots, backed by increased support from the Canadian Olympic Association, the 2002 Canadian team turned in seven top-30 finishes in Salt Lake City and they continued to improve their Olympic standing in 2006. In Turin, Chandra Crawford won the women's sprint, Scott and Sarah Renner captured silver in the team sprint, and the team posted five top-10 results and 10 top-30s.
Although there were no medals for the 2010 team in Vancouver-Whistler, Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw just missed, finishing fourth in the team sprint. Kershaw was fifth in the 50 km classic and Ivan Babikov was fifth in the 15 km freestyle. The 2010 team had nine top-10 results, 14 top-20s and 19 top-30s. Justifiable cause for optimism in 2014.
"If you look at the Vancouver team, with the exception of Sarah Renner and George Gray, the hopefulls are all the same people, and Len Valjas, who replaced George in the top group, has been quite good," said Wood. "They were certainly capable of doing well. This year they've been brutal, but over the last quadrennial they've had quite good results."
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Canada in Sochi has been Harvey, who dropped out 10 km into the 15 km classic race, saying his wax was not giving him enough glide on the slushy downhills. He was seeded fourth in that event and ranks eighth overall in the FIS standings.
"I think it's unfortunate they keep slagging the wax and support staff in the international media," said Wood. "You don't do that, that's pretty tacky. If you have problems with your skis, you deal with it internally."
The guy now in charge of the team cross-country team in Sochi is Justin Wadsworth, the American husband of Scott, who endeared himself to the host Russians when he lent a ski to Russian sprinter Anton Gafarov after he had fallen and was struggling to finish on a broken ski. (Eric de Nys, a 39-year-old Prince George native, is Wadsworth's assistant coach).
Harvey had high hopes for Sochi after he won gold in a World Cup race in Poland three weeks before the Olympics. In the past six years he's had 12 World Cup/world championship podium finishes. At Christmas he won gold, silver and bronze in the prestigious Tour de Ski. Harvey's best result in Sochi, and the highest Canadian finish, came on the first weekend of the Games when he was 18th in the skiathon.
Kershaw, who ranks 46th in the world, posted 11 World Cup podium finishes in 2011-12 and was second overall on the circuit that season. After three top-10 finishes in 2010, Kershaw's best Sochi result so far was 33rd in the 15 km classic. He and Harvey were not part of the relay Sunday, saving their energy for Wednesday's two-skier team sprint.
National team skier Phil Widmer of Canmore, who won two of the three open men's races over the weekend at Otway, says Canadians, despite the Own the Podium mantra, shouldn't expect their athletes to dominate in cross-country skiing. Not when they compete against traditional powerhouses Norway, Sweden, Germany, Finland and Russia. The sheer numbers of high-level skiers in those countries feeding the World Cup and Europa Cup circuits stack the odds against racers from North Americans, where there are far fewer skiers.
"I think the team is putting a bit too much pressure on themselves for medals -- all the money is tied to medals," said Widmer, who was part of the 2006 Olympic team. "But if you look at alpine skiing and cross-country and the depth of the fields and the competitiveness, it's unbelievable how deep the fields are, with over 100 competitors. Every team is world class."
Stefan Kuhn of Canmore, who posted an all-time-best 15th-place result for Canada in the individual sprint at the 2010 Olympics, says the wacky weather in Sochi that has some skiers racing in shorts and T-shirts is creating havoc for the teams, not just Canada. Norway's men and women failed to make the relay podium, an almost unheard-of Olympic result
"Personally it's hard to watch," said Kuhn, 34, coach of the six-skier Alberta World Cup Academy team at the Western Canadian championships.
"When you see temperatures are plus-10 it's difficult to wax and difficult to race. Overheating is an issue, skis are an issue. It's a winter sport and skis are made for minus-10 so when you go to plus-12 it's a hard place to have good wax and good skis."
Despite consistently being in the medals in World Cups ever since the Vancouver Olympics, the Olympic hardware drought continues for Canadian males, but Kuhn said that could end on Wednesday. He competed in Oslo at the 2011 word championships, where Kershaw and Harvey pulled off a huge upset in the team sprint when they beat Norwegian superstars Petter Northug and Ola Vigen Hattestad on home soil, and he knows his former teammates are capable of greatness.
"They're down in the dumps but things change quickly and I have no doubt a good result is coming," said Kuhn
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