Last week at Otway Nordic Centre, the nation came to watch the best skiers in the country vie for the final spots on the national junior and U23 teams heading into the world championships this week in Whistler.
There were some international teams in the mix as well - Poland, Estonia, Czechia and Australia - tuning up for the world event.
Prince George was host and more than a dozen skiers from the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club strapped in and gunned for their own positions among those elite athletes.
“It was more than a chance to just rub ski poles with the best in the country, these young males and females wanted to show Canada what club-level talent exists here,” said Robin Ditto, whose son Garnet raced in the event. “Maybe they weren’t expected to win, but they all expected to show well, and they all did.
“Every athlete at that event is a winner and I am so proud of Garnet and his teammates. They did their coaches and parents proud.”
The racers felt that pride in themselves, lining up against some of the best racers in the world.
“I felt really strong in the sprint, and distance still felt pretty good,” said 15-year-old Aidan Cotter, a Grade 10 student at Shas Ti-Kelly Road Secondary School. “I was a little nervous, just at the beginning on the start line. Then I started thinking about the race. It was my first time doing a 20K so I was mostly thinking, in that race, about finishing strong, and I think I did.”
Said 15-year-old Tanner McConkey: “I pushed myself, and stuck with some really good athletes, I didn’t know I could accomplish this, and it was just a lot of fun.
“I think it might have even been a personal best. It’s crazy to be racing people this good. When I was racing, I was up with some really good athletes and I could mimic their technique and what they were doing as they were racing the course. I could follow them and I thought it helped me in my race.”
McConkey’s brother Cale, 17, has been to cross-country nationals before, and the U.S. Super Tour, so he has been up against some of these same high-level skiers in the past.
“These races were really fun, and a really good experience, but they were tough,” Cale said. “This is a world-class course, and all the people who were here added that element of competition that made it tough.”
He said the preparation work was taken seriously by the local skiers and they trained diligently, working on building up to the 20 km distance.
“And then leading up to the race, making sure my nutrition was right, that I was hydrated, having a good warm-up, all leading to having a good long race,” said Cale. “Of course, the wax team here helped me a lot to make sure I was fast on the course, and I really have to thank my coaches Wendy and Tony Fiala.”
The Nordiq Cup races offered a unique chance to race national-level skiers at a time when they’re at the peak of their abilities and it was an unforgettable week for 16-year-old Garnet Ditto.
“It’s very educational,” he said. “For me, this is the highest-calibre race so far. It really shows me what is necessary to be a top-tier athlete. It shows me how good their technique is, how good their endurance is, their strength, just really educational.”
Wendy Fiala said the Prince George nordic sports community is in fantastic shape, having facilities that are among the best in the nation. Many laud Otway as one of the best ski centres in the world. Familiarity with their home trails helped Caledonia athletes post solid results against elite athletes, most of whom are several years older and some based at professional ski organizations.
“The interesting part for these kids is, they get their own junior worlds right here, this weekend,” Wendy said. “They are on the young side; most of them are in the U16 and U18 categories, up against the U23s and U20s, with four other countries here.
“We just told them to go in to do their best and have fun. Ski within yourself. Massive props to the kids who did this. This was a way to learn those lessons. This was time to learn. That’s always hard, (when you aren’t among the top finishers) but it is how you get better.”
In the 1.1km open sprints (classic style), there were five female and eight male competitors from the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club.
In the U20 Women’s division Chloe Witso finished the course in three minutes, 27.74 seconds, followed by Aliah Turner at 3:41.93, Gabby Hoehn at 3:47.56, Ashley Charlston at 4:00.26 and Callie Peterson at 4:00.73. There were 71 registered athletes in the event.
The gold medal went to Poland’s Izabela Marcisz with a time of 2:55.64 in the finals, silver went to Poland’s Monika Skinder, and the bronze to Dahria Beatty of Whitehorse.
On the U-20 Men’s side, the Caledonia racers were led by Odin Witso who made the quarter-finals with a time of 2:54.37, followed by Aidan Cotter at 2:57.88, Lukas Nolli at 3:04.24, Tanner McConkey at 3:07.18, Cale McConkey at 3:07.30, Connel Foster at 3:27.09, Garnet Ditto at 3:28.80 and Sebastian Botten at 3:33.00. There were 84 registered skiers who started out in the event.
The gold medal went to Julian Smith with a time of 2:20.62, followed by Xavier McKeever and Julien Locke, all Canadians.
On the second day of racing, attention shifted from flat-out speed to tactical endurance in the 20km mass-start (classic). Each skier had to do four laps around the 5 km course.
The men’s gold medal winner for this event was Olivier Léveillé with a time of 51:56.4, followed by silver medalist Russell Kennedy and Leo Grandbois picking up the bronze, all from Canada.
There were five Caledonia males who tried their hand (no local females in this event). Tanner McConkey posted the top Caledonia time (1:04:36.5), followed by Cale McConkey at 1:07:23.0, Lukas Nolli at 1:08:22.3, Aidan Cotter at 1:10:19.7 and Garnet Ditto, who started the race but did not finish.
The third day of racing put everyone on their best foot, with the 10km freestyle event.
For the women, Poland’s Izabela Marcisz won another gold in 26:05.8, followed by Keidy Kaasiku of Estonia and Jasmine Lyons of Canada.
Caledonia’s female contingent was led by Aliah Turner at 31:58.0, then Chloe Witso with a time of 35.24.3, Callie Peterson at 36:07.1, Ashley Charlston at 36:09.7 and Gabby Hoehn at 36:45.7.
The top three men were all Canadian. Russell Kennedy’s topped the podium in 23:20.6, followed by Maximillian Hollmann and Sasha Masson.
For the CNSC men, it was Tanner McConkey leading the way at 28:16.9, then Cale McConkey at 28:22.3, Odin Witso at 30:18.4, Connel Foster with 31:15.6, Garnet Ditto at 31:20.4, Aidan Cotter at 31.39.7, Sebastian Botten at 33:17.6.