At the World Junior/U23 Trials in Thunder Bay earlier this year, two Ontario skiers qualified to race at the World Junior/U23 Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic from January 21-27. Andy Shields of Waterloo Region attended the U23 Championships, racing in the 20km skiathlon in which he placed 62nd. Also selected to represent Canada at the early season World Cups in Québec and Canmore, Shields will have another opportunity next season to qualify for U23s.
Scott Hill of Team Hardwood is a first-year junior who trains with Shields at the National Development Centre in Thunder Bay. Hill has been on the podium twice this season; he was 3rd in the 15km classic race at the NorAms in Canmore and 2nd in the 15km free this past weekend at Easterns. What follows is Hill’s account of his World Junior Championship experience.
By Scott Hill
Qualifying for this year’s world junior championships in Liberec, Czech Republic had been my main goal ever since last year’s trials races in Whistler. In every hard or long workout during the training season, having this goal in the back of my mind was something that kept me motivated to keep working harder. In the end I was able to have a great trials’ preparation over the Christmas break and I was able to have some of the best races of my life and I fulfilled my goal in making the world junior championship team. It was weird though, after I found out that I had made the team I was really happy, but I suddenly found that my happiness turned into motivation again to train really well leading up to the world junior championships races to give myself the chance to have the best races of my life again. In my head making the team was just another small step in my long term goals as a skier, but none the less I was still extremely excited for the trip to Europe and the new experience.
Less than a week after the trials races I flew to Munich, Germany where everyone on the Canadian team met up. In total there were eighteen junior and Under 23 athletes and five coaches/waxtechs. We then drove to Ramsau, Austria where we were going to do our pre races’ camp. We were in Ramsau for about four days and the skiing was amazing with lots of snow which was nice because the rest of Europe was not doing too well for snow at the time. We had trails right beside where we were staying which made for some great training. What was really cool was that the trails went in and around all the houses in the Ramsau countryside and also went right into the small town in Ramsau where the world championships stadium from 1999 was located. The scenery was also pretty amazing with huge mountains all around us that had lots of downhill ski runs on them. One of the things that some people have trouble with in Europe is the differences in food to Canada, but the place we were staying had great food and all our meals were provided which was a nice benefit. My fitness was also feeling really good when I was training in Ramsau and I didn’t really have any problems with jetlag from the six hour time change.
From Ramsau we drove to Liberec, Czech Republic where the world junior championships races were being held. It was supposed to be about a five hour drive but ended up being about double that due to a huge snow storm and difficult driving conditions with no snow tires on our vans. We were hoping that the race site in Liberec was getting some of the snow that we were driving through but there was no such luck. The snow conditions at the race site were still not that bad though because there was a lot of man-made snow from the world cup races the weekend before. There was only about 1.5km of trail
when we first skied there though, but by the start of the distance races they had 5km of good trail. We arrived in Liberec three days before the first race so we were able to get familiar with the race course which was much different than the usual race courses in Canada. The course was basically in open fields with rolling hills and there were very few trees around much like the course on the Plains of Abraham for the team sprints at the 2012 Ski Nationals. A few days before the races me and a couple other skiers went for a long ski at a place away from the race site and it was probably one of the nicest skis I have ever done. There was a ton of snow and endless classic trails with perfect hard tracks and 10 minute gradual climbs and downhills. It was also cool to see the amount of people skiing at this place on a Saturday morning. There were literally thousands of people out skiing that were young and old and there were almost traffic jams on parts of the trails. It just goes to show how popular cross country skiing is in Europe.
Over the championships there were seven days of racing in a row with the juniors and Under 23s racing on alternating days. The first races were the classic sprints. Going into the races I wasn’t even sure that I was going to race because I was the fifth person to make the Canadian team for junior men and only four Canadians can start each race. The coaches decided though to start the top four skiers from each of the trials in that specific world juniors’ race. So as it turned out I got to race in the classic sprint and the 10km skate race. I would say that these races went pretty well even though my places in the races may have not seemed that great. I was 58th in the sprint and 62nd in the 10km out of about 90 skiers in each. I did not race the other two races which were the 20km pursuit and the team relay, but they were extremely exciting to watch and it was fun to cheer on my other teammates that were racing. What I found most amazing about my first international races was how normal they felt to any other race I have done in the past. Before the trials races in Canada I was way more nervous but at world juniors I didn’t really get nervous because I didn’t know anyone I was racing against and I had nothing to lose.
At the start of the week it was really cool to see and ski around all the other skiers and I was a little bit star struck seeing some of the older skiers from the powerhouse countries like Norway and Russia. By the end of the week though I saw all the other skiers just as other competitors and I really felt like I belonged. It was definitely eye opening to see the level that the best juniors in the world are skiing at but also extremely motivating as well to know that they are not super human and that they are doing the same things as everyone else. They eat the same food, they do the same things when warming up for races, they go for recovery runs and they go as hard as they can in the races. That being said I think Canada as a country has a lot of work to do to become competitive with the other strong nations in cross country skiing at the junior levels, but it is exciting to know that Canada is starting to produce skiers that are regularly competitive on the world cup with the programs that we are all currently in.
Overall I learned a lot from the racing and training experience in Europe. I think the biggest thing I learned was that you can’t always have the ideal training and racing conditions and you just have to roll with it. Sometimes the food is not the best or you haven’t completely got over the jetlag or you can’t ski on the courses when you want. One of the hardest things to deal with was trying to warm up for the races on a 200 metre warm up loop with about 100 other skies and having a hard time doing my usual pre-race intensity with the amount of people. I think I still was able to make the best of it which allowed me to still have alright races. I also learned how fast the best in the world really are. My long term skiing goals are to be competitive with the best skiers in the world and with this trip I was able to race against them and now I can see where I want to get and how much faster I need to be to get there which gave me a whole new perspective. With my new perspective on international racing I am extremely motivated to be competitive at the world junior championships next year if I am lucky enough to get the opportunity again.
After all the races were done we packed up the vans and drove about an hour into Prague which is the capital of the Czech Republic were we stayed the night and also did some sightseeing which was really cool. We then drove back to Munich to catch our flights back to Canada and said all our goodbyes to everyone as we headed our different ways across Canada.
-Report and Photos by Scott Hill
World Juniors: A Coach’s Perspective
Coach Kieran Jones of Nakkertok sent two athletes to World Juniors this year, and during a conversation with him, he shared his views on Canada’s results as measured against the rest of the world, and the importance of success at this event.
Our World Junior team is just not at the same level as the juniors in Europe. We don’t have the numbers. You look at the junior men’s field for example, and sure there are 55 at the trials in Thunder Bay, but that is the biggest category you get. Our top junior men have competition but it’s not really tight, tooth and nail for every second on the domestic circuit like it is if you went to Norway, or Sweden, or Russia. That’s not to say that our guys don’t work hard.
The other major factor is just pure travel time and distance. For most of our World Junior team it may be their 1st, 2nd or maximum 3rd trip to Europe to race. For Scott Hill, Zeke Williams and Katherine Stewart-Jones, that’s the first time they’ve ever been overseas. To send them over there less than a week after trials, we’re tossing them into the deepest field of their lives. We do plan well and hope they can race the best races of their lives, but ultimately it’s quite tough to make that adjustment. From jet lag, to Czech Republic food, to different courses, to having this big experience that none of them have ever had before. It’s tough for everyone but it’s a lot easier if you have to drive 6 hours across Europe than it is if you have to fly.
A lot of those European countries have exposure to a series of FIS races that are one step down from the World Cups that are well attended and have top level competition where you can get a similar atmosphere to World Juniors. Whereas in Canada, the NorAm races are as intense as it gets. It’s really tough to simulate the pressure of an event like World Juniors where you race 4 races in 7 days and you have to be on for all of them or else you can go from 25th to 50th.
There are different thoughts on the importance of World Juniors. Cross Country Canada has indicated that if you can achieve a top 30 result at World Juniors, then there is a significantly greater chance that you will be able to ski in the top 30 on the World Cup circuit. There is some data to support this. But at the same time for Canadian development, there are unique factors to consider, such as travel. Maybe World Juniors’ success is important but ultimately it doesn’t absolutely determine the success of our skiers. Len Valjas never had that much success at World Juniors, and Devon Kershaw was strong when he went but not outstanding. So I don’t want to diminish the importance of doing well at the World Junior Championships, but I don’t think it’s the be all and end all of a cross country skier’s career.
It’s tough to look at the results’ sheet and think you had a really strong day and then realize you came 55th, whereas in Canada when you feel like you’ve had a strong day, you might come 3rd. The difference between a good day and a bad day, whether it’s World Juniors, U23s or the World Cup, is a 20-30 place swing because the talent is there to make you really pay for having a bit of an off day.
It’s all about gaining that experience, gaining that level of confidence and being a little bit more comfortable in a different environment. The next time these skiers are on a trip to Europe, they will have something to draw on.
The way skiing works is you want the world at 19, but you ask Devon, it doesn’t come until you’re 29.
Compiled by Corina Zechel