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Canada's cross-country skiers aiming for medal haul in Sochi in 2014

10/19/2012 06:24 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST
CANMORE, Alta. - Led by a beefier Devon Kershaw, Canada's cross-country ski team intends to keep winning medals this season in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

If Canada is to finish first among countries in the overall medal count in Sochi, Russia, the cross-country skiers need to claim a few of the 36 medals available in their sport.

"When Canada looks to the Sochi Olympics, they're going to look to cross-country to bring home some medals and it's our job to make sure it happens," Canadian coach Justin Wadsworth said Friday at the Canmore Nordic Centre.

Own The Podium, which oversees an athlete's competitive life between Olympic and Paralympic Games, doles out taxpayer money based on a sport's potential to win Olympic medals.

OTP bumped the cross-country team's funding to $1.7 million this season from $1.16 million last year.

This last full season of racing prior to Sochi is a pinata stuffed with significant races for Canada's skiers.

There's a rare pair of World Cup stops in Canada in December, the men's Tour de Ski, an Olympic rehearsal race in Sochi in February and the biannual world championships.

"There's lots of places we need to perform," Wadsworth said.

Kershaw, from Sudbury, Ont., leads a men's team coming off its most successful season ever. The cross-country team won 15 medals in total last season and Wadsworth would like to see 20 in 2012-13.

Kershaw ranked second in the overall World Cup standings in 2011-12 and stood atop the podium in two World Cup races.

Alex Harvey of St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., was sixth overall and won a World Cup final race. Toronto's Len Valjas came on strong to close the season with three medals. Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Alta., rounds out the men's team.

Kershaw is a slender athlete, so the five pounds of muscle the 29-year-old accumulated in the weight room during the off-season is noticeable on his frame.

"We started with that last year and I found it made a big difference," Kershaw said. "I'm heavier this year than last year. I don't know if that's a good thing for endurance sport. We'll have to see."

The men's performance overshadowed Chandra Crawford's return to form. A silver medal in a World Cup sprint was the Canmore skier's first podium result in an individual race since 2008.

The Olympic gold medallist of 2006 and Perianne Jones of Almonte, Ont., were also third in a sprint race. Dasha Gaiazova of Banff, Alta., is the third woman on the Canadian squad.

"Just feeling really grateful to have a training program in which we have everything we need," Crawford said. "We have such good coaches, strength coaches, physiologists, sports psychs.

"It's one of those times - which is probably rare in any job or sport - that you have everything you need."

Quebec City will host World Cup sprints Dec. 7-8, followed by sprints and distance races in Canmore the following week. Crawford won the women's sprint the last time a World Cup was held in her hometown in 2008.

"For me, the big focus is World Cup skiing in Canada," she said. "That experience is what got me into the sport as a kid hanging off these fences watching World Cups."

Kershaw and Crawford were once a couple, but are no longer. Kershaw says he historically doesn't race well in Canmore. He looks forward to Quebec City, however, an anticipation of the spectacle around teammate and local hero Harvey.

"He's so huge in Quebec, it's going to be fun to see," Kershaw said. "This is cross-country skiing and I've been at it awhile and I've been lucky enough to race in Canada a little bit for the Olympic Games and World Cup here.

"I think in Quebec, we're going to see some next-level stuff because Alex is such a big personality there."

Kershaw posted some of his best results over the last two seasons in the Tour de Ski, which is similar in format to cycling's Tour de France.

Returning to Canada for two events will hamper his preparation for the multi-day race in Europe. Kershaw says some of his competitors won't travel to Canada in order to save their energy for the Tour de Ski.

The World Cup in Sochi in February will give the Canadians a taste of 2014. The world championships later that month in Val di Femme, Italy, is this season's priority for the skiers and their coaches.

"Our expectations are so high for ourselves and for our team," Kershaw said. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform, but we also really support each other. As far as outside pressure, I feel zero."

Increased funding from OTP allowed Wadsworth to split his team into separate male and female training groups, with former assistant Eric de Nys overseeing the women. The genders have different training needs, according to the coach.

"You wouldn't put Usain Bolt in a 10k," Wadsworth said. "Our women can distance race, but you can't deny they're better sprinters.

"If we're going to get medals with them at the Olympics, it's going to be in the sprint. We need to focus more on that part of their physiology."

Paralympic champion Brian McKeever, his guide Erik Carleton and Chris Klebl of Canmore, will be joined by Saskatoon's Colette Bourgonje and Mark Arendz of Springton, P.E.I., on the para-nordic team this winter.

Biathlon Canada also announced its five-skier national team Thursday. Jean-Philippe Le Guellec of Shannon, Que., Megan Imrie of Falcon Lake, Man., Zina Kocher of Red Deer, Alta., Regina's Scott Perras and Calgary's Nathan Smith are on the team.

The biathletes have yet to match their cross-country counterparts' climb into the world's elite. Their funding for this winter is $200,000.

OTP has committed an additional $1 million, however, to a "Nordic Consortium" project aimed at enhancing training for all teams at the Canmore Nordic Centre.

The facility awaits its first significant snowfall of the season, yet the Canadians have been skiing on two kilometres of snow that had been stockpiled under sawdust over the summer.

The "Frozen Thunder" project has grown from a 400-metre track in 2009 to its current 2,000 metres. The Canadians and skiers from the U.S. will race on it Oct. 26 before departing for Europe.

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