This summer, Justine Scheck jumped into world-class orienteering feet first.
The 17-year-old Whitehorse athlete competed at the World Orienteering Championships in Denmark two weeks ago, facing the best in the world with a map and compass.
“I knew they would be good,” said Scheck on Wednesday, back in Whitehorse. “But you have to see it, and race against them to know that — wow — people can get that good. They are so fast.”
Scheck ran the long-distance race for the Canadian team, competing in the open women’s division (no age groups) and although she finished 28th in her qualifying heat, and didn’t advance to the final, she’s keeping it in perspective.
“The world champion was in my heat, I’m not at that level — but I’m there racing with them,” she said. “It’s all about experience.”
In fact, only one Canadian made a final, in the sprint. Canada is an underdog in the orienteering world, while the Scandinavian countries dominate.
Scheck knew that her success at the nationals and North American championships in previous years wouldn’t stand up against the Europeans, but she wanted to test herself.
“It’s good for me to go overseas, and realize I’m not at the top at all,” she said. (Scheck won the North American Championship in 2002 and 2004, and the Asia-Pacific Championship in 2002.)
Before the Worlds, Scheck also ran for the Canadian Junior team in Lithuania at the Junior World Championships.
She had a rough start in her first world-class event.
“I left for Lithuania after I wrote my last exam,” said Scheck. “Three days later I had my first race. I was pretty tired and it was super hot. It was like 36 degrees during the last race, I had trouble staying hydrated.”
After the sprint, she felt pretty good about her performance. “I felt strong, I was happy with it, and my name went on the board,” she said.
“Then more people were coming in, and my name started to drop way down — people are so fast, even if I didn’t make any errors, I can’t compare. They’re so fast and smooth.”
She ended up finishing 110th out of 123 racers.
She had trouble in her long-distance race; the one she thought would be her best.
Her top finish was a 33rd place in the middle distance final.
Another bright spot of the juniors, the Canadian contingent was strong enough to compete in the relay for the first time in several years. They finished 20th of 28 teams.
“It’s been a long time since Canada has sent a full team,” she said. “Our goal is always to beat the Americans, and we did.”
After the juniors, Scheck spent few weeks traveling, and competing at the Swiss O Week festival in Zermat, before meeting up with her adult teammates for the Worlds.
Scheck may have been in foreign lands, but she had familiar faces at her side. Yukon orienteers Pam James and Brent Langbakk also competed for the Canadian team.
“We had a week before the race to train, and Brent (Langbakk) got the maps and a rental car, and we just spent every day training.”
The difference between the Junior Worlds and the Worlds was clear: “At the juniors it was very social, everyone’s 18,19, 20 — at the World’s, things were a lot more serious, they were there to win.”
The media focus was something new for her as well. “The coolest part was at the last control, there were all these flashes going off, like 50 camera people,” she said.
“You don’t get that in Canada — there was tons of people, with big screen TVs and bleachers packed with people.”
After she returned to Whitehorse, Scheck didn’t have much time to rest. She left yesterday for Orangeville, Ontario, where she’ll be competing in the Nationals later in the month.
She intends to compete above her level again, in the elite 21-34 group. “I need to race those distances — if I’m going to compete at worlds, I need to race against the best in Canada.”
It’s been a whirlwind of a summer for Scheck, but she doesn’t have any plans to slow down.
After nationals she’s going to coach at a junior development camp, and then start her first year at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
She said she chose McMaster partially because Hamilton is a hotbed of orienteering.
“Hamilton’s got a lot of maps in a close radius, and a really active club, and one of the professors there competes on the national team as well: Orienteering was about 50/50 in my decision making,” she said.
She’s looking forward to the North American Championships at Thanksgiving, which will also be held in the Hamilton area. “The sprint course is right on the McMaster campus, so that will be cool.”
She hopes to compete in more races in the northeast US in the spring, because travel is much easier than coming from Whitehorse.
Next year’s junior worlds take place in Australia, and Scheck isn’t planning on attending.
Her sights are set on 2008 in Sweden. It will be her last chance to compete as a junior.
“The girls I competed with at Junior Worlds were really keen — we tend to lose a lot of people at university age, hopefully we can keep them together — we’ve got a lot of strong juniors, with the potential for good results in the future.”