The Yukon will have a record number of cross-country skiers representing Canada at the World Junior Championships and World U23 Championship in Turkey at the end of February.
Five skiers, all from Whitehorse, gained positions on the national team by either winning races or placing high across the board at Haywood NorAm qualification races last Thursday and over the weekend at Whistler Olympic Park in B.C.
Named to the team on Tuesday were Emily Nishikawa and David Greer, for the U-23 portion of the championships. The juniors were Dahria Beatty, Janelle Greer and Knute Johnsgaard.
“I’m super excited about it,” said Nishikawa. “It’s in Turkey and I think we’ll have a record amount of Yukoners attending this year, which is pretty special. So I’m really excited to be part of this team.”
Nishikawa, a member of the national team, won two of the Yukon’s 13 medals over the three days of racing. She captured gold in Thursday’s skiathlon pursuit – 7.5 kilometre of classic technique followed by 7.5 of skate – thereby securing a spot on the team right off the bat.
She then won gold in Sunday’s 10-kilometre classic, not only winning for the U-23 division, but crossing the finish line first overall against open women skiers.
Next month will be the 22-year-old’s third time competing at the U-23 world championships, placing 16th in the 10-kilometre free technique last year in Estonia.
“It was a great weekend. I’m racing pretty well in distance right now, so I’m really happy about that,” said Nishikawa. “I’m looking forward to building off this success.”
Teammate Beatty, a member of Canada’s junior team, won golds the same days as Nishikawa, but in the junior women division.
In addition to winning gold on Sunday, she was sixth overall against U-23 and open class skiers. “I had never placed in top-10 in open women before,” said Beatty. “That was exciting for me to be a bit closer to the open women and under-23s.”
Beatty, who also finished fourth in Saturday’s sprint event, really enjoyed the excitement of the opening pursuit race on Thursday.
“The first race, I hadn’t yet secured a spot on the team, so that one, excitement-wise, meant a bit more because it was also a mass-start. So I knew, when I crossed the finish line, that I had won,” said Beatty. “It was exciting to have that spot on the junior team secured on the first day of competition. It took a lot of stress off the next few days.”
Competing as the youngest skier in the junior women field at 15, Beatty took a 25th-place finish in a race at the 2010 junior world championships in Germany. Turkey will be her second trip to the championships.
“It’s always a great experience to race internationally” said Beatty. “There are a lot of other Yukoners on the team this year and (Yukon head coach) Alain (Masson) is coming, as well, as a wax-technician so I’ll have a coach there, which is really great. So I’m just excited to race internationally again.”
Junior national teammate Janelle Greer also took in a pair of medals, winning bronze in the pursuit and a gold in the sprint.
Her previous two trips to the junior worlds, in 2009 and 2011, were earned with strong performances in various races. This time she’s focused on the sprint.
“This is my last year as a junior so it’s my last opportunity to go (at the junior level) and I’m really looking forward to it,” said Greer. “The last two times I went I was chosen as an overall (skier), like an average for the two distance races. So this is the first time going as the sprinter. I think it’ll be fun.
“Going into the weekend I thought that my best shot at winning would be in the sprint, just because I’ve been doing well in the sprints lately and I find them easier to push hard in.”
At the junior worlds last February in Estonia, Greer was the top Canadian in two junior women’s events, coming 21st in the 1.2-kilometre sprint, 34th in the five-kilometre free and also grabbed 36th in the 10-kilometre pursuit.
Greer’s brother David, conversely, had his best results in the distance events. He skied to second in the opening pursuit and then secured his spot on the team by winning gold in the 30-kilometre classic on Sunday.
His second time going, but first for U-23, he represented Canada at the 2009 junior worlds in France. There he produced two top-25 performances and helped propel Canada’s relay team to ninth.
Johnsgaard was the only Yukoner in Whistler to earn his spot on the Canadian team, not by winning gold, but by giving a well-rounded performance over the three days of racing.
The 17-year-old, who also competes out of the Pierre Harvey Training Centre in Quebec, was selected through winning three silver medals.
“I was pretty satisfied with every race,” said Johnsgaard. “I knew going into the races that I had a good chance qualifying.”
Johnsgaard’s silver from Saturday’s sprints was so close judges had to go to photo evidence to determine the winner.
“The qualifier didn’t go very well for me because the conditions were really crazy with lots of heavy snow,” said Johnsgaard. “I felt a little better in my quarter-final and semifinal, but when the final came I was completely spent. I guess everybody else was completely spent too and I managed to just hold on to second place.”
On Sunday he “completely surprised myself, considering how exhausted I was after Saturday,” he added.
Johnsgaard, who seems to be having a breakout season with strong finishes in NorAm events in December, will be competing at his first junior world championships.
“It’s pretty exciting to have such a big group of Yukon athletes going,” said Johnsgaard. “I’m really excited because I’ve been doing so well nationally. It will be interesting to see if I can place over in Europe against the best in the world. I’d like to try for a top-20 … but I’ll try my hardest in every race and see how it goes.”
Yukon’s two other medals came from Graham Nishikawa in the open men’s division, making him ineligible for the junior/U-23 world championships.
Recently returning from the World Cup circuit in Europe, Graham took bronze in Thursday’s pursuit – 15 kilometres of classic and 15 kilometres of skate – and then snagged silver in the sprint, coming in just 1.4 seconds behind the gold medalist.
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