It’s one thing to compete at a national championship, but to do it at home in front of friends and family is something truly special.
That seemed to be the feeling among local racers as the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club hosted the 2016 Haywood Ski Nationals last week.
“We’ve been skiing these trails since we were tiny kids and we know them quite well,” said Whitehorse Olympian Emily Nishikawa. “And then seeing those friendly faces and everyone is cheering my name. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
“A special thanks to everyone who helped make this event possible. It’s a pretty special opportunity for us to be able to race at home.”
“It’s been a really great week. It’s been amazing racing on our home trails here,” said Whitehorse’s Knute Johnsgaard. “So many volunteers, so many people out cheering – it’s a super good vibe. It’s been a really great week and I had a good race to cap it off. It couldn’t be a better end to the season.”
Familiarity with the trails, characteristically loud Yukon fans, a record-sized team of 46, and the club’s propensity to produce top-notch skiers, all combined to make last week one of Whitehorse’s best showings at the national cross-country ski championships.
Whitehorse placed second out of 61 clubs from across Canada to tie its previous best from 2014, 2012 and 2007.
Ontario/Quebec powerhouse Nakkertok claimed its seventh straight club title while Quebec’s Skibec Nordique placed third.
Whitehorse club skiers sped to 12 medals over the week, adding three to the total in Saturday’s classic mass start races.
Nishikawa picked up her fourth medal, and third gold, of the week winning the senior women’s 30-kilometre race. She finished in 1:43:12, more than three and a half minutes ahead of the silver medalist.
With the win the 26-year-old placed first in the open women’s aggregate standings.
“To finish off the season on a high note like that is more than I could ask for,” said Nishikawa. “I’m incredibly happy. It was so special having these nationals in Whitehorse, seeing all the volunteers at the start and at the finish and everywhere in between … They are all familiar faces and they are the greatest people here volunteering. Seeing the whole team come together to host this event has been incredible.”
Nishikawa had already won gold in the opening team sprints (with Whitehorse teammate Kendra Murray) and gold in the senior women’s five-kilometre classic. She also took silver in the senior women’s 10-kilometre on March 22, finishing the 6.2 seconds behind national teammate Dahria Beatty of Whitehorse.
Beatty decided to sit-out Saturday’s distance classic to avoid aggravating a back injury she’s nursed since January.
“It’s a long, hard race and my back has been pretty sore the last couple of days after the long season of racing and I thought it would be an unnecessary stress on my back to go through this,” she said.
Beatty had already accomplished a lot last week. The 22-year-old won two gold and a silver and placed second in the aggregate standings behind Nishikawa. She also placed first in the Haywood NorAm season standings.
Beatty capped her season with gold in the sprints last Wednesday.
“The sprint was my first skate sprint victory of the season,” said Beatty. “My other two victories were in classic sprint.”
“Winning the 10 K skate was probably the biggest highlight, having that big battle with (Nishikawa), being able to just put everything out there and come away with the gold medal with all the best skiers in Canada racing.”
Whitehorse’s Natalie Hynes added her third of the week on Saturday, taking gold in the junior girls 7.5-kilometre classic. The 18-year-old had already a silver from the 10-kilometre race and a gold from the five-kilometre from the week. She placed first in the Year of Birth (YOB) aggregate standings for girls born in 1998.
Whitehorse’s Amanda Thomson picked up a medal in her last chance for one at the Haywoods. Thomson skied to bronze in the juvenile girls classic mass start on Saturday. With other strong results through the week, she placed third in YOB for juvenile girls born in 2000.
Johnsgaard won a bronze in his first individual race of the week – the senior men’s 10-kilometre on March 20 – but the 50-kilometre classic on Saturday was the most fun, he said.
“A 50 K is always a whole different race and usually we only do one or two of them all year long, so it’s a pretty special race and they always seem to go quite well for me,” said Johnsgaard.
Johnsgaard, 23, placed fourth in the race Saturday and fourth in the open men’s aggregate standings.
Olympian Alex Harvey of Quebec won his fourth straight gold in the race with a blistering time of 2:20:20.
“I’m feeling good. Tired, but it’s the same for most of the guys,” said Harvey. “We just finished Tour of Canada a week ago and after a long World Cup season, we’re exhausted, so the playing field is even for everybody. At this time of the year motivation is really important and I was still motivated, still hungry to put a bib on and race my heart out.”
Last week’s Haywoods, which saw around 470 of Canada’s best skiers compete, marked Harvey’s first time skiing at the Whitehorse club. One recreational ski really stands out in his mind.
“I did the Pierre Harvey Trail two days ago – he’s my dad and it was his birthday and there’s a trail named after him, so that was pretty cool for me,” said Harvey.
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