Many of Canada’s top cross-country skiers, including four from Whitehorse, got back into race mode at the WinSport Frozen Thunder Classic on Monday at Alberta’s Canmore Nordic Centre.
The fourth annual event isn’t worth points. It’s simply a fun way to ease into another season, said Whitehorse’s Emily Nishikawa and Dahria Beatty.
“It’s always a fun event to kick off the season,” said Nishikawa. “It’s pretty low key, there’s no pressure – it’s October. It’s kind of more for fun than anything.
“I had a good day. It shows where my fitness is. So that’s a confidence booster heading into the season.”
“It was really nice to be out racing again and have that competitive feel,” said Beatty. “It’s always great to do that first race of the season.
“The conditions were pretty good. They were soft though, so it was challenging on the technique and good practice for Europe.”
The classic-ski sprint event was held on a 1.6-kilometre loop made from snow from last winter stored under a blanket of sawdust all summer.
The two Whitehorse skiers advanced through three rounds to finish on the podium in open women. Nishikawa took first and Beatty third.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve done a ski race, so it’s good to have a no-pressure situation to get back into it, remember what it’s like to ski race and go through the whole routine of a ski race,” said Nishikawa. “We don’t put too much thought into the results because it’s October and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a fun event and a good workout.”
Nishikawa, a Sochi Olympian and two-time world championship competitor, will once again represent Canada on the FIS World Cup circuit this winter. The 26-year-old produced three top-30 results on the World Cup tour in Europe last season. Her first this season will be in Finland at the end of November.
Beatty, 21, took third in open women after placing second behind Nishikawa in the opening qualifier round.
“It’s good to get back in that race mentality before the season even starts. We have about a month now before the start of the season, so it kind of gets you back in that mind set and helps to tune up those final things that need to be adjusted,” said Beatty.
Fellow Yukoner Knute Johnsgaard pulled off a similar feat. He placed second in the open men’s qualifier before finishing eighth in the end.
Frozen Thunder may not be highly competitive, but there’s still plenty of stiff competition there. In the qualifier Johnsgaard placed one spot behind Canadian World Cup medalist Lennard Valjas, and in front of national team skiers Jesse Cockney and Ivan Babikov.
“Not everyone in Canada is there, but it is quite competitive,” said Johnsgaard. “(Valjas) is one of the best guys to try and follow, so it was pretty fun, a good opportunity, to race against him.
“What it comes down to is the Frozen Thunder is a fun event. We’re still month away from racing and this is a practice event more than anything … For me it was a training race.
“I’ll try not to get too excited by my result.” (Small chuckle.)
Beatty and Johnsgaard, who are on the national development team with Nishikawa, will open their season with the U.S. Super Tour at the end of November. They will then do some NorAm races in December before heading to Europe in the New Year for OPA and World Cup races.
“It’ll be pretty exciting. I’ve ever only had one World Cup start in my career,” said Johnsgaard. “To be guaranteed a few World Cup starts this year, it’ll be more World Cups than I’ve ever raced before.”
Both Nishikawa and Beatty have been on Canada’s national teams for years, but this season will be Johnsgaard’s first at the senior level.
The 22-year-old placed 14th in a sprint race to lead Canada at the FIS Nordic Junior/U23 World Championships in Kazakhstan last season. He then won Yukon its first gold of the 2015 Canada Winter Games.
He has been working hard during the so-called off-season.
“We call it the off-season, but really that’s when most of our training happens,” said Johnsgaard. “In the summer is when we’re training the most hours.
“The off-season was very productive for me. Lots of really solid training, stayed healthy, and with all the testing we’ve been doing it is showing I’m improving. That’s a good sign.”
This season will be a particularly exciting one for Team Canada skiers as they host the best in the world in an eight-event Tour of Canada – four in Quebec and four in Alberta – in the first week of March.
Nishikawa, Beatty and Johnsgaard then get to come home to race as Whitehorse hosts the 2016 Haywood Ski Nationals. Between 450 and 500 skiers are expected to compete at the 89th annual event in March.
The three weren’t the Yukon skiers at Frozen Thunder. Whitehorse’s Natalie Hynes placed eighth in junior women.
“I’m looking forward to building off my great year last year and I had a really good summer of training – really consistent,” said Nishikawa. “I’m feeling good, excited and ready to get racing.”
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