The Canadian men’s cross-country skiing team made more history on Sunday as they finished on a World Cup podium for the first time ever in a distance relay.
The quartet of Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey, Knute Johnsgaard and Lenny Valjas won the bronze medal in the 4 x 7.5km relay in Ulricehamn, Sweden, just a day after Harvey captured his own breakout gold in the 15km individual event.
Norway won the relay gold in 1 hour 6 minutes 47.5 seconds, with both Sweden and Canada clocking in half a second back, however the Swedish anchor skier, Calle Halfvarsson, crossed the finish line just ahead of Valjas.
“The team relay and the 50 kilometre are the two biggest races in our sport by far so this means to world to us,” said Kershaw, who stepped onto a World Cup podium for the first time in three years. “We have talked about this medal a lot when I first came onto the World Cup. It is something we have always wanted and we weren’t able to get it done in previous generations – even back to the Pierre Harvey days. Even when Lenny, Alex and I were all winning multiple medals individually a few years ago we weren’t able to get it done so it shows how hard it is.”
Kershaw, the veteran who’s been competing on the World Cup circuit since 2004, skied a strong classic lead-off leg to stay in contact with the frontrunners, handing off to Harvey with Canada in third place. As a sign of his great current form, Harvey was able to take the lead on the second classic leg for a while, but like many competitors, had some struggles on the big climbs and came through the exchange area in fifth place,
Johnsgaard, a young Yukon skier with just a handful of World Cup starts to his credit, was a last minute addition to the team, travelling to Europe on Thursday. He sat out Saturday to fully prepare for his free technique leg and was able to keep Canada close, handing off to the anchor Valjas in seventh place with five seconds to make up on the leaders. But no one really pushed the pace, allowing Valjas to bide his time in the pack and wait for the right moment to show his sprint speed. In the final kilometre, Halfvarsson made a break, followed by Valjas. In the finishing stretch, Norway’s Finn Haagen Krogh moved around the Swede for the win while Valjas just ran out of room to pass.
“I was just fighting so hard with my head down. I fought right to the end and when I looked up I saw the three guys running at me. I put out my arms and grabbed them all like a big fish net. They were my brakes and it was the best feeling I have ever felt in my cross-country skiing to have them in my arms,” said Valjas, who won team sprint gold with Harvey a week ago. “I wanted to experience this feeling of being the last one to cross the finish line. It was amazing.”
“Winning individual races is awesome, but to stand on the podium with four guys from your country is the greatest feeling in the world. The relay is the only way to show the depth of program. Our team is on a shoestring budget right now – especially compared to the rest of the world. We have been given every opportunity to fail and we are still doing this. It is a testament to the hard work of our entire staff and team so I am doubly proud of that,” said Kershaw.
“It is incredible. We’ve been chasing this feeling since I’ve been on the team and for some reason we just could never get all four of us on the same day,” said Harvey. “Winning individual medals you enjoy it but you can’t share that joy as much with your teammates. When you do this together it is so emotional.”
More Swedish snow awaits the Canadian team next weekend as the World Cup circuit moves to Falun.