By Chad Ouellette
A group of Ottawa skiers will be returning from overseas just in time to try and help Nakkertok to its 10th consecutive national cross-country ski championship. Those making the journey are returning from Krasnoyarsk, Russia, where they competed at the 29th Winter Universiade in early March. Here’s their account of what was much more than a tune-up prior to the home-held national championships.
Aidan Kirkham has been cross-country skiing for roughly a decade and started taking the sport seriously about seven years ago. Prior to the Winter Universiade, the 20-year-old had never skied competitively outside of Canada and the United States.
“I am super excited to represent Canada at the Winter Universiade,” the Carleton Univeristy student said in an email from Russia. “It will be my first time competing in this event. It will also … definitely be one of the most competitive events I have ever raced in.”
Kirkham mentioned that most people visit Europe to compete in the sport before going straight to Asia, but his willingness to compete at any level has prepared Kirkham for the challenge ahead.
In his first-ever international competition, Kirkham finished in the top 50 in both the men’s individual event and the 10-km men’s individual event. He finished just outside of the 50-mark and didn’t qualify for the quarterfinals in the men’s individual sprint.
His strong performance for a first-time Canadian skier wasn’t a huge surprise after his recent success at the 2019 OUA Nordic Championships, where he won a total of three gold medals.
In order to prepare for the Winter Universiade, Kirkham’s coach devised a well-thought out training regime, which has consisted of multiple levels of intensity that he’s deployed throughout the last year.
He hopes this will serve him well at this month’s Canadian National Ski Championships held locally at his home club, Nakkertok Nordic.
“I am unsure how it will be to compete at Canadian nationals only two days after returning from Russia,” signals Kirkham. “This will be the longest away ski trip that I have ever been on and it has several hard races against some of the best competition in the world. Plus, long layovers, less than ideal airport food and sub-par sleeps on the plane will also be factors to contend with.”
This isn’t the first time Alex Slobodian has left North America to ski, going to Germany back in 2012. She has also had the opportunity to ski in the U.S., and vacation in Italy, but never did she think she would one day be heading to Russia to compete.
“I think this is a pretty cool place to host an event,” she explains. “One of the catch phrases for it is ‘real winter,’ here. (Russia) has very harsh winters. They do experience something very similar to Canadian winter.”
Although this is a reality of Russia, the temperatures during the competition were more akin to Ottawa’s near mid-March. Organizers had to employ various efforts to ensure that there was an adequate amount of snow for athletes to compete.
Like most of the Canadian athletes competing at the Winter Universiade, Slobodian will come back from Russia and enter competition at nationals.
She planned to arrive in Canada on March 14 and compete in the team sprints competition after just a single rest day.
She explains that racing as a whole is a good way to prepare, and the 15km mass start done during the FISU games will be the best way to prepare for nationals.
Throughout her time in Krasnoyarsk, she has learned a lot about the difference between local competitions and international competitions.
“What I’ve noticed is that a ski-race is a ski-race,” she recalls. “No matter where you are, you’re still ski-racing. The pace is what’s different. In Canada, because there is not as many of us I think there is times where if it’s a mass start race we can afford to not go as hard off the start.
“Whereas internationally it’s go, go, go all of the time. At least in the women’s races, I can’t speak for the men’s, you start and you’re just off – like a shotgun.”
During one of her races, she thought to herself that she may not qualify for the finals, something that she doesn’t often encounter here in Canada. She finished 36th and missed the chance, but still said she feels that it was the fastest she had ever moved on skis.
Katherine Denis has been skiing since she was 10 years old and has always dreamed of competing on an international level, representing Canada. At the Winter Universiade, she finally got her opportunity.
Although her goal was to reach a top-30 placing, she fell just short of the mark. Nonetheless, she has undoubtedly improved her racing from having the chance to face-off against some of the best athletes in her division.
In her spare time, Denis coaches young athletes and through her experiences in Russia, hopes to be a role model for those wanting follow in her path.
She recently competed at the OUA Nordic Skiing Championships, finishing as the University of Ottawa’s top ranked female athlete.
Denis will return from Russia to compete in nationals right away and hopes to finish strong despite the quick turnaround and the lengthy flight.
Mzia Lee Pottie
Ottawa’s Mzia Lee Pottie also made the trip to Russia, where she tested her combined shooting and skiing skills.
Lee Pottie has been skiing since she was seven. She explains that her experience as a skier may be different from others because she began cross-country skiing before having to change clubs in order to begin competing in biathlon.
She was exuberant about her experience at the Winter Universiade.
“Racing here for the first time at a FISU competition has been absolutely amazing,” Lee Pottie says. “It is quite different racing against multiple countries in a very organized and professional setting. It’s such a special experience that I am able to attend and compete in.”
Lee-Pottie says the biggest difference between local and international races is how the event’s organized.
“The fans make you feel like a star no matter how well you do in the races and that is a very special feeling for me considering I’m such a young athlete and competitor in the race,” Lee Pottie says.
Although she hopes to attend the next Universiade Winter Games being held two years from now in Switzerland, her full-time studies at McGill University make it difficult to train for biathlon out of Montreal. Still, her goals are to be involved in the sport regardless of if she continues competing.
Four others from the nation’s capital made the trip to Russia to participate at the 2019 FISU Games. These include Alexandre Cadieux, who is an 18-year-old snowboarder from the University of Ottawa; snowboarding coach Cassandra Smith; Chef de Mission Roger Archambault; and operations manager Lia Taha Cheng.