By Gerry Furseth
Julien Locke of the Black Jack Ski Team overpowered a tactical freestyle sprint final to win the second NorAm of his career on Friday at the Nakkertok South trails near Ottawa on the opening day of Eastern Canadian Championships.
Despite a remarkably low snow year and freezing rain in the preceding week, the organizing committee and volunteers were able to host what is expected to be the largest International Ski Federation (FIS) points event ever held in North America. With 783 athletes registered, it is likely that this will top the current record holder, last year’s NorAm Easterns.
This is the last weekend for Ski Tour Canada (STC) selections (except for the NorAm overall leaders) and the pressure is on for the top athletes.
“Fast conditions at Nakkertok today,” Locke wrote in an email, “with sugary climbs and icy downhills.”
All six male finalists finished within 1.5 seconds of one another in the 1.5 k sprint. Locke won in 3:12.40 after qualifying fifth in 3:09.87. Sebastien Boehmler-Dandurand (Canmore) placed second, 0.22 seconds back. Jess Cockney, of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) and national senior development team, took third in his first non-European race this season, just nine-hundredths of a second behind Boehmler-Dandurand.
According to Locke, Knute Johnsgaard, another AWCA and U23+ development skier also coming off World Cups in Europe, “pushed the pace a bit on the first climb but then it all came back together before the second time up,” Locke wrote.
ILocke moved up in the field over the second half of the course and followed Patrick Stewart-Jones (AWCA) on the final descent, then carried his momentum across the line to take the win.
“There was a lot on the line with Canada Ski Tour selections and a broken pole at the top of the last climb ruined any chance I had of a podium finish,” Stewart-Jones wrote on Facebook on Friday after placing sixth, 1.45 seconds behind Locke.
Johnsgaard finished fourth, 0.99 seconds back from the win. “I feel I was the strongest in the field but was tripped up on the last hill and was sprawled out on my stomach as everyone skied by,” wrote Johnsgaard, the top qualifier in 3:07.43. He went on to win the first quarterfinal then place second to Locke in their semifinal.
Cockney improved as the day progressed after qualifying in 12th, 6.12 seconds off Johnsgaard’s qualifying pace.
“It’s been really frustrating to be this slow [in qualifying] compared to where I have been the last few years,” Cockney wrote in an email. “I found some better speed for the heats and skied the course well.”
He won both his quarterfinal and semifinal, ahead of the second-fastest qualifier Simon Lapointe (Quebec Ski Team) and Andy Shields (NDC Thunder Bay), who placed second respectively in each heat.
In the final, Shields ended up fifth, just 0.23 seconds ahead of Stewart-Jones.
The next stop for Locke is U23 World Championships in Romania at the end of this month.
“Today was my last sprint before departing for Europe (Feb. 12) and was great preparation for U23s,” Locke wrote. “It was great to have Knute, Andy and Jess back racing after their time on the World Cup.”
In the women’s 1.4 k freestyle sprint, Maya MacIsaac-Jones (Rocky Mountain Racers) won the qualifier in 3:19.18 before dominating each one of her heats, including an action-packed final, which she won in 3:17.29.
Jenn Jackson (NDC Thunder Bay) finished second, 3.36 seconds behind, after repeatedly trading places with Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (AWCA/NDST), who took third, 3.97 seconds back. Jackson took the lead at the start of the second lap.
“Maya and I came into the hill close together and were holding pace until the hill pitched up and we switched to offset and she started to pull ahead,” Jackson wrote in an email. “I was a bit frantic to get on her tail, missing a couple pole plants trying to accelerate, then face planted and completely lost contact and any chance of winning.”
Bouffard-Nesbitt was happy with her podium after qualifying fourth, 7.43 seconds behind MacIsaac-Jones.
“I was happy with how I raced tactically,” she wrote. “I was right where I wanted to be off the start and held my position in second until halfway through the course where Jenn Jackson went flying by.
“On the last uphill Jenn tripped herself up and I passed her to take second, but after the last downhill into the finish she flew by me again and she carried more speed than me going into the last 100m,” Bouffard-Nesbitt added. “[Jackson] skied the final well today and she earned that second place.”
Dahria Beatty (AWCA/NDST) and Alannah Maclean (NDC Thunder Bay) were out of contention early, finishing fifth and sixth, respectively.
“I got tangled up 200m out of the start in the final with Alannah Maclean and we both fell,” Beatty wrote in an email. “By the time we were able to untangle ourselves we were 10+ seconds back from the other ladies.”
The second-fastest qualifier, 1.43 seconds behind MacIsaac-Jones, Beatty had won her quarterfinal and placed second to Jackson in their semifinal. In the final, Beatty was able to catch Cendrine Browne (CNEPH/NDST), but Browne edged her by 0.35 seconds for fourth, 7.4 seconds behind MacIsaac-Jones.
In an email, Browne described having low energy after qualifying in sixth, winning her quarterfinal then advancing in fourth as a lucky loser out of her semifinal, behind MacIsaac-Jones, Bouffard-Nesbitt and Maclean, respectively.
“My only tactic was to stay in contact with the group in the A final,” Browne wrote. “I didn’t manage to do that, but I’m still happy with my 4th place, which I wasn’t expecting with the day I was having.”
After the sprints, 434 younger racers born in 1998 or later opened their weekend with a prologue time trial.