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Nishikawa Leads Canada in Fourth in Planica OPA Cup Sprint, Valjas 10th

Emily Nishikawa (AWCA/NDST) led the way for Canada to start the OPA Cup weekend in Planica, Slovenia, finishing fourth in the freestyle sprint on Friday. Slovenian World Cup skier Vesna Fabjan won both the qualifier and the final.

Fabjan, who earned the individual-sprint bronze at the 2014 Olympics was recently 10th in Stage 1 of the Tour de Ski in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. Fabjan won in 2:43.37 on Friday, 0.43 seconds ahead of Italy’s Gaia Vuerich and 1.42 seconds ahead of Greta Laurent, another Italian World Cup regular. Nishikawa finished 6.22 seconds back from the win.

“I was happy with my racing today,” Nishikawa wrote in an email. “I wasn’t too sure what to expect as I haven’t done many sprints this year.”

Nishikawa was a lucky loser twice on the new course, which starts with a fast descent.

“I would be off the back in the first part of the course, and make my way up in the climbing sections,” she explained.

Nishikawa is looking forward to Saturday’s classic distance race, the discipline which is where most of her past successes have come.

Canadian-born but racing for Switzerland this season, Heidi Widmer qualified in 16th, 9.93 seconds behind Fabjan’s top qualifying time of 2:45.50, followed by Dahria Beatty (AWCA/NDST) in 17th (+9.97), and Nishikawa in 18th (+10.91). Maya Macisaac-Jones was 28th, Cendrine Browne 30th, and Katherine Stewart-Jones 31st.

In an email, Stewart-Jones wrote that she is looking forward to the classic race after a shortage of classic striding on the NorAm circuit.

“The course is also a lot of fun,” Stewart-Jones wrote. “There are a lot of fun twisty downhills and the uphills are great for striding!”

In the men’s sprint, France’s Baptiste Gros won in 2:22.32, 1.67 seconds ahead of Russia’s Gleb Retivykh. The second of four French skiers in the final, Jay Renaud completed the podium in third.

The main goal for Canadian World Cup skier Lenny Valjas was learning the new course before next weekend’s World Cup at the same venue.

“It’s a brand new course in Planica,” he wrote. “It’s very tough but fair.”

Valjas ended the day in 10th, after finishing fifth in his semifinal, 0.34 seconds away from a lucky loser spot.

“I took a few days off after Oberstdorf [Stage 4 of the Tour de Ski] so I felt a little flat this morning trying to go fast,” he explained. “By the heats I started to feel better but just missed advancing to final by a small margin.”

Knute Johnsgaard (AWCA/NDST) qualified 16th, 5.4 seconds behind Gros and 0.58 seconds ahead of Valjas in 19th. Andy Shields (NDC Thunder Bay) was 37th (+8.37) and Jess Cockney (AWCA/NDST) was 45th (+9.53).

Johnsgaard and Shields are on Canada’s B-tour to learn about racing in Europe.

“It was only my second time ever skiing in the heats in Europe and I definitely skied like a rookie,” Johnsgaard wrote. “I don’t have great speed but I can push hard through the whole course.”

Johnsgaard got behind at the start of his quarterfinal, and learned from the experience.

“If I sneak into the heats in the world cup next week, I’ll be more patient and hopefully make one successful move instead of 3 wasted efforts,” he wrote.

Johnsgaard had been looking forward to the skiathlon, but the snow conditions forced a format change to individual start skate.

Shields was also learning by experience. “I had an interesting dilemma with my race ski choice,” he wrote. “I had a pair that were fast but handled very poorly on the icy-ish manmade snow, and I had another that were slightly slower but handled really well. I went with the skis that handled well, but I should have tested some of my teammate’s skis to see if I could get the best of both.”

All the athletes are looking ahead to World Cup races on these courses the following weekend. “It’s an amazing venue,” Valjas wrote, “and should be fun next weekend.”

Complete results | More info and photos

— Gerry Furseth

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