18 janvier 2009

Skiers offer preview of good things to come

Stephen Brunt

WHISTLER, B.C. — As his boy pushed down the finishing straight, gutting it out to pass a Russian and put Canada on the World Cup podium, Pierre Harvey couldn't hold back the proud papa in him.

“I knew he was good,” he said for all to hear over the public address system at Whistler Olympic Park, where he was working as a colour commentator. “I didn't know he was that good.”

Harvey senior was the best male cross-country skier the country has yet produced.

Harvey junior – Alex – became the breakthrough star of the Canadian cross-country team here this weekend, at an event that served as a dry run for the 2010 Olympic Games.

Along with his partner George Grey, who at 29 is nine years his senior and a veteran of the national squad, he finished third in the men's team sprint, the final event – and the cherry on top – of a very fine opening weekend for the Olympic course.

The weather, always unpredictable hereabouts, was remarkable for midwinter and the scenic, fan-friendly venue received mostly rave reviews from athletes and spectators. Missing until the final race, though, was a signature moment for the home side that might seem a harbinger of good things to come.

Sara Renner, still working her way back toward Olympic form after having a child following the Turin Games in 2006, placed sixth in the pursuit race on Saturday, and three Canadian men finished in the top 12 of the men's race, with Ivan Babikov leading the pack in fifth.

Expectations for the Canadians weren't sky high going in, for a variety of reasons (including 2006 gold medalist Chandra Crawford hobbling around in an air cast because of a training injury that has so far wiped out her season). But given the relative lack of depth in both the men's and women's field here – many top racers decided against making the trip from Europe, preferring to wait their for the resumption of the World Cup season and world championships – there also wasn't anything that suggested the glories promised for a year from now.

Grey and especially Harvey – because of his youth, because he also had a 12th-place finish on Saturday in what was only his fourth World Cup event, and especially because of the way he willed the team to the podium – changed that.

Taking over for the final 1.6-kilometre leg in fourth place after Grey finished strongly on his final lap, Harvey got tangled up in the first climb, falling to fifth. He was still fifth coming off the tight, dangerous downhill turn into the stadium for the final sprint.

He gained one spot when the fourth place Italian skier Pietro Piller Cottrer tumbled, taking his team out of contention, which may have been a case of karma in action. Piller Cottrer won the pursuit race on Saturday, then went out of his way to slag the Callaghan Valley course.

“It is too narrow, too many curves,” he said with a dismissive shrug. “The skating course is too easy. … Coming here I was expecting something special, amazing. It's a shame. I love Canada so much and I expect more.”

Then in the final 50 metres Harvey caught and passed Alexei Petukhov and squeezed into third place by two-tenths of a second, much to the delight of his old man, not to mention a large, enthusiastic, flag waving crowd.

For Grey, who has been on the national team for nine years, it was his best World Cup performance. “Yesterday my dad [a doctor with the Canadian Olympic team] said, ‘It's podium time tomorrow,'“ Grey said.

For Harvey, it was a breakthrough of an entirely different magnitude. Twice he had recorded second-place finishes at the world junior championships, including last year, but coming off leg surgery in the fall, his best result in his first World Cup season had been 46th. Raised in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que., on the snow with his father nearly from birth, Harvey is a bright-eyed kid who wears two big diamond earrings. Before Sunday, he wouldn't have been considered a sure thing even to make the Olympic team next year, and logically wouldn't have been considered a medal threat until the Sochi Games four years after that.

Now, you wonder if he's one of those Olympic heroes who can sneak up on people, the way Crawford did in Turin.

“[This result] means that we can do it,” he said.

“It means Canada's men's team can do it at the World Cup and do it at the Olympics.”

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