19 janvier 2009

Canada rebuilt from ashes of Nagano

Ed Willes

Dave Wood, Beckie Scott and the rest of their team didn't know where they were headed after the Nagano Olympics. They just knew the Canadian cross-country program couldn't sink any lower.

Scott, the team's rising star, had just finished 45th in her specialty, the combined pursuit. And that was the best individual result posted by the 10-skier contingent from the Great White North. Elsewhere, it was a nightmare of 60th- and 70th-place finishes.

"It was the worst results ever," Scott now says and if she exaggerates it's not by much.

But behind the scenes, forces were also starting to build in those years; forces that would result in a remarkable turnaround and three medals, including two golds, over the next two Olympics.

It started with Wood, the visionary coach, and the indomitable Scott, who almost single-handedly dragged the program into global prominence before retiring.

And now, a decade after the disaster in Nagano, the Canadian team prepares for 2010 with a different story behind them and a different set of expectations ahead of them.

"I think we hoped we could be good," says Sara Renner, who was also a member of that team in Nagano. "But if you would have told us we'd be in the spot we're in now, we wouldn't have believed it.

"You need that trailblazer and Beckie was our trailblazer. You looked at her and thought, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"

Now we'll see if they can do it when The Big Show comes to town.

This weekend, in the first international Olympic test event at the Callaghan Valley cross-country course, the Canadian team served notice they have several legitimate medal contenders for 2010. True, they're lacking that one franchise player, and they're still behind some of the traditional European powers in their sport.

But the Canucks also produced three top-12 finishes in the men's pursuit on Saturday, Renner's sixth-place in the women's pursuit the same day and yesterday's third-place finish in the men's team sprint by the surprise duo of Rossland veteran George Grey and Alex Harvey, the 20-year-old breakout star from St-Ferreol, Que.

Harvey, the former world junior medallist, electrified the crowd of three thousand and provided the weekend's defining moment when he roared from fifth to third over the race's final 200 metres on Sunday to claim a spot on the podium.

He's now established himself as a candidate for the Olympic team in 2010. Then again, he has company.

"You can't have one star going into the Olympics," says Renner. "You need four or five who can fight for the podium. That's how you get results and that's the evolution of our team. It's something we didn't have 10 years ago."

But with Renner, Turin gold medallist Chandra Crawford, Devon Kershaw, Ivan Babikov and the emerging Harvey, it's something they have now.

So what happened ?

Among other things, Canada's rise in cross-country presents an interesting case study for those national sports organizations seeking to rise above mediocrity.

While they didn't have much in '98, they had Wood. "He believed we could be good when we were last in the world," says Renner -- along with Scott and a group of up-and-comers. Shortly thereafter, they added the corporate support of Haywood Securities, a Canadian investment firm, which allowed them to start investing in the program.

And that's when things started to fall into place. With a few more resources at their disposal, they started to deliver results. With those results, they started to attract more resources which led to more results.

Scott fashioned the big breakthrough with a gold in Salt Lake after the two Russians who finished ahead of her were disqualified for doping. In Turin, Crawford delivered a gold in the sprint and Scott and Renner combined to win silver in the team sprint.

Heading into 2010, they now have four medal hopefuls as well as the intriguing Harvey. It also helps that those athletes are competing in a sport which has brought its doping problem under some form of control.

"What's cool is you can win clean," says Kershaw. "Beckie won clean. Chandra won clean. That gives me a lot of strength. If you can't say that, what are you doing in the sport?"

But they're in the sport now. In it in a big way.

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