25 avril 2009

Alex Harvey

His unique upbringing - father, Pierre, was a Winter and Summer Olympian and mother, Mireille, is a doctor - has given him a leg up, but this 20-year-old cross-country skier from Quebec is turning expectations upside down. He's about to embark on the most important summer training program of his life

Stephen Brunt

This was destined to be a summer of baby steps for Alex Harvey. At 20, coming off his first season on Canada's national cross-country ski team, his Olympics were supposed to be more than four years away - Sochi 2014, not Vancouver-Whistler 2010.

Devon Kershaw and Ivan Babikov were Canada's best medal hopes among the men, while Harvey would be at the 2010 Winter Games primarily to learn, simply to experience the Olympics in preparation for bigger things to come.

At least that was the story, until he turned expectations on their head.

First, in January, paired with a veteran of the team, George Gray, Harvey charged to a third-place finish on the final leg of a World Cup sprint race on the 2010 Olympic course in the Callahan Valley.

A couple of months later in Trondheim, Norway, he finished third in a 50-kilometre classical World Cup race - and the son of a skiing legend, the Quebecois hip-hop kid with two huge cubic zirconia studs in his ears, became Canada's 2010 cross-country poster boy.

As he prepares for the most important summer training season of his young life, even Harvey seems a bit startled at how far he's come.

"Norway is the mecca of cross-country skiing in the world," he says. "The 50-km classic is kind of the original cross-country event. It was incredible for me to have my first individual World Cup medal in Norway in a 50-km.

"I broke away at 15 or 20 kilometres and skied in front. The lead group was down to six guys. We skied together almost to the end. I ended up in a sprint [for third place] for the last 100 metres with a Russian, and I ended up on top. It was just phenomenal. And skiing in Norway - they have campfires and they're pretty drunk. They scream your name and they have songs for you. It was just amazing."

Though it may not be entirely fair to expect a competitor just one year removed from the junior ranks to match that feat against the best in the world in the Olympic spotlight, Harvey's unique upbringing perhaps gives him a leg up.

His father, Pierre Harvey, a cross-country skier and cyclist, was a Winter and Summer Olympian, and the first Canadian to win a cross-country World Cup medal.

His mother, Mireille Harvey, is a medical doctor who, her son says, has had an enormous influence on his career, in terms of training, the psychology of sport, and especially last spring, as he recovered from surgery to increase blood flow through a problematic artery in his hip.

His hometown, St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, is just up the road from Mont-Ste-Anne, and even as a baby, Harvey's parents would pull him on a sleigh while they skied. He attended a special high-school program for skiers, where he learned to balance academics and training (Harvey also competed in mountain biking until 2006, when he finished 26th in the world junior championships) - something he's still doing, studying law at Laval University even while preparing for the Vancouver-Whistler Games.

"They're going to try to arrange some kind of special deal for me so I can take a normal class, and when I'm away I get notes from a teacher or something," he says. "Because I want to keep going to school - not full-time, but it's something else to do. It keeps my mind thinking about other stuff."

Right now, he is enjoying his short off-season. Harvey returned home after the last World Cup races in March, took part in one fun race at Mont-Ste-Anne, took care of a large backlog of media requests, and then kicked back for the month of April.

"It's just resting mentally and physically," he says. "I stay active, but there's no planned training. I do whatever I feel like when I wake up in the morning."

That might be hiking, or late season downhill skiing or snowshoeing. "I just do stuff that I enjoy."

On May 1, Harvey resumes full-time training at Laval, where he does his indoor strength work, and at Mont-Ste-Anne, where he does most of his outdoor aerobic work. (Though the official home of the cross-country team is Canmore, Alta., several skiers are based in Quebec.)

His routine, either six or seven days a week, consists of a long, hard morning workout, followed by a much shorter recovery session in the afternoon - most often a jog or a bike ride. Though weight-based strength training is a big part of the program, the main emphasis for cross-country skiers is on cardio fitness, including extensive work on roller skis.

"Ninety per cent of the training is not hard, but long workouts," Harvey says. "You want to train easy - that's how you develop the heart size and the blood vessels."

As with the alpine skiers, in summer the cross-country team heads for high altitude or the southern hemisphere in search of snow, all the while maintaining largely the same daily training regimen. At the end of June, the entire team gathers for a week-long camp in Canmore, where they are taken by helicopter to the Haig Glacier. In August, they're off to New Zealand for three more weeks of skiing.

"We're on snow at low altitudes there," Harvey says, "so we can do higher intensity workouts."

In October, there's more glacier skiing, at Hochstein in Austria. After that, everyone waits for the first good skiing snow in Canada - whether that's at Silver Star, Lake Louise or in the Parc des Laurentides, 45 minutes north of Quebec City. Finally, in preparation for the World Cup season, which begins in early November in Norway, the skiers head for Europe, where they participate in a few, smaller events "just to get the feel of racing back."

While the alpine team has made a point of getting as many training runs in as possible at Whistler, B.C., spending extra time on the Callahan Valley course is less crucial for the cross-country team, Harvey says. They're already familiar with their Olympic accommodations and with the track. But their wax and ski technicians will be spending significant time there between now and next February, trying to experience as many variables in weather and snow conditions as possible, so that they'll be prepared for any eventuality.

The only big change in what has suddenly become Alex Harvey's Olympic year is that the team may pass on some World Cup events, slip back to British Columbia from Europe, and get ready for the races that matter most.

Then and now
Born : Sept. 7, 1988, St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que.
Club : Club Nordique, Mont-Ste-Anne
World Cup starts : 12
World Cup podiums : One (third in 50-kilometre event at Trondheim, Norway, on March 14)
Other accomplishments : Silver medal in 10-km event at 2008 world junior championships; two bronze medals at 2007 world junior championships (pursuit and 10-km)

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