FasterSkier’s Canadian Continental Skiers of the Year:

    April 25, 2018

    With the 2017/2018 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to the Canadian Continental Skiers of the Year.

    Andy Shields, Lappe Nordic

    Despite scaling back his training last year, Andy Shields had one of the most consistent seasons of any Canadian nordic racer, tallying five podiums between the NorAm and SuperTour circuit. That included a win in the 15-kilometer classic mass start at Western Canadian Championships in Red Deer, Alberta, and a runner-up finish in the skate sprint at Canadian Ski Nationals on the trails he trains on at Lappe Nordic in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

    After winning the overall NorAm title in 2015/2016 and going out on his own with the help of his dad  and the Lappe Nordic Ski Club, Shields did it again this winter as the overall NorAm leader at the season’s end. He raced fast enough to earn Period 4 World Cup starts and went on to post a top World Cup finish of 47th in the Holmenkollen 50 k freestyle mass start.

    Andy Shields racing the 15 k classic at the World Cup on March 4 in Lahti, Finland. In his first World Cup distance race of the season, Shields, who won the NorAm overall and placed second in the NorAm sprint standings, finished 70th in that race. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

    In an email to FasterSkier this week, Shields, 27, who grew up in Waterloo, Ontario, explained that last spring, he changed his mental approach to skiing.

    “Before last April, I had seven years of experience as a full-time skier and I considered it my profession,” he wrote. “However, it was becoming quickly becoming a profession that caused bills rather than paid them especially with the loss of my Canada card. This contributed to an overall feeling of not being too jazzed about competing in another season of full-bore, focussed, make-all-the-little gains, maximum performance training and racing.”

    He questioned whether he wanted to continue racing and how he was going to improve if he wanted to do so.

    “After getting wrecked on the Period 1 World Cups the season before and coming nowhere near a top 30, I had serious doubts on whether it was worth it to keep trying to crack the ‘nut’ we call World Cup racing,” Shields wrote.

    He wondered if he was physiologically and psychologically talented enough to compete at the World Cup level. He considered “setting the bar lower” to make himself happier, focusing solely on top NorAm and SuperTour finishes rather than making it to the World Cup.

    “Obviously it was time to reframe things. It was an Olympic year so and I was still having lots of fun skiing so quitting wasn’t an option,” Shields wrote. “I needed cash so I bought Skiwax.ca and started a business selling ski wax and ski equipment online and became a BNS [Boulder Nordic Sport] Canadian sales rep for SkiGo and a few other brands.”

    That summer, he also worked for his friend’s painting business in Thunder Bay.

    “With cash taken care and the birth of a burgeoning career as a sales rep and business owner, I moved skiing squarely into the ‘hobby’ category,” Shields wrote. “I suspected I could still be reasonably competitive on the NorAm and SuperTour circuits with minimal training if I relied on my large training history — maybe even quick enough to earn an Olympic spot. I decided not to subject a coach to my misadventures and intention of not working too hard. If this new way of approaching things went bad, I wanted it to be my fault.”

    He worked out less than usual last summer and fall (estimating he trained 600 hours total) and didn’t write a training plan nor keep a training log. He followed his intuition and didn’t bother to fix his heart rate monitor when it broke last June.

    “Training was very unstructured and came second to my various jobs – except for a number of training camps with the Greggs, or Micheal Somppi, or others where I buckled down for brief periods of athlete mode,” Shields noted.

    Still, his fitness gradually improved as the offseason wore on. By the time the race season arrived, he was raring to go and “hungry”, Shields reflected.

    “Only one Olympic spot was available to domestic skiers and it was a classic sprint spot, which is my weakest event,” he wrote. “When the selection criteria came out for the Olympic team, it did take awhile to get over the fact that it was extremely unlikely I’d make it. I was able to reset my goal to doing well in the NorAm overall and it wasn’t long into the season before I was in the hunt for the NorAm overall.

    Canada’s Devon Kershaw leads Andy Shields during the Holmenkollen 50 k freestyle mass start on March 10 in Olso, Norway. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

    “This was great!” he continued. “I was racing fast mostly and having a lot of fun kicking ass. When I got the opportunity to race period 4 on the World Cup, including the Holmenkollen 50km, it was a fantastic bonus.”

    That iconic race in Oslo, Norway, he said, was the highlight of his season.

    “I don’t know if I’ve ever raced so hard before,” Shields wrote. “Only 25km into the race, I was getting adrenaline rushes from the pain when I survived another climb. I had to skip World Cup Finals because I needed one more good race to lock up the NorAm overall so I came back to North America straight after the Holmenkollen to join Nationals partway through the event.”

    Four days after racing in Oslo, he reached the podium in the Canadian nationals skate sprint.

    “I dedicated that podium to Reijo Puiras who passed away over the summer and was the founder of the Lappe Ski Centre,” Shields wrote. “It turned out that final podium at Nationals was what I needed to secure the NorAm overall. It’s hard not to be satisfied with how this season turned out. I got a great sense of accomplishment from having done it on my own – financially and as my own coach. Of course, I had a lot of help in the wax room and my parents are great roommates.”

    As he looks ahead to 2018/2019, Shields explained that he’s planning to continue down a similar path, while logging some more “serious training” before starting the season on the World Cup in November. World Cup Period 1 remains his main focus for next winer.

    “It’s a chance at redemption for such an abysmal period 1 experience my first time over there,” he said. “World Cup Finals in Quebec City is also a huge focus. I have a number of top 50s in Quebec World Cups so I have a track record of good racing there to build on.”

    Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt, Rocky Mountain Racers

    In what could very well be dubbed her comeback season, Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt, 25, took it by storm after a rocky start. The Morin Heights, Quebec, native has dealt with an assortment of setbacks — both big and small — over the last several years. Hindered by stress reactions in her foot from 2013 to 2016, she was injured in a car accident in February 2017, which herniated a disc in her neck. She spent last summer rehabbing that injury, then last fall, discovered issues with her sympathetic nervous system.

    After nearly a year away from the racing, Bouffard-Nesbitt started her season this past January at the Mont Sainte-Anne NorAm, which doubled as Canada’s Olympic trials. In her first race there, she raced to third in the classic-sprint qualifier and advanced all the way to the A-final, but was relegated to 25th overall for a technique infraction. Also at trials, she finished ninth in the 10 k classic.

    “It was an absolute roller coaster (mostly uphill) getting to the start line of my first race of the season – the classic sprint at Olympic trials,” Bouffard-Nesbitt reflected in a recent email to FasterSkier. “But once the dust settled and I found my groove on the Noram circuit, the season actually turned out really well.”

    Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (c) holds off Zina Kocher (l) and Annika Hicks (r) to win the women’s 1.2 k freestyle sprint final on Friday at the NorAm Western Canadian Championships in Red Deer, Alberta. (Photo: Doug Stephen)

    At Western Canadian Championships in Red Deer, she earned her first NorAm win in four years, topping the freestyle sprint. She also placed second in the 10 k classic mass start there.

    Bouffard-Nesbitt ended the year with a national title in the 5 k classic as well as the 10 k freestyle pursuit (as the first Canadian/second overall in the latter race) at Canadian nationals. She also placed fourth in the 30 k classic mass start.

    With a strong three months of NorAm/SuperTour racing, Bouffard-Nesbitt ended the season as the first Canadian in the overall NorAm standings (she was second to American Caitlin Gregg, who led the aggregate standings with 830 points). Bouffard-Nesbitt had 635 points, as did Annika Hicks of the Alberta World Cup Academy, but Bouffard-Nesbitt won the tiebreaker based on number of wins.

    Asked about the highlight of her season, Bouffard-Nesbitt said it was winning the 5 k at nationals. More specifically, it was the “unexpected flood of emotion and sense of validation I felt after learning I had won” that race, she wrote.

    Olivia Bouffard-Nesbitt (Rocky Mountain Racers) racing to second overall (first Canadian) in the women’s 10 k freestyle pursuit on March 13 for her second national title of the week at 2018 Canadian Ski Nationals in Thunder Bay, Ontario. (Photo: Doug Stephen)

    “Really it felt like my ‘comeback’ had culminated in that moment,” she continued. “I felt like I’d shaken that monkey off my back and I felt so invigorated. I felt like I had finally proven myself. More broadly though, a major highlight was putting so many solid races together back-to-back. For the COC [Continental Cup] standings they count your best 10 races. So after a scrapped trials, I had eleven races to get there, thirteen if you count each pursuit race as two. Finishing the season as the COC leader was the best case scenario. It’s amazing and I’m ecstatic about it!”

    Going into the season, her primary goal had been to take care of herself and make sure she didn’t re-injure her neck. Secondly, she wanted to qualify for the Olympics, and when that didn’t pan out, she shifted her focus to finishing on top of the NorAm circuit.

    Moving forward, Bouffard-Nesbitt plans to continue training with Rocky Mountain Racers in Canmore, Alberta.

    “While I was rehabbing in Quebec, I was itching to get back to Canmore because I had equated being in Canmore to being healthy enough to take up my normal training routine,” she wrote. “… It’s tough to enter a race season, both physically and mentally, when you’re really under-trained. Like I said though, after I recovered from Olympic trials, I was healthy and continuously gaining fitness all winter. It felt great.”

    Next year, she aims to continue building on the work she’s done and gains she’s made over the last year while staying “hyper in tune with my body.”

    “I’m just going to train as usual, and catch up on all the fun I’ve missed,” she wrote. “I’ve been dreaming of putting together a full summer of training for a while, and I’m optimistic that it’s going to happen this year.”

    Honorable Mention: Evan Palmer-Charrette, National Team Development Centre Thunder Bay

    Evan Palmer-Charrette (l) chases American Thomas O’Harra in the 15 k skate at the Sovereign Lake NorAm near Vernon, B.C. (Photo: Peggy Hung)

    Evan Palmer-Charrette, our Canadian Continental Skier last year, had another stellar season, finishing the winter out with a national title in the 50 k classic mass start and third-place finish in the freestyle sprint at Canadian nationals. There, in Thunder Bay, where he lives and trains with the National Team Development Centre (NTDC) Thunder Bay, he also placed fourth in the national 15 k freestyle pursuit and seventh in the 10 k classic.

    Overall, he ended up third in the NorAm standings, behind Shields and Canadian World Cup Team member Jess Cockney. Earlier in the season at a NorAm mini tour in Rossland, B.C., he raced to second in the skate sprint and fourth in the 15 k skate pursuit for fourth overall in the mini tour.

    He also placed fourth in the classic sprint at Mont Sainte-Anne NorAm Olympic trials. In all, he recorded 15 individual top-10 results between the NorAm and SuperTour in 2017/2018.

    “I like to think, and try to be, a well balanced skier,” Palmer-Charrette wrote of his equal focus on sprints and distance races in an email after the Rossland NorAm.

    “… Overall period one has been a struggle coming into it after be being quite sick,” he wrote at the time. “That being said I think I haven’t burnt my brightest match of the season and have as good of a shot as anyone. I would like to have strong races in both the sprint and distances races in Quebec, but with the sprint being the only race with an Olympic birth that will be the main focus of the event for me.”

    He didn’t make the Olympics, but at 23, Palmer-Charrette still has plenty of racing years ahead of him.

    Honorable Mention: Zina (Kocher) Lawson, Foothills Nordic

    Zina Kocher (Foothills Nordic) racing to 11th in the 10 k classic on Jan. 10 at the Mont Sainte-Anne NorAm in Quebec. (Photo: Mario Walker/NorAm MSA 2018 Facebook)

    A former national-team biathlete, Kocher was our pick for Canadian Breakthrough Skier of 2018 after coming out of retirement in an effort to make the 2018 Winter Olympics in cross-country skiing.

    She went all-in in an attempt to qualify for her fourth Olympics and ultimately came up short, but she still ended up third in the overall NorAm standings, behind Bouffard-Nesbitt and Hicks, respectively. The 35-year-old Red Deer native reached the NorAm podium in seven individual races and won the 51 k freestyle Gatineau Loppet in mid-February. As the NorAm leader for Period 3, she earned late-season World Cup starts and raced the Holmenkollen 30 k freestyle mass start as well as World Cup Finals. Kocher opted out of Canadian nationals and still finished as the third Canadian in the aggregate NorAm rankings. For now, she is once again retired.

    “I think what I loved the most about this season was the challenge, being pushed out of my comfort zone, and trying a lot of firsts,” Kocher wrote in a recent email to FasterSkier. “And knowing if the big goal didn’t work out, I did have something else I was fully committed to outside of racing. (My massage therapy diploma, I had 3 courses in the fall & 2 during the winter).”

    She made a point to thank former national team coach Justin Wadsworth for coaching her over the last season and for “his enthusiasm & teaching me the classic basics, convincing me I got this,” she wrote.

    “It was really fun to do the NorAm circuit,” she reflected. “I had a really fun time, racing at new places, new formats, and many ‘firsts’ – like classic racing. The biggest challenge was classic! Doing something new and totally out of my comfort zone. And the other big challenge I was feeling, was being ok and comfortable with digging deep and the pain associated with pushing your max efforts. Was also really great to make and also re-establish old connections with the xc community.”

    Just over a week ago, on April 10, Kocher survived a scary incident in an avalanche.

    “I slid 350m, somehow missed a small cliff/rock band, and remained on top though I was in a cloud of snow pretty soon after it started moving, until it stopped and I saw the sky again,” she reflected, crediting her late coach Richard Boruta for saving her life. He passed away in a climbing accident almost exactly eight months earlier, on Aug. 9, 2017.

    “Angel Richard probably scooped me out of there,” she wrote.