With 18 consecutive months of training between races, more or less, Sudbury nordic skiers Max Mahaffy and Kendyn Mashinter were completely (and quite understandably) stoked about a six week stretch of recent competitions that covered four different provinces.
Capping their performances at the National Trials / Alberta Cup two weeks ago in Canmore with top six finishes in the sprints, the graduates of Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School were thankful to finally have a measuring stick against which to compare as they take their crack at the Canadian Junior team roster.
“The distance races were pretty good races, but I’m more happy with my results in the sprint races,” said Mahaffy, now 19 years old and in his second year at both Lakehead University and with the NTDC (National Training Development Centre) program in Thunder Bay. “It was better than I expected to perform, so I was excited that I was right on the cusp of the criteria.”
Ideally, the local lads would have been thrilled to crack the roster of the Canadian contingent that will attend the 2022 Nordic Junior World Ski Championships. In the end, they would do enough to earn a berth on what amounts to a “B” Tour squad that will be heading to the U.S. to compete at Super Tour events in Vermont and elsewhere.
It was disappointing, perhaps, but not earth-shattering – nor completely surprising.
“My main goal was to qualify, but I am still pretty happy with my performance; I’ve definitely come a long way,” said Mashinter, who joined his friend and teammate in northwestern Ontario this past fall. “After two years of training through Covid, I was really happy to see the hard work in training payoff.”
“We take a lot of video to assess our technique in nordic skiing,” added Mashinter. “You can see a significant improvement in my skiing, more efficient, more powerful. You just know that you’ve gotten better, based on how you feel, your technique, how much more powerful you have become.”
“We need to trust the training that we’ve been doing,” Mahaffy chimed in. “Trust the hours and hours over the course of the summer and the fall, trust that our bodies are ready to do four races in six days by the time we hit January.”
Therein lies perhaps the biggest challenge of the pandemic: trusting the process and staying with it, remaining engaged when the natural competitive motivators of normal times are not necessarily part of the mix.
“There was potential to lose some motivation, but being in Thunder Bay with the team and having a group of like-minded individuals really helped,” said Mahaffy. “For as much as we would have liked to get out and compete against other people, we were able to do time trials or even just our normal training together.”
“Training with the team is far better than training with no one at all.”
That may be true and it’s certainly a sentiment that has been shared by hundreds of athletes these past two years – though Mashinter, for his part, feels somewhat blessed to enjoy an inner drive that is simply tied to the enjoyment that he derives from being out on the snow.
“Staying motivated is definitely challenging without competition, but I’m in the sport because I love it,” he said. “I honestly don’t have to look for ways to stay motivated. I stay motivated because I just love doing the sport.”
Beginning in early December, the one-time Knights and their NTDC group would race in Sovereign Lake (B.C.), Nakkertok (Ottawa) and Mont St Anne (Quebec), all leading into the stretch of events in Canmore.
Though they raced in the Sprint – Free Technique (January 6th), Interval Start Classic (January 8th) and Interval Start Free (January 9th) distances, it was the Sprint Heats on January 11th that provided the biggest breakthrough. Mashinter would finish 5th in the U20 men’s event with a time of 3:17.38, with Mahaffy right behind him at 3:28.18, the pair advancing all the way to the finals.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was encouraging – and it was another chance to race.
"I was excited to see what was going to happen at Trials,” said Mahaffy. “To be honest, I wasn’t entirely happy with the way that my season had started, but each weekend was getting gradually better.”
“I was happy with how my shape was progressing.”
Progress, however, is not always easily gauged – at least not in the same way that a personal best time in track and field or swimming sets the standard for any improvement to come. “Skiing is so dependent on the course and the conditions,” explained Mashinter. “One day, you could have a time that’s legit three minutes faster, just because of the conditions on that day.”
Matching the ski wax to the conditions is a science unto itself. Not to mention all of the Covid specific hurdles – though Alberta is clearly treating things a little differently from Ontario. “It definitely wasn’t the same with the presence of restrictions out there,” said Mahaffy. “But our team was super cautious.”
“We wanted to make sure that we were all staying healthy. We took it very seriously.”
To be sure, there are sports that have had it way worse than nordic skiing, even if cross-country ski races went by the wayside for the folks with the NDTC. “Our training really wasn’t affected a lot; we basically kept on with our normal training for the last year and a half,” said Mahaffy.
“As a nordic skier, we are outside, it’s an individual sport, so it doesn’t affect training too much,” added Mashinter.
But there is something about race day that training cannot duplicate, something that both of our aspiring international competitors welcomed back with open arms, over the course of the past six weeks.
A year and a half without racing will do that to you.