By Martin Cleary
Antoine Cyr of Gatineau and Katherine Stewart-Jones of Chelsea, Que., are making a significant impression early in the World Cup cross-country skiing season.
At last weekend’s 20-kilometre classic mass start race in Lillehammer, Norway, the 2022 Winter Olympians stormed into the top-15 of their respective men’s and women’s races and finished with confidence-building times behind the winners.
Cyr missed the opening World Cup leg in Ruka, Finland, because of illness and entered the Lillehammer races with strained confidence.
But once he was on the six-loop course, he looked like one of the best in the world, finishing only 5.1 seconds behind winner Paal Golberg of Norway. He stopped in 12th place, which was one spot higher than his best-ever World Cup result.
“This is a big result. I skied very well,” Cyr told Chris Dornan of Nordiq Canada.
“There was a downhill about two kilometres out, and then a long, gradual uphill, about one kilometre to go in the stadium. If you weren’t completely out of gas, you could take a step back and see the pack open. I saw an opening, went as hard as I could and moved up a few spots.”
Golberg won the men’s race in 48:14.5, while a calm and poised Cyr was clocked in 48:19.6. Norway placed eight skiers in the top 10, including silver-medallist Sjur Roethe, 48:15.4, and bronze-medallist Martini Nyenget, 48:15.6.
After two top-25 World Cup results (a 20th and a 24th) in Ruka, Stewart-Jones placed 13th in the women’s 20-kilometre race in Lillehammer, which was a personal-best result. Her previous best World Cup placing was a 17th.
As well, her time of 54 minutes, 02.1 seconds was a mere 10.2 seconds behind winner Frida Karlsson of Sweden, who needed a sprint finish to win in 53:51.9.
“It has been really good to be super consistent,” Stewart-Jones told Nordiq Canada. “I am confident that I have really good shape and (this result) gives me the confidence I can trust my body.
“It has been so fun on the World Cup this year. We have an awesome crew. The team dynamics are really good and it is so fun.”
Cyr, who had a fifth-place result at the 2022 Winter Olympics with Graham Ritchie in the team sprint event, received some valuable guidance from four-time Canadian Olympian Devon Kershaw before the race.
“He just told me, when you are skiing in a large group to look at the guys around and see if you’re skiing the smoothest and calmest. That is where you will get some confidence,” Cyr explained. “It gave me a lot of power and juice that I needed.”
Cyr, 24, kept pace with his nordic peers throughout the long-distance race on the challenging course. He added a strong kick to the finish line and improved his overall placement by several spots.
“It was such a chaotic race. You had to fight for every position in the pack,” Cyr added.
“This feels awesome. I needed this one bad. My morale was so down last week. I wasn’t sure where my shape was so this one is for all the support staff. It shows I’m still in the game.”
Meanwhile, Stewart-Jones also had high praise for the coaching staff and technical crew, which prepare the skis for the athletes.
“It was great to see the standout results from the whole team. Toni (Antoine) had an insane race. The staff always work so hard to give us fast skis every day and you see the excitement in the whole team. When you do well, everyone just wants to work that much harder.”
After skiing with a group of 20 athletes for the first half of the 20-kilometre classic race, Stewart-Jones made her move at the halfway point and gradually climbed in the rankings.
“It feels pretty awesome and it was a really fun race,” she said. “It was tight from start to finish in super-fast conditions so there was lots of yo-yoing happening.
“I knew from the start tactics would be important. I knew that I had to pass in a smart way and not waste energy, so I held onto the pack and waited for someone to go and made my move then.”
Stewart-Jones and Cyr resume their World Cup races on the weekend in Beitostolen, Norway.
“It is so hard to get away on this type of course,” Stewart-Jones said. “I knew I had fast skis, which allowed me to relax on the downhills. We went pretty much full out from the third lap on.
“I’m proud of how I skied. I’m confident in my fitness and know that if I can make smart moves then I can have a good result.”
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Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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