February 15, 2006
Welcome to big stage
Canada now among elite in cross-country
PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

TURIN -- This is for anyone who's ever been picked last for the playground pickup team. Anyone who's ever crossed the finish line at the school picnic long after everybody but their own parents has gone home for dinner.

No matter how bad you are today, you can be better tomorrow.

There was a time, not so long ago, Canadians were laughed off the cross-country ski course.

A long time, actually.

For 70 years, not a single Canadian reached the medal podium in the Olympic cross-country competition.

They weren't just missing the podium, though, they were tripping over it.

As recently as Nagano, in 1998, the goal seemed to be avoiding the bottom three positions.

Take Sara Renner's finishes, for example: 54th, 64th and 74th. That's 74th in a field of 79.

Canmore, Alta., didn't put up a sign honouring its Olympian.

That may change.

Because sometime after Nagano, Renner decided she was going to catch the person ahead of her. And then the next person. And the next.

She spent four years passing them, one by one, until she reached Salt Lake City with no more than 20 skiers ahead of her, depending on the discipline.

Those last 20 are the toughest, though. It would take another four years for Renner to catch them.

Yesterday, the 29-year-old, along with long-time teammate Beckie Scott, 31, caught everybody ahead of her, except one, winning an Olympic silver medal.

"We were near the bottom in Nagano, today we're on an Olympic podium together," Renner said yesterday. "I feel we deserve this moment as a team."

It's true Scott has come out of nowhere, too, finishing 45th, 47th and 51st in Nagano.

But the Vermilion, Alta., native completed her comeback at Salt Lake City, ending Canada's 70-year drought with a gold.

The Scandinavian countries own cross-country. Often, the Swedes, Finns and Norwegians reserve spots on the podium well in advance, leaving only the order of finish to settle at the Games.

That changed in Salt Lake, and yesterday Renner and Scott proved it wasn't a fluke.

But to finish ahead of the Finns and shut the Norwegians out of the medals altogether?

Perhaps it's too soon to call it a changing of the guard, but those in the castle have taken notice.

"The Canadian skiers on the women's side have been better the last five years," Norwegian coach Bjornar Haakensmoen said. "We saw that before Christmas when we were over there (for a World Cup). So we expected both would be strong during the Olympics."

There's no secret to the turnaround, either. And it's got nothing to do with money. You don't throw dollars at a sport like cross-country and get a quick fix.

What Haakensmoen has seen these last few years is two women pouring their sweat into getting better.

"That's a lot of good, hard work," he said. "Both from the athletes and the coaches."

Perhaps that's why he bailed Renner out of a jam yesterday, handing her his pole when one of hers broke during the race.

Eight years ago, he may have done it out of sympathy.

Yesterday, it was out of respect.

Now, if you're wondering if this cross-country resurgence is a two-person phenomenon more than it is a program's coming of age, you're probably not alone.

Haakensmoen, though, says from what he's seen, Canada's cross-country future is in good hands.

"It doesn't surprise me, because of the conditions and facilities you have over there," he said. "Everything is there for you to stay on top. Hopefully, Canada stays in the top 10, because we need Canada. We need Canada for cross-country skiing."

And not just to step on anymore, either. There's a new pecking order in the playground.







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Men's 1.5km Sprint
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Men's 15km Classical
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Men's 50km Freestyle
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Men's Combined Pursuit
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Men's 4x10km Relay
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Men's Team Sprint
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Women's 1.5km Sprint
Results
Past Champs

Women's 10km Classical
Results
Past Champs

Women's 30km Freestyle
Results
Past Champs

Women's Combined Pursuit
Results
Past Champs

Women's 4x5km Relay
Results
Past Champs

Women's Team Sprint
Results
Past Champs