Ivan Babikov's emotional return to Russian roots

Canadian cross-country skier, Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Atla., during a presser at the 2014 Winter...

Canadian cross-country skier, Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Atla., during a presser at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, in Sochi, Russia, on Feb.6, 2014. (Al Charest/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:23 PM ET

SOCHI - There is both strength and loneliness in cross country skiing and maybe no one understands that better than a Russian-Canadian bulldog named Ivan Babikov.

His life story is all about challenge, from losing his father as a teen, to being too small for his sport, to joining his mother and sister in Canada while at the same time – for reasons only immigration can explain – being forced to leave his wife and baby behind in arctic-like Syktyvkar in Northern Russia, 10 hours and a lifetime away from Sochi.

“It was the hardest thing I ever did,” said Babikov, the Canadian cross-country Olympian. “To leave behind my wife and my child. I came to Canada. I barely spoke any English.

“It was the toughest time of my life. I was in Canada, trying to be a cross-country skier, trying to learn the language, trying to make some money in the winter so I could fly home in the summer to see them.

“There were moments when you’re alone, thinking your family is so far away, and I would think, ‘This is where I want to live. This is where I want my kids to grow up. I had to focus on that.’”

And here he is now, a Canadian Olympian for the second time and one of two athletes in Sochi who can claim consecutive home Olympic Games.

He competed for the red and white four years ago in Vancouver and still calls it the experience of a lifetime. Now he will compete in his home country for the country he is so proud to call home.

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This is Babikov’s third Olympics: The first time he competed for Russia, because an attempt to get him quick Canadian citizenship prior to the Turin Games didn’t come through.

“The experience,” he said, “was good for me.”

Now, he competes alongside his teammates and friends – really, they are more like family to him – skiing both sides against the middle, juggling love of family, understanding of who he is and where he comes from, with a deep appreciation of both his heritage and his citizenship.

“I have deep Russian roots,” said Babikov, 33, the proud Canadian. “I was born here. It’s my culture. Deep inside, I’m still Russian. That part never leaves you. It’s who you are.

“I have a lot of friends who are Russian. I think there are lots of people in Russia cheering for me. It feels great to be here and get treated like this. In Vancouver, we got so many cheers. Now I’m in Russia and being treated so well: I couldn’t wish for anything better.”

It is a long way from northern Russia, a long way from the grocery store in Toronto where Babikov first stocked shelves. “I was overwhelmed at first in Canada. I didn’t know what to do with myself, should I continue skiing or not. I was so focused on finding a way to get my family over. It was complicated, all of it was complicated.”

Right now, there is nothing Babikov likes better than to walk around wearing his Team Canada clothing and talking Russian. He gets the most surprising looks here. His teammates love it – they get extra attention and probably better service because “everyone is shocked when they hear me speak. It’s funny how people react.”

Babikov’s mother and sister are both coming from Toronto to watch him race on the difficult trails here. They have rarely been back to Russia since leaving more than a decade ago. No one from Russia is coming specifically to see him: “I have no family left here. I have nowhere to go (to visit anyone).”

But he can climb on skis, as he climbed his way up the Canadian team ladder. And because of his extraordinary ability to ski up hill, he could win an Olympic medal here. The opportunity is there. Would anyone appreciate it more?

“Everything is a possibility,” said Babikov, now a father of two, living a life of possibilities. “This is the Olympic Games. I’m so proud to be here. So proud to be a Canadian.”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

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