Whitehorse Daily Star

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JOYFUL JUBILATION – Whitehorse’s Sonjaa Schmidt reacts to becoming Canada’s first-ever Women’s U23 World Champion in cross country skiing. Tuesday, Schmidt crossed the finish line .48 seconds in front of Hilla Niemela of Finland at the FIS U23 World Championships in Planica, Slovenia. Photo by @oneskatephotos / Gašper Jakomin

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DOWN BUT NOT OUT – Alain Masson, left and his son Sasha at the 2023 Ski Nationals in Thunder Bay, Ont. after a race Sasha won. Sasha is sick and had to drop out of the U23 World Championships.

Canadian cross country team riding wave of momentum

The Canadian cross country team competing at the U23 and Junior World Championships in Planica, Slovenia

By Morris Prokop on February 9, 2024

The Canadian cross country team competing at the U23 and Junior World Championships in Planica, Slovenia is still riding a wave of momentum from Yukoner Sonjaa Schmidt’s historic victory in the U23 1.2 km Sprint Tuesday.

Schmidt finished 14th in the Women’s Mass Start Free Thursday in a race in which her teammate Lilliane Gagnon came in a strong fifth.

Whitehorse’s Derek Deuling came in 30th in the Men’s 20 km Mass Start Free.

The Star reached former Cross Country Yukon coach Alain Masson in Planica, Slovenia Wednesday. He was working with the Canadian team there. As a matter of fact, he waxed Schmidt’s sprint skis with “glide” wax, which is wax for skate skis, to play his part in the milestone victory.

“Yesterday (Tuesday) was well above average,” he said. “Historical. It was pretty pretty fun to be there and witness it.”

Masson called Schmidt’s win “unbelievable.”

“One in a million chance of that happening especially when you qualify 29th. There’s only 30 athletes who qualify and move on to the heat. Had she been a second or two slower she would have not even had the opportunity to be in the heats.

“Once she got into the heat she won her quarter-final, won her semifinal and won the finals, so totally amazing. Surprised everybody, including ourselves, I think.”

“Obviously she was in really, really good shape that day. The course was perfect for her, the features of the course, the type of snow. Had good skis, good wax. You need everything to do something like this. So everything lined up and she put it together.

“Great tactics. She did the same tactics each time, stayed behind for most of the race until about a few hundred meters to go and then moved to the front and used her speed to win the sprint at the end.”

When asked if he thought Schmidt had the potential to accomplish this, Masson gave a very honest answer.

“Nope. She didn’t. If you ask her, she would have never thought she had the potential to win.

“It’s so amazing.”

Masson was asked how far Schmidt can take this.

“As far as she wants,” he replied. “She’s obviously still improving a lot. She turned 21 in late December. So she’s super-young by cross country skiing standards. Most people achieve their peak between 25 and 30.”

Masson had some high praise for Schmidt’s potential.

“She should be a shoo-in for the Olympics in 2026 if she keeps racing and stays healthy and injury-free. There’s so many factors but if everything goes her way she definitely can do very well.

As for what this means to Yukon athletes, Masson said, “It’s a great story for other Yukon skiers because it just shows that on any given day, if everything lined up, everything is possible. To other athletes in Canada, in our sport and in other sports it shows that you never know what can happen.”

Masson said he felt privileged to have been able to be part of Schmidt’s development when she was in the Yukon as a skier in Whitehorse.

“Last year was a very difficult year, a very challenging year. She wasn’t nominated to the national team last spring, so very difficult as an athlete. Financially, she had to go tree planting for a few months to be able to generate enough revenue to afford to be a skier and a student.”

Masson thinks Schmidt turned her fortunes around at the Anchorage Winterstart Super Tour Race Series. It ran Dec. 12-17, 2023 and featured the best domestic skiers from the U.S. and Canada.

“She was racing really well. I think she won one race, was in the top two or three, including U.S. skiers, in a few of the races.

“She was already qualified for the World U23 but at the trials near Quebec City after new years she also was dominating the races in the senior, so we knew she was in very good shape and things were going well.

“But that’s in North America. It’s a big step to be competitive internationally.

“But things are going well. She’s healthy. She’s been racing the best she’s ever raced. At least from the respect she could expect to do better than ever. I think she was happy just to qualify in the top 30 yesterday (Tuesday) morning. And then really surprised herself to win the quarter. And then use the same tactics and win the semi and then be able to do the same in the final.”

Masson added, “She will be a great ambassador for sport in the Yukon. She is already but with this, she’ll be a great role model for anybody to inspire youth, people in the Yukon who participate in high-performance sport and all sports. It just shows that with hard work, perseverance and dedication, amazing things are possible.”

Masson also pointed out that not even great cross country athletes like Beckie Scott or Sara Renner or Chandra Crawford, who all won Olympic medals, did not win U23 or junior medals in their youth.

“That doesn’t mean Sanjaa will go on to win an Olympic medal but it’s just history making. It’s a first in Canada so it’s exciting for the ski community everywhere in Canada.”

The news wasn’t as good with Masson’s son Sasha at the U23 Worlds, who skied after Schmidt in the next race.

“The day before he was fighting a cold and he woke up that morning sick and now he’s sick so he won’t get to race the rest of the championships,” related Masson. “He’s frustrated and very sad. But when you get sick in a sport like cross country skiing it’s no longer possible to participate just because of the fact that our lungs operate at maximum efficiency. If you have any form of infection, it’s not possible to participate, so he’s totally devastated but unfortunately, you can’t control everything and sickness is a part of life, unfortunately.”

Masson said the mood of the team following Schmidt’s win was “amazing.

“We had a bit of a celebration in the evening following the team meeting. It’s amazing what it does to a team.

“I’ve been very fortunate because I was around when Beckie Scott won gold for Canada and when Chandra Crawford won gold and when Pierre Harvey won multiple World Championship medals. It’s amazing what it does to the program and the rest of the athletes and everybody. It’s contagious.”

Next up for Masson is a holiday in Europe and then he’s off to finish the World Cup circuit in Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Masson added Schmidt and Sasha will compete in the World Cup events in Scandinavia in March.

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