Black Jack skier Julien Locke goes wire to wire in the final to win gold at the Olympic Winter Games Trials and World Jr/U23 Championship Trials. Mario Walker photo

Black Jack skier golden at Olympic trials, but selection remains elusive

Black Jack skier Julien Locke sprints to top of podium at Winter Olympic Trials in Mont Ste. Anne

Cold weather didn’t slow down Black Jack skier Julien Locke, who sprinted to gold at the Winter Olympic Trials and World Junior/U23 Ski championship in Mont Ste. Anne, Que. on Friday

The men’s sprint was pushed a day ahead due to cold weather in the forecast, so with race temperature hovering around -16 C, the Nelson native bested Canada’s best in the Men’s Final, beating out Canmore Nordic’s Russell Kennedy by over a second in the 1.35-kilometre sprint.

“I’m quite satisfied how it went on Friday,” Locke told the Trail Times. “I knew that I had to be first in the final, and had a great qualifier in the morning, and then skied the heats like I wanted to, so was happy with how it went.”

Locke made his way into the heats by finishing second among the top 30 of the morning’s qualifiers, then came second in his quarter-final heat before winning his semifinal race. The top two skiers in each of the five quarter-final and semifinal races automatically move on, and two lucky losers with the next fastest times also earn a spot in the next round.

“I wasn’t feeling super snappy in the morning, kind of had to warm my body up,” said Locke. “So it was a progression for me and I knew every heat I’d feel better.

“In the semifinal, I was pretty confident I’d be able to go through without issue and felt very strong, but still felt like I had more in me.”

In the final, Locke shot out front right from the start and led all the way, winning in decisive fashion in a time of 3:04.16, with Kennedy in second, and Thunder Bay’s Bob Thompson in third.

“Right from the start in the final, I put the hammer down and just time-trialed myself all the way around the course.”

The gold was a benchmark result for Locke who defeated a field that included National Ski Team racers Jesse Cockney, Len Valjas and Knute Johnsgaard.

“Julien was incredibly good,” said Black Jack coach David Wood. “In the first two rounds he was a bit tactical, but in the final he just went wire to wire.”

But winning gold at the Olympic Trials doesn’t guarantee Locke a place on the Olympic ski team. According to Cross Country Canada’s (CCC) 2018 Olympic Games selection criteria, CCC will consider both qualifying and final results in its “sprint selection ranking process”.

In the men’s qualifying round on Friday, Kennedy qualified first (in 3:02.81 minutes) and Locke followed in second (3.06 seconds back). Should CCC select another male sprinter to its Olympic team, Kennedy’s second-place finish in the head-to-head final, effectively, means they were tied. But the tiebreaker is the qualifying round, which Kennedy won.

“There’s a couple things in play here,” said Wood. “The criteria put more weight on the qualifier than the final, which is kind of dumb, but also there is no quota. So the Olympic quota has gotten very small, and that perhaps is the biggest issue for Olympic teams and selection.”

The most recent FIS quotas allocates only eight eligible athletes for Canada’s Olympic cross-country ski team, compared to 11 for Sochi in 2014. However, more spots will likely open up when other countries don’t fill their quota, the places will be redistributed to other countries – but that number won’t be known until Jan. 25, just three weeks prior to the start of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang.

“We based our criteria on what we had in Sochi,” CCC High Performance Director Thomas Holland said on FasterSkier website. “In Sochi, we had 11 [athletes initially], and with the reallocation we ended up with 13, so we kind of used that [to develop] the criteria. I guess our results aren’t where we would like them to be [this year] so we have nine, less than we expected.”

Based on World Cup results, Canada has seven skiers already pre-qualified for the Olympic team, which includes Alex Harvey, Valjas, Devon Kershaw, Johnsgaard, Cockney, Emily Nishikawa, and Dahria Beatty.

Chances are, if more spots become available, the CCC will field a four-women team with one female sprinter and distance skier added. Graeme Killick will then likely get the call after meeting the “alternative qualifying Criteria A,” followed by a male sprinter, and female distance skier.

“It’s the biggest issue now for the Olympic team is selection,” said Wood. “The quotas down to eight, so we might get a couple more reallocated but maybe not, too. I think the most they’ll have is 10 and that still means that the men’s sprint position that Julien was fighting for will not happen.”

Despite the complex and somewhat arbitrary process, Locke is proud of his progress over the season. His race load in the first three months was greater than ever, including five straight weekend races, three of those on the World Cup Tour in Europe, capped off by a gold medal performance at the Haywood NorAms at his home course at the Black Jack Ski Club in Rossland last month.

Locke leaves for Europe today (Wednesday) to rejoin the World Cup team for the second leg of the season. His first start goes on Sunday in Dresden, Germany for the Men’s Sprint, followed by races in Slovenia and Austria, as he looks to improve on his results from the first leg of the World Cup.

“I wasn’t content with the results I was getting the first period,” said Locke. “I thought I prepared very well for it, and was racing quite well, but just missing a couple percent of what I need to be able to compete over there.”

A 36th-place finish in Davos, Switz. on Dec. 9 was Locke’s best in three World Cup races, but adjustments to the shorter distances and intensity of the races has given the 24-year-old skier important insight on how to progress.

“I learned a fair bit about pacing. The races are quite short in the World Cup, the sprints aren’t as long as we have in Canada, and I realized the first weekend that I have to open up a little harder … You can’t go overboard to start, but you have to hit the pace perfectly, and carry that the whole way through.

“It comes down to quite small margins. I think I have it in me to ski at that level, I can ski with those guys, I just need to get all the little things just perfect before I can be in the mix.”

As for the Olympic team, until the reallocation process concludes, Locke has done all he can do to make the team.

“I qualified for the first period of the World Cup, and did as well as I could, and then came here and raced well. I feel like I’ve done everything I can to show my form, and now the Olympics are the big goal and that’s where I’d really like to be a month from now, but we’ll have to see how it goes.”

It would be unfortunate for Locke if the CCC’s decision on an Olympic berth hinges on a qualifying race in which all he was required to do was place in the top 30.

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