Paul Moore - Monday Jan. 13, 2014 12:29 ET

Cross-country trials a show of strength, endurance

1st-person account of Olympic team qualifications

Graeme Killick impressed at the Canadian cross-country trials. (Photo courtesy: Les Berezowski)

Paul Moore is a reporter and producer at CBC Edmonton.

I have never been so proud to be one of the final few stragglers to huff and puff my way to the finish line of a cross country ski race.

This weekend qualifying races for the final few spots on Canada’s Olympic cross country ski team took place. Athletes from across the country kicked and glided through four races on the snowy mountain trails at the Canmore Nordic Centre to try to earn a spot in Sochi.

“In a lot of ways, these are people's lives on the line,” said Justin Wadsworth, coach of the Canadian Olympic team, as he watched the athletes compete.

“They’ve been training for four or eight years just to make the Olympic team. And to have it come down to one day, one race – it’s just amazing the kinds of efforts we’ve seen out here.”

The races, though, were open to anybody. All you had to do was buy a Cross Country Canada racing license for $45 and pay the entry fee (about $40 per race). So I signed up for two of the events.

I’ve raced cross country skiing all of my life. A lot of years ago, I skied with the Alberta provincial team. I competed with Carleton University’s varisty squad. Though I’m no professional athlete, I still train hard and often.

My first Olympic qualifying race was a 1.7km sprint, an all-out drag race that begins with a prologue to rank the athletes before they move through a series of knockout heats.

Of course, I gave it my all. Midway through the short course, I could feel the lactic acid flooding into my oxygen-starved muscles. But I pushed as hard as I could to the finish line.

I came in second last.

That, though, gave me time to watch the other athletes move through the heats.

Heidi Widmer, who was born in Banff, Alta., broke into tears when she crossed the finish line first in the women’s final. That win unofficially qualified her to represent Canada in Sochi.

Tears rolled down her face as she smiled and hugged her competitors on the finish line.

“It feels surreal, enjoying this whole process is just the most important thing for me," she said.

And she welcomed the less professional athletes, like yours truly, on the course.

“It’s fun. It’s totally what cross country skiing is all about. The dream can happen for anyone,” she said.

My second race was a 30 kilometre skiathlon race. That event combines a 15k classical technique course, a triathlon-style transition of skis and poles, and then a 15k skating technique course.

Canadian coach Wadsworth upbeat about Olympic team

We raced four laps to make up that distance, which included some of the toughest climbs in Canada. My lungs, legs and arms seared with pain as I struggled to ski as fast as I could.

I was just starting my sixth of eight laps when I heard the race announcer excitedly say that Graeme Killick, a skier from Fort McMurray, Alta., who I’ve known since he was about eight years old, was crossing the finish line. In other words, he raced the full distance in the time it took me to race 22.5 kilometres.

That first place finish meant he will almost certainly be racing in Sochi.

"I think it’s awesome to see you guys out there,” Killick told me when I eventually got to the end of my race.

“The sport has grown quite a bit and it’s awesome to see even just the touring skiers showing up here every weekend. The parking lots are always jammed. It’s really good.”

The Canadian Olympic cross country ski team will be officially announced on Tuesday. I will certainly not be on it. But being on the trails of the qualifying races helped me understand the dedication, strength and skill it takes to be an Olympic athlete. It was an absolute honour.

“Our sport is so inclusive in so many ways,” coach Justin Wadsworth told me after watching me finish the skiathlon event.

As for Sochi, he said “we have a really strong team.”

“Hopefully we’ll get a chance to get on the podium there a couple of times ... it’s going to be a fun couple of weeks over there, so cheer for Canada!”

Oh, I will.

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