Chris Iorfida - Thursday Feb. 13, 2014 18:35 ET

Devon Kershaw's leadership takes cross-country team to new level

Sudbury, Ont., skier has seen it all in decade with team

Devon Kershaw is easygoing off the course, but sometimes a bundle of nerves on race day. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The Canadian men’s cross-country ski team insists they’re not exaggerating when they describe themselves as just like family.

The closeness for this band of elite athlete brothers has been forged through years of toil, travel and performance together. Another World Cup season begins this weekend in Kuusamo, Finland, and Olympic expectations for the men are greater than they were four years ago.

“If you don't have the belief in one another, like true belief, I think it'd be very difficult in our sport to achieve the kind of results that we've been able to achieve,” says Devon Kershaw, who finished fifth in the 50K event, agonizingly close to a medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Kershaw is still a bit puzzled about how he made it from Sudbury, Ont., — not exactly a cross-country incubator — to Turin, Vancouver and, soon, Sochi for the Olympics.

“The fact that I was able to [make] my third Olympics? I don't know, it's sometimes really hard to fathom," he said.

CBC Sports spoke to the athletes at various points in their training cycle — leaving us with some distinct Coles Notes impressions of the main players.

Len Valjas is the chill giant — he’s six-foot-six — who disarms with his smile and all-around athletic ability.

Ivan Babikov, at the other end of the spectrum at five-foot-seven, cracks the team up day to day, but he has also earned their respect with his skill and his long battle to bring his family from Russia to Canada.

Alex Harvey is the most confident of the bunch, a lifelong skier with the potential to do things in the sport no Canadian ever has.

Kershaw? Consider him the everyman of the group, both because he’s been on the team longer than all others, and for his willingness to promote the men’s squad and how far they’ve come.

‘He needs to talk about everything’

Man of mystery, everyone agrees, is not a descriptor that applies to the 30-year-old veteran of the team.

“He needs to talk about everything,” said Harvey, who often rooms with Kershaw on the road. “He needs to externalize all of his thoughts. It's awesome for me, it's non-stop entertaining.”

Kershaw admits he can be loud and passionate about the sport. He’s renowned for bemoaning his prospects the morning of a big race, only to shine with a clutch performance.

Kershaw, who turns 31 in December, has worked his way up to become one of the world’s best and takes pride in the hard-earned journey. He describes the Canadian men’s team at his first world championships a decade ago as an afterthought on the international scene. His first two World Cup podium appearances in individual events came three years apart.

This was no overnight success story.

A pair of top 5 finishes at the Vancouver Olympics (50-kilometre classic and team sprint) were encouraging, and in the following two seasons he finished eighth and then second in the overall World Cup standings.

The crowning moment of that two-season stretch of consistently strong results came on March 2, 2011. Kershaw and Harvey not only teamed up to become the first Canadian men ever to win a medal in a cross-country world championship race, they won gold in arguably the heartland of the sport, Norway.

Raising expectations

Kershaw’s penchant for worrying on race day was an adjustment for men’s coach Justin Wadsworth when he came from the U.S. to take the helm after the Vancouver Games.

“The first year I was coaching him, it was driving me crazy, it made me nervous,” said Wadsworth, the husband of former Canadian gold medallist Beckie Scott.

What came across as negative self-talk, however, seemed more like a driving force given the racer’s results.

“Everyone knows that’s just how he rolls,” said Wadsworth.

Kershaw struggled in 2012-13, trying to ski through the pain of an early season foot ligament injury. He plummeted to 27th in the overall standings, and despite posting the fastest qualifying time in the team sprint while trying to defend their world championship in Italy, Kershaw and Harvey came up on the short end of the third-place tiebreaker with Kazakhstan.

A crushing summation of the season, it also reflected the progress made in recent years by the team.

The fourth at the Vancouver Games was cause for backslaps, but just three years later, it was a bitter blow.  

Kershaw is hoping such results are all part of building a strong program for Canada.

“The 4th places when I'm 50? Who's going to care?” he says. “There'll be a new Alex Harvey. There'll be a new Len Valjas that will be out there winning medals, and the kids will remember those guys' names.”

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