Canada's Ivan Babikov returns home for Russian Olympics
Cross-country ski veteran grew up in northern Russia
Ivan Babikov’s Olympic journey is taking him from home to homeland.
The cross-country skier is wearing Canada’s colours at the Winter Games for a second time, a memorable experience — especially since this one is in Russia, where he spent his first 23 years.
Babikov competes in the 4 x 10 km relay on a team with Len Valjas, Jesse Cockney and Graeme Killick on Sunday (5 a.m. ET, streaming at cbc.ca/olympics).
“It was actually a funny story,” the 33-year-old Babikov told CBC Sports before the season. “When I immigrated to Canada and I kept skiing and [was] waiting for my passport, I found out that Vancouver was picked as the Olympic venue [for 2010].
“Four years later I found out that the Olympics after Vancouver would be in Sochi, which is my motherland, you know, that’s where I was born so I’m like, ‘That’s a double bonus.’ I don’t think many people can have a chance or opportunity to race in two Olympics pretty much in a row in their home country so this is really special for me.”
Babikov started skiing when he was nine years old in northern Russia. His older sister was the first to make the move to Canada, and he was sponsored to come over in 2003.
Babikov then endured many tough moments over the next three years, as his wife and the oldest of two boys remained in Russia. He competed in as many events as he could on various circuits in Canada and the U.S., while working at a grocery store.
Skied for Russia at Turin Olympics
With Canadian citizenship ultimately not in the cards until 2007, he made the decision to compete a for Russia in 2006 at the Turin Olympics. Babikov wasn’t exactly welcomed by all members of the team given the fact he had one foot out the plane, but he still placed 13th in the 30 km pursuit.
"In the back of my head I knew, like, this is just for the experience. This is what I need to do in order to compete for Canada in four years or eight years," he said.
The Canadian team was glad to have him aboard. The five-foot-seven Babikov helped turn around the reputation of the men’s group internationally, posting the first World Cup win for a Canadian man in 20 years in 2009.
In addition to bringing his talent and grit on race day Babikov is much loved within the team off the course.
"It's not easy to move cultures like that,"said teammate Devon Kershaw. "Because of that, he really, really cares deeply about every member of the team, and that shines through. He's just a great guy with a heart of gold."
Babikov has often shared a room with the six-foot-six Len Valjas, killing time with some Xbox battles.
Valjas, the youngest of the leaders on the men's team, said Babikov helps keeps the stress level down. "That guy is so funny he could be a stand up comedian for sure," said Valjas.
Babikov and his family eventually settled in Canmore, Alta., which he describes as his "favourite place in the world" for all the outdoor activities the scenic town offers.
The upcoming Sochi Games won't match the significance on an emotional level, he said, of competing at the Vancouver Olympics for the country that's welcomed the skier and his family.
The Canadian men’s team, under coach Justin Wadsworth, made a tactical decision this season skip some pre-World Cup races in November in hopes of peaking for the Olympics. Babikov is showing signs it might be working with a strong fourth-place finish in the final stage of the Tour de Ski in early January.
Babikov believes knowing the culture in Russia will allow him to stay in his comfort zone at the Olympics.
While it's not his first competition back on Russian soil, and he won't have much time to do anything but focus on racing, he expects it to be special.
"For sure I’ll feel something after the race or before the race or maybe during the opening ceremonies you know but, I’ll just try to focus on what I got to do that day or that moment."
Babikov isn’t the only Russian-born member of the cross-country squad. Daria Gaiazova has written about her Olympic homecoming for Radio-Canada and CBC Sports.