December 23, Dresden Germany
NTDC Thunder Bay athlete Graham Ritchie laid it all on the line on Saturday, December 18 while competing for Team Canada in the World Cup free technique sprints through the streets of Dresden, Germany. Being an Olympic year, and with Canada only guaranteed a small number of spots at the Olympics in the Scandinavian-dominated sport of cross-country skiing, the stakes were high for the Parry Sound, Ontario native who has spent the last 5 years living and training in Thunder Bay as part of the National Team Development Centre Thunder Bay. Ritchie has had success on the world stage many times, having snagged a 9th place in the qualifier in the World Cup in Ulricehamn, Sweden last season, and having placed in the top 12 on a couple of occasions at the World Junior Championships.
Counterintuitively, sprint races are all-day events, beginning in the morning with an individual start time trial (also known as the “qualifier”) to decide who will qualify for the heats later in the day. The top 30 fastest times from the qualifier move on to the fast-paced and often explosive heats, where 6 skiers start at the same time and try to outmaneuver and outsprint each other to the finish line. The top 2 finishers from each heat (and the two fastest “lucky losers”) move on to the next round until there are only 6 skiers left in the finals. This last heat of the day decides who gets the gold, silver, and bronze medals hung around their necks, and who will have to wait for another day to stand on the podium. That’s what every skier is after; the chance to stand on the podium (preferably at the top) on the world stage after years and years dedicated to the pursuit of excellence. And for amateur athletes, there is no stage like the Olympics.
The sprints in Dresden, held on the flat snow-covered streets of the town square, are notorious for high speeds, crashes, and generally make for a great spectator event. The 24-year-old Ritchie threw down a fantastic qualifier, finishing with the 16th fastest time in a field that included many of the best sprinters in the world. The season started unspectacularly for Ritchie, racing in FIS competitions and World Cups without ever really breaking through or feeling his best. Of his performance in the qualifier in Dresden, Ritchie said “It was nice to finally get my legs back under me for a great qualifier”.
Then came the quarter-finals, where Ritchie was now pitted against 5 other professional athletes, each one more starving for success than the last, especially in an Olympic year with qualifications for many countries still undecided. In a heat that included three Czechs, a Swiss and a Norwegian, Ritchie did not shy away from the moment, attacking from the start and leading the heat out of the gate, skiing to the front with the composure of a cool and controlled veteran. Picking his spots and positioning himself well throughout the race, Ritchie skied a phenomenal heat and did everything he could to finish in the top 2 to move on to the next round.
But as is the case with sports, sometimes the cookie crumbles and it doesn’t crumble for you. Around the last corner, just before the finishing straight, the skier in front of Ritchie crashed, and though the streets of Dresden are beautiful, their narrowness place certain limitations on the ability of 6 large athletic men careening around at 40km/h on skinny skis. Ritchie, though nimble on his skis, couldn’t get around the fallen competitor, and fell himself. His ski snapped and his chance to move on to the next round ended in an instant, despite having lots left in the tank.
Despite the disappointing fall, Ritchie remained positive after the race. Having finished 26th overall after his race incident, Ritchie commented that it was “great to be back in the points (awarded to the top 30 skiers) and a huge positive heading into the Christmas break”.
Although it was not the way he had hoped his day would end, such is the beauty and bitterness of the pursuit of excellence. While Ritchie’s tangle up and fall ended his aspiration of moving on to the next round and getting one step closer to the finals, it opened the door for another athlete to take a step towards realizing their goals. Every athlete at the World Cup level works tirelessly for years just for the opportunity to realize their dreams. Nothing is guaranteed, and at the end of the day, not everyone will get there. But the reward lies in the pursuit of excellence; the relentless dedication to your craft and to being better than you were yesterday. This essence of competition is captured in the Olympic ideal of the “joy found in effort”, the true satisfaction felt when you apply yourself wholly to the pursuit of a goal.
For most amateur athletes, the Olympics is the pinnacle of their sport. They have dreamed about representing their country at the World Games since they first fell in love with their sport, and many have dedicated themselves to this pursuit for most of their lives. They won’t all make it to the Olympics, but every one of them will have mustered every ounce of effort and given it to their pursuit for the chance of living their dream. And while the Olympic qualification process has been fraught with disruptions and cancellations, Ritchie and other hopefuls like him here on NTDC and across the country are still working hard to remain optimistic and focused on that dream.
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For more information contact: Heather Foster [email protected] 807-629-3489