After a sparse schedule to start the season, local cross-country skiers revved up in a big way with the Haywood Western Canada Cup at Whistler Olympic Park from Jan. 17 to 19.
The racers made the most of it, bringing home five U20 medals over the course of the weekend in advance of the World Junior/U23 Championships trials in Mont-Ste.-Anne, Que. later this month.
Benita Peiffer took first among U20s and second overall in the open women's sprint heats and was second among U20s and fourth overall in the 15-km free event.
Michael Murdoch, meanwhile, was second among U20s and sixth overall in the open men's sprint heats, second in U20 and sixth overall in the 15-km classic and second in the U20 event and seventh overall in the 15-km free event.
Marlie Molinaro was second in the U18 girls' sprint heats, and 12th in her division in the interval classic race, while leading her BC-1 team to victory in U18 girls' relay action.
Murdoch, who is now attending UBC, appreciated the opportunity to head back home and get in some reps in advance of trials, especially after battling illness earlier this winter.
"I started off kind of slow this season, so I wanted to put down some good races before heading out to Mont-Ste.-Anne for World Junior trials," he said. "I'm excited now that I'm healthy. I'm relaxed a bit more now.
"They're a stressful race, but going forward, I've always been top of the juniors and will hopefully be able to keep that status throughout the week of racing in Quebec."
At Westerns, Murdoch was most proud of his performance in the sprints, considering longer races are more his forte.
"Generally, I'm not really a sprinter, but in the last couple years, I've kept it up," he said. "I made it to the final in open, and I was super surprised and excited to be able to race with those older guys. Those guys are training all year round, so it was pretty exciting to be able to race with them."
Murdoch, who joined the university's team this year, said it's been somewhat difficult to find time to train given his academic commitments and the general lack of snow in Vancouver, but he boosted his volume over the Christmas break in order to get caught up.
"Over the winter break, I was able to lay down some awesome hours," he said. "Unfortunately, I got sick later in the Christmas break and I was out for a couple weeks, which sucked, but right before Westerns, I healed up and was able to get some training in."
Murdoch, who is in the Sauder School of Business, enjoys the atmosphere around the Thunderbirds' recreational team.
"They definitely have a focus on school and put cross-country skiing second," he said. "I've been doing the same, but want to keep up my cross-country skiing as much as I can and keep as fit as I can so I can keep up with the best. It's hard, but I've enjoyed it."
Peiffer, meanwhile, also hadn't done much racing to this point in the season, and was glad to perform well in one of her first major tests.
"I wasn't feeling super awesome going into the races. I had kind of a slow start to the season," she said. "Being at home, seeing my family and friends, it was just kind of a fun race surrounded by all my teammates. It was an awesome atmosphere.
"There's not a lot of time to turn things around and get back in shape if you're not in shape, but definitely mentally, it's a challenge. Coming out of this weekend, it definitely is a confidence booster knowing that I am in shape and feeling good."
Like Murdoch, Peiffer was proud of her sprint performance, taking the U20 win.
"Sprint isn't always my strong specialty, but I had fun with it," she said. "It was a great group of girls who are all super strong at sprinting."
That said, Peiffer enjoyed the 15-km skate race as well, as she deployed different tactics throughout the competition while chasing national team racer Emily Nishikawa.
"She's a really awesome skier and it was really fun to go out there and chase her and test our ability to keep up with her," Peiffer said.
Peiffer is currently attending the University of Calgary and training as part of the Alberta World Cup Academy, and she is pleased to manage both pursuits, though with its colder climate, it can be more difficult finding safe times to train.
"I really enjoy having something else on my plate to keep me kind of busy so I'm not just focusing on skiing," she said.
Molinaro, meanwhile, recently moved from Pemberton to Revelstoke in order to train alongside more athletes her age, which has helped her training.
"I've only ever trained with older athletes, so now to be able to train with girls my own age, it's really fun. We push each other," she said.
With conditions varying wildly throughout the weekend, Molinaro was thrilled to start the weekend with a strong sprint result on a bluebird day.
"The sprint race was really fun. I was really happy with my results on that day," she said. "We were focusing on peaking for Westerns, so I was pretty rested going into it."
Sea to Sky Nordics participants on the weekend were: Marin Lowe (sixth in U16 girls' sprints and 12th in U16 girls' interval start); Jasper Fleming (seventh in U16 boys' sprints and 19th in U16 boys' interval start); Sarah Bowers (ninth in senior women's interval start); Elliot Holtham (10th in senior men's interval start and 11th in senior men's 15-km free); Sierra McBain (13th in U16 girls' sprints and 20th in U16 girls' interval start); Graeme Bowers (13th in U20 men's interval start and 19th in U20 15-km free); Sean Benson (22nd in U18 boys' sprints and 30th in U18 boys' interval start); Trevor Schick (28th in U18 boys' interval start); Mia Rodger (28th in U14 girls' interval start); Ryan Clark (30th in U14 boys' interval start); Graham Benson (32nd in U14 boys' interval start); Gustave Deseau (33rd in U14 boys' interval start); Josie Clifford (33rd in U14 girls' interval start); Sofie Hill (40th in U16 girls' sprints); and Sophie Firth (42nd in U16 girls' sprints and 48th in U16 girls' interval start).
Group looking to bring World Juniors to WOP in 2023
Several of Whistler's young up-and-comers could soon prove their mettle at home on the world's largest stage.
A local organizing committee is looking to bring the FIS World Junior/U23 Championships to Whistler Olympic Park in January 2023. Co-chair Reid Carter said after conducting a feasibility story over the summer, the group felt confident about bringing the 500-plus-athlete event to town and formalized its efforts.
"FIS has basically told us it's ours. It's not as though we have to compete against Germany or France or something for it," he said.
The committee recently presented to councils in Whistler and Squamish to inform them of the effort.
Carter said the committee's priorities in the near future are to ensure it can secure $1.6 to $1.8-million in funding and that it can fulfil the FIS' obligations, including providing roughly 10,000 person nights at a maximum set rate of 115 Swiss francs per night.
Carter said much of the funding is expected to be secured via grants, adding that using the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance's STEAM (Sport Tourism Economic Assessment Model), the event is expected to generate between $3 and $5 million in economic activity.
Murdoch and Peiffer would be eligible for the U23 division and are enthusiastic about the event potentially coming to their home trails.
"It's exciting knowing that we'll hopefully have some of the best guys around the world here," Murdoch said. "That'll be an amazing goal to set for a few years down the road. I'll have that in the back of my mind any time I'm training."
"I would be so happy if we brought that to Whistler," Peiffer added. "We have an awesome facility and I think it's awesome that it gets put to use."