October 18, 2011 (Canmore, AB) – Cross Country Canada held a news conference in Canmore yesterday to introduce the various National Ski Teams for the 2011-12 season, against the backdrop of the newly opened “Frozen Thunder” ski loop at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Athletes were made available for photo ops while finding their ski legs on the 1.5 km loop. Also apparent, however, was something of a chill in the relationship between CCC and arguably its top-performing female athlete on the World Cup circuit, Dasha Gaiazova, who was quietly dropped from the Senior World Cup squad last summer and who was today named to something called the “Senior Team,” of which she is the sole member.
This is a puzzling development given that Gaiazova is coming off her strongest season yet, one in which she captured her first World Cup medal (a bronze in the Team Sprint with Chandra Crawford in Dusseldorf) and placed 6th in the Team Sprint (with Perianne Jones) at the World Championships in Oslo. Rumours of a rift between Gaiazova and CCC began circulating back in early July. The fact that the parties have yet to resolve the issues after five months suggests that both sides may be entrenched.
Tom Holland, CCC’s Director of High Performance, confirmed as much in a recent interview with SkiTrax, describing the issues between CCC and its emerging female star as long-standing. Things appear to have come to a head last May when Gaiazova was asked to leave a Senior World Cup team camp in Bend, Oregon, after, according to Holland, failing to abide by the obligations of team members, including participating in prescribed training sessions. “We are very emphatic that our World Cup Team is a group of people that are committed to all our camps and working under our coaching team,” and that are committed “to what our team does in terms of the best practices, principles and priorities that really got us this far,” Holland said.
Among other issues, Holland pointed to Gaiazova’s difficulty with the World Cup team’s extensive travel schedule during both the racing and dryland seasons, which this year included stops all over Europe and Scandinavia, as well as Hawaii, Alaska and New Zealand, to name a few. Holland also alluded to the need to deal with Gaiazova in relation to other team members: “The most important thing on our team is chemistry … everybody’s got to be committed to the programme, althetes aren’t going to tolerate people that aren’t 100% behind what’s happening on that team.”
Having said that, however, Holland underlined that Gaiazova has not been dropped from the National Ski Team, that she continues to receive support from team coaches and staff, and that she will race on the World Cup circuit this season. Both he and the Senior World Cup team coaches, Holland claims, are in regular contact with Gaiazova’s club coach, John Jaques (Rocky Mountain Racers), and have input into her programme. In addition, Holland, along with other CCC staff and outside mediators, have been working closely with her to resolve the outstanding issues. “We have spent a huge amount of time with external resources to work through the conflicts and any difficulty there so that we can move forward constructively,” he said, “I’m working quite closely with Dasha myself and with our support staff to make sure she has what she needs.”
For her part, Gaiazova declined to comment on the rift with CCC when contacted by SkiTrax, but insists that her training over the summer went very well, despite not attending any camps or training with the Senior World Cup team. Following a training plan co-designed with Jaques, Gaiazova spent most of the dryland season training in Banff, which she says suited her “homebody” personality.
“I’m not the sort of person who enjoys being on the road for months and months,” she commented. Having said that she made a number of trips to the Haig Glacier for altitude training on snow, and recently spent two weeks in Park City, UT, where she participated in a US Ski Team camp. While admitting that it was difficult to find training partners of similar caliber to motivate and push her during the long dryland season, Gaiazova was grateful for the company of her RMR team-mate Andrea Dupont, with whom she trained often.
An important and largely unanswered question is what kind of impact her absence from the team has had on other members of the Senior World Cup team, in particular fellow sprinters Chandra Crawford and Perianne Jones. All athletes rely on the company of competitive peers to motivate and push them. When SkiTrax put the question to Jones directly, however, she declined to comment. Chandra Crawford was unavailable for comment, as she was in transit from Europe.
While both parties appear eager to mend the rift and resolve their differences, the fact that the matter has dragged on for five months suggests that Gaiazova and CCC seem to be in for the long haul. CCC has conceded as much having assigned Gaiazova to the new Senior Team, a placeholder created exclusively to deal with the anomaly that she retains her position on the national team and will race on the World Cup circuit, but still remains “outside” of the Senior World Cup Team.
At the same time, the creation of a formal placeholder can be viewed as a gesture of conciliation, considering the alternatives, such as relegation to the Senior Development Team. “We’re going to do what’s best for her,” Holland insists, “right now, the World Cup Team may not be the best model [for her], but we’re working towards it.” Still, it remains unclear how long CCC will be prepared to maintain the placeholder. “We only have so much flexibility,” Holland concedes.
In the meantime, Gaiazova is focused on making sure she is ready to race when the season begins next month. She will be racing in the first World Cup period, where she will enjoy the team’s full support. Among her goals for the 2011-12 season are to race with more consistency and to solidify her position within the sprinters’ Red Group (the top 30 starters), which she managed to break into a number of times last year, although she finished the season ranked 31st overall.
“I’m really focusing on racing well through the whole winter, and the overall World Cup standings is something that is important to me,” she said. Gaiazova will also maintain her focus on Classic sprint events, her traditional strength, in which she says she will be “fighting to make it into the semi-finals and finals every time I have the opportunity.”
What remains to be seen, however, is what impact, if any, the last few months of training limbo will have on Gaiazova’s form, as well as the other women on the World Cup Team. We’ll start to get some answers when the racing begins in a few weeks.