Dahria Beatty ends season with career-best finish

Dahria Beatty ended the FIS cross-country World Cup season on a high note, skiing to a career best in the final event of the year.

After placing 23rd in the women’s 10-kilometre classic race on March 13 in Engadin, Switzerland, Beatty skied her way to 15th in the 30-km pursuit on March 14.

That result was equal to her previous best, a 15th-place finish in the classic sprint held in Canmore, Alta., back in March 2016.

While skate sprints are still her favourite, Beatty said a number of things lined up to help put her in position for such a strong effort.

“The courses in the Engadin Valley were definitely better-suited to me than many World Cup distances courses,” Beatty said. “(The courses) had a bit more gradual climbs and rolling terrain, and it was a bit more of a power skiing course than the really steep climbs that aren’t necessarily always my friend.”

Competing at altitude – Switzerland has an average elevation of 1,350 metres – was also comfortable for Beatty, as her training grounds in Canmore are also at elevation – 1,309 m according to the town’s website.

Moreover, Beatty said she was able to put herself in a good state of mind to race.

“The positive feelings that I had all of training season last year that I was kind of missing a lot of this race season finally decided to return,” she said. “So it was a combination of a few things – I felt good, the courses suited me well, (and) the location suited me well.”

Pandemic meant a far from normal season

It’s fitting, then, that this highwater mark came a year and two days after COVID-19 struck the skiing world. It was March 12, 2020, when Nordiq Canada announced the cancellation of the 2020 Canadian Ski Championships and the FIS cancelled the final two World Cup events set for Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Canmore.

This was, in many ways, a season inextricably tied to COVID-19.

While last year’s schedule would have included stops in 10 countries, this year only featured five – Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Sweden. Canada also waited until January of 2021 to send skiers to Europe, further truncating the season for Beatty and her teammates.

“It started way later than usual for me,” Beatty said. “We had two extra months of training … than we usually do, which was definitely very different and I only raced 12 times this year instead of … between 25 and 30 times in a season.”

Less racing sure, but at a higher mental cost.

“I feel, I’d say, less physically drained than I would (after) a normal season, but honestly with all the extra stress and the unknowns and stuff, … it was probably one of the most emotionally-draining seasons I’ve had to date,” Beatty said.

Rather than the typical routine of flying country to country each week for the next stop on the World Cup, events were scheduled in an attempt to minimize travel for athletes and officials – thereby limiting any risk of COVID-19 spreading through the sport or being transmitted between countries inadvertently.

“It was kind of nice having a slightly reduced travel schedule,” she said. “The racing was grouped more into specific countries – one at a time – so I only raced in four different countries this year. … Especially with the travel restrictions and stuff, it was nice to be travelling slightly less and have the ability to just kind of drive between locations.”

Given most Yukoners haven’t left the country in roughly a year and likely haven’t ventured further than Vancouver, it’s worth asking – what was travel actually like this winter?

Beatty said there was a conscious effort to minimize flights, but the team still needed to fly to Europe and back, as well as between European countries.

“In Europe, airports were busy. Planes were full. It was little bit uncomfortable-feeling travelling. You had your mask on and your sunglasses to protect your eyes. I pretty much wore my noise-cancelling headphones the entire time trying to kind of close off all the areas where anything could attack me,” Beatty said, laughing at the bizarre nature of it all. “The overseas flights were a lot less busy and there was lots of space on them, but once we were travelling in Europe itself, flights were full.”

Once on the ground, circumstances were different in each country.

In Sweden, for example, the team was very conscious of staying separate from the public as the country made headlines for its laissez-faire public health approach to the global pandemic.

Germany, on the other hand, had much stricter measures in place more akin to what are used in Canada.

Importantly, the team had ready access to COVID-19 testing, so self-isolation didn’t interfere with training.

“We were being tested approximately twice a week,” Beatty said. “So we were pretty much continuously getting COVID tests.”

Those negative tests were the golden tickets to get across borders and stay on the snow.

“If you had your negative test, you were free to train and what not – and we were getting those back within five hours of testing,” she said. “The time we had to spend isolated without training was very limited. It was definitely a very extensive testing protocol over the last two months.”

That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing for Team Canada in Europe. One of the challenges skiers had to overcome was the uncertainty about the events and the effect that had on preparation.

“The hardest part was not knowing what would run, what wouldn’t run,” Beatty said. “The weekend prior to (the World Ski Championships) was cancelled five days before, so then all of a sudden we didn’t have a prep race.”

COVID-19 cases in the Czech Republic had risen sharply, leading to the cancellation of the Czech event because Germany no longered allowed entry from the Czech Republic.

“Your gameplan got thrown out the window and you had to reset,” Beatty said. “Then our World Cup finals … were rescheduled three times before they ended up in Switzerland, so you didn’t really know what you were really preparing for, which adds a lot of extra stress and anxiety, but we managed to make it through.”

All eyes on the Olympics

Of the 11 skiers who represented Canada in 2018 at the Winter Olympics, only three competed on the 2020-21 World Cup circuit – Beatty, Cendrine Browne, and Russell Kennedy.

Among the names who’ve retired since the last Olympics are two Yukoners, Knute Johnsgaard and Emily Nishikawa, as well as Alex Harvey, one of this country’s most-accomplished skiers.

This season, then, was another step towards crucial experience and rounding into form for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

“There was a big kind of retirement on the men’s side in the last few years and it’s been really fun having some young new energy. … Lots of really great athletes that are ambitious and very excited about racing. It was awesome to see so many of them performing so well and getting their first glimpse of strong results on the World Cup, which is a very exciting atmosphere,” Beatty said. “Even on the women’s side too, having the group that I’ve been racing with definitely step up their results this year compared to the past few years and be consistently showing strong results, I think it was a really good atmosphere on (both sides) as a whole.”

And as far as 2022 goes, the Olympics are without doubt the focus.

Beatty has met one of the requirements to race, but Nordiq Canada’s formula means no one will be able to finalize a spot in Beijing until December.

“Skate sprints are my favourite event and unfortunately I only got to do one of them this year and wasn’t able to capitalize on skiing in a heat,” Beatty said, noting she missed qualifying for heats by just 0.3 seconds. “I still have a lot of confidence that I can be fully prepared for next year and hopefully get some heat skiing in on the World Cup … prior to the Olympics. I’d say the skate sprint, the team events and the 30-km skate will be my main focuses granted that I qualify, which is the goal.”

Training is largely planned in four-year cycles centred around the Olympics, so next season will actually be less training, but at a higher intensity.

“Going into this training season, I’ll make a few adjustments,” Beatty said. “I’ll actually reduce the amount I train this coming year so I can increase the amount of hard interval sessions I do that simulate race-type effort and really try to peak my performance for this next winter.”

The mythical “off season”

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that there is no such thing as an off season for Olympic athletes. With competition over for one season, training for the next begins almost immediately.

It’s all that dedication and hard work, after all, that separates the great from the good.

Thanks to COVID-19 and travel restrictions, Beatty is currently waiting out her two-week quarantine after returning to Canada. When the dust settles on that, Beatty says she’ll also take a break in April – at least from heavy training.

“Obviously I never truly stop exercising because I can’t – I love it and my body wouldn’t know what to do if I stopped completely – but April will definitely be unstructured for the most part,” Beatty said. “I’ll be doing a key few things to keep a base … but I’ll definitely take a good mental reset and just have some fun exercise and time with family and friends, and really get back to focus on May 1 so I feel refreshed and ready to focus again leading into the training season prior to Beijing.”

Keeping things in perspective

There’s no doubt this was one of the most taxing seasons in memory for athletes and not one anyone is keen to repeat, but Beatty said being a part of this year gave her greater appreciation for her situation and all the hard work that goes into each season.

“The ability to travel that we usually have and the fact (organizers) were able to make these events happen, it just gave me a bigger appreciation for that and the work that went into creating these safe bubbles for us to be racing in,” Beatty said. “It would have been pretty easy for them to just cancel an entire season and say, ‘Oh, this is too much work; it’s not possible.’ So I am very grateful that we had the opportunity to compete at all.”

Photo credit: Granada/CC BY 4.0