Alex Harvey and Lenny Valjas Set to Ski into Retirement at World Cup Finals in Quebec City

    March 21, 2019

    QUEBEC CITY—Alex Harvey and Lenny Valjas will mark the end of one of the most successful eras in Canada’s cross-country ski history when they cross the finish line on Sunday following a trio of races at the World Cup Finals in Quebec City.
     
    The 30-year-old friends, and two of the most successful skiers Nordiq Canada has ever produced, will bid farewell to their competitive skiing careers at the final World Cup of the season on home snow, March 22-24.
     
    “Like any big decision in life, you have to do what is right for you,” said Harvey, who grew up down the road from this weekend’s race course in St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que. “Retirement doesn’t frighten me. I’m quitting because it is the right time and I’m looking forward to getting back to a normal life.
     
    “This weekend is going to be exciting. There are not too many people who are able to say it is my last race, and it will be on home snow, so this will be extra special.”
     
    Now 30, Harvey was born one year after his father, Pierre Harvey, became the first Canadian to win an international ski race in Falun, Sweden. Ironically, 23 years later, Falun was the site of the first of seven World Cup victories for the nordic phenom. Falun became a home-away-from home for the three-time Olympian. He made five trips to the World Cup podium in Falun throughout his career. Two of his victories, and two of his five World Championship medals also came on the Swedish course.
     
    Building on his father’s success and three Junior World Championship medals, Harvey followed a path to the World Cup podium blazed by Beckie Scott and Sara Renner at the turn of the century.
     
    His arrival on the National Ski Team also coincided with longtime friend, Devon Kershaw, accomplishing what was once unthinkable for a Canadian male in the sport – challenging the world’s elite. In 2006, Kershaw became the first Canadian male since Pierre Harvey to win a World Cup medal.
     
    “Seeing Devon finish in the top-10 quite often, and having one or two podiums a year, really made me believe it can be done at the higher level. It wasn’t too far out of my imagination. It was in reach,” said Harvey, who will complete his law school studies this spring.
     
    It certainly was.
     
    Fittingly, the first of Harvey’s 30 career World Cup medals came on home snow in Whistler, B.C. when he won the bronze with George Grey in the team sprint in 2009.
     
    Harvey and his longtime friend, Kershaw, finished fourth in the team sprint at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver-Whistler.
     
    The following year, the Canadian duo really captured the world’s attention when they teamed up to become the first Canadians ever to win a World Championship cross-country ski race, claiming the gold in the team sprint at the birthplace of the sport in Oslo, Norway.
     
    “To be at the top, you have to have a bit of ego. I have it when I need it. It takes self-confidence to become a world champion,” said Harvey.
     
    “On the morning of the team sprint title in Olso, I asked Devon ‘How do you feel a few hours away from becoming world champion? I don't know why, but that morning, in my head, I was convinced that we were going to win. It takes that ego sometimes, but you have to be able to put it aside as well.”
     
    Canada’s cross-country skiers brought a similar swagger to the start line over the next seven years, and celebrated multiple athletes jumping onto the international podium including: Chandra Crawford, Dahria Gaiazova, Perianne Jones, Ivan Babikov, Lenny Valjas, and Knute Johnsgaard.
     
    Harvey and Kershaw continued to lead the way, racking up World Cup medals around the globe. Harvey twice finished third in the Overall World Cup standings (2013-14, and 2016-17). He also finished third overall at the prestigious Tour de Ski in 2018.
     
    A new level was reached in 2017 when Harvey became Canada’s first World Champion in an individual cross-country ski race, winning the feature event – the men’s 50-kilometre marathon.
     
    “The biggest victory of my career is undoubtedly my world title won in Lahti in February 2017. That day, over 50 kilometres, I was the best in the world. I beat five Norwegians, four Russians, four Finns and all the others. On paper, it’s my greatest triumph,” said Harvey.
     
    A three-time Olympian, Harvey’s best and most heart-breaking race may have come one year ago when he finished fourth in the 50-kilometre race at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, crossing the line just six seconds off the podium.
     
    “That was one of my best Alex Harvey races ever and that’s all you can ask from yourself at the Olympic Games,” said Harvey. “That’s how I can be proud of myself.”

    Harvey’s steady performance at the top of the world stage instilled a similar confidence in a dynamic group of young cross-country skiers. One of those was Lenny Valjas, who often flew under the radar of Harvey and Kershaw’s international dominance. A two-time Olympian, Valjas will also call it a career on Sunday in Quebec City where he spent six years at the regional training centre.
     
    “For me, it was a feeling I thought about for a while. I considered stopping after the Olympics, but I had an injury last year and I was angry that I wasn’t skiing well. I wanted to ski healthy for one more year,” said Valjas, who will likely return to school but will take some time to decide what’s next.
     
    “There were a few moments this year where I said, ‘this is the end.’ I will miss life on the World Cup, but this is it. I’m done.”
     
    The tallest athlete on the World Cup circuit at 6’ 6”, the Torontonian defied the odds quickly after emerging onto Nordiq Canada’s national squad 10 years ago. He went on to become the third most successful men’s skier in Canadian history.
     
    Benefitting from athletic genes, Valjas is the son of two accomplished varsity volleyball players. His sister also played beach volleyball for Canada at the 2016 Olympics. Both his sister and brother also play volleyball at the University of Toronto.
     
    Valjas heads into his final weekend of racing having won seven World Cup medals.  One of the most naturally gifted athletes in the Canadian program, he brought it to the start line in all race distances and formats, reaching the podium in both classic and skate-skiing as well as sprints, middle distances and team events.
     
    Two of his podium finishes were with Harvey. The Canadian duo teamed up to win a World Cup team sprint race in 2017 in Toblach, Italy. The golden triumph came just one week before adding another chapter in the history books when they teamed up with Kershaw and Knute Johnsgaard to become the first Canadians ever to reach the World Cup podium in a cross-country ski relay, winning the bronze in the 4x7.5 km event.
     
    “Looking back on my career, sharing the podium with Alex in the team sprint, and with all four of us guys in that relay was really special,” said Valjas, who also shared the podium on an electric day on the Tour de Ski in 2013 when he won the silver and Harvey claimed the bronze in a 15-kilometre classic-ski race.
     
    “That is what I’ll miss the most is just being with my teammates on the road. I’ll miss the life of being a racer for sure. But I’ll really miss all of the dinners and hanging out with my teammates in Europe.”
     
    Valjas brought Canadian ski fans out of their seats in the sprint event at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games where he delivered a stellar seventh-place finish – the best ever men’s Olympic sprint result by a Canuck.
     
    He hopes to find some magic one more time this weekend on the Plains of Abraham.
     
    “It’s going to be an awesome weekend and is special to be at home. There is a part of me that wants it to be done, and another part that doesn’t want it to end,” said Valjas. “The key thing is this is a World Cup, and it will be the same as always. We are going out there to battle and won’t be taking it easy on anyone.”
     
    Valjas and Harvey have the privilege of bidding farewell to Canadian cross-country ski fans who are sure to line the race course in Quebec City over the next days – a course where Harvey won a gold and silver medal two years ago when the World Cup Finals were last held in Quebec City.
     
    “The greatest emotions (of my career) were experienced in Quebec City in 2017. My victory in the sprint on the Plains of Abraham, even if it was only a World Cup, thrilled me like never before,” said Harvey.
     
    Harvey and Valjas will lead a new generation of 27 other Canadians from all corners of the country including Russell Kennedy, Dahria Beatty, Katherine Stewart-Jones and Emily Nishikawa. Building on personal best performances, the young Canucks are ready to step up and carry the torch for Canada in nordic skiing on the road to 2022 and beyond.
     
     “I hope I helped to raise the glass ceiling for Canadian skiers, as did my father, Beckie Scott, Devon Kershaw and the others before me. I hope that I have been a good role model for young skiers. I hope I have shown them that skiing is fun and that it is possible to become a world champion.” said Harvey.
     
    “These kids are fast and strong,” added Valjas. “We don’t know what the ceiling is for these kids. They are already posting numbers that Alex did when he was their age. There is going to be a bit of a gap, but these kids are talented, and we may have World Cup podiums sooner than we think.”
     
    The end of an era, and beginning of a new direction for the National Ski Team, begins on Friday in Quebec City with the sprint races. A middle-distance mass start race will take place on Saturday. Sunday’s event will feature a men’s and women’s pursuit competition.
     
     
    Nordiq Canada is the governing body of para-nordic and cross-country skiing in Canada, which is the nation’s optimal sport and recreational activity with more than one million Canadians participating annually. Its 60,000 members include athletes, coaches, officials and skiers of all ages and abilities. With the support of its valued corporate partners – Haywood Securities Inc., AltaGas, Swix and Lanctôt Sports– along with the Government of Canada, Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Own the Podium and B2Ten, Nordiq Canada develops Olympic, Paralympic and world champions. For more information on Nordiq Canada, please visit us at www.nordiqcanada.ca.