By Sandrine Wyrich (@SunnyWyrich_)
The GB Snowsport cross-country team secured its best ever season opener this weekend at the Nordic Triple in Ruka, Finland.
Three-time Olympians Andrew Musgrave and Andrew Young both reached the heats of the opening classic sprint. For Musgrave, it was the first time he qualified for a sprint race on the world stage.
National coach Jostein Vinjerui was delighted with his athletes on Day 1 of the mini tour:
“For the first time in history we had two guys through in the classic prologue. It was a fantastic day for us and we’re very proud to say that we had two of two going through.”
“The best thing to see today was when Muzzy qualified, there was a childish joy from Youngy. He was so happy and that was so good for us to see.”
Both skiers underlined their performance in Saturday’s 15km classic. They achieved Britain’s best ever results in sixth and 16th respectively which secured them a great starting position for Sunday’s 15km freestyle pursuit.
Musgrave kept his pace throughout the race on the final day, staying in the chasing group and crossing the line in sixth. Young came home in 14th with the fifth fastest time of the day.
Speaking on the team’s official podcast, performance coach Hans Kristian Stadheim said he is “super impressed by our boys – very proud and very happy.
“Because the two boys have been doing so well, the British team are fourth in the overall nations standing. In the top 15 in Ruka, there were four nations: Norway, Russia, Finland and Great Britain which we think is a bit funny, but we’re also happy.”
“Muzzy is in second place in the distance world cup now and Youngy is ninth (because of how the individual times of the day are counted). The list looks good – two Brits in the top 9.
“The guys have been good for many years and we’re taking things step by step, but there are no questions that we are such a good team at the moment because of the preparations we have done.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming world championships in Oberstdorf, Musgrave told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that he feels confident to improve on his personal best fourth place at the 2017 championships in Lahti:
“There is no reason why it should not be possible. I have come stronger out of last year, so I think I will be able to fight for victory over the winter.”
The team will soon be joined by James Clugnet in the men’s category, while on the women’s side, Nicole Bathe will be flying the flag for Britain later in the season.
The British team has worked itself up into a great place within the elite. Musgrave has broken into the top flight over long distances while Young and Clugnet have made a name for themselves in the sprint disciplines.
Despite being one of the smaller set-ups on the World Cup tour, Bruce Murray from British Nordic believes the team has become a household name:
“We all fit into one little mini van; there’s a team of two coaches, one waxer and one other support person, so it’s a very small backup team.
“We have only four athletes in our elite squad at the minute, but two of our top athletes, Andrew Musgrave and Andrew Young, are both in the top 15 in the world just now. So whilst we might be a small team, we certainly feel we’re up there with the top elite and compete very highly against much larger teams who are better financed in terms of support and infrastructure.
“Snowsports in Britain are reasonably funded, but it is a minority sport and therefore funding is limited and there is a lot of additional funding we need to seek to put together a strong challenge.
“We cut our cloth accordingly and we will attend most of the races but sometimes we can’t support going to for instance the Ski Tour of Canada.”
Developing a Niche Sport
A club-based system has been developed in the UK. Athletes start out at local clubs and migrate up through the ranks, joining first the British Nordic development squad before gaining promotion to the elite squad which is part of GB Snowsport.
“At the age of 12 there are entry criteria for young athletes to enter the British Nordic development squad,” Murray explains. “They train locally within small pocket groups and then collectively as a squad a few times a year.
“Generally, they would meet up to eight or nine times a year as a squad and train together towards getting them up to performance and elite level.”
Cross-country skiing is viewed by many as the toughest sport in the world as Murray explains the physical challenge of the discipline:
“You’re basically propelling your body weight through the snow using predominantly the powers of your arms and upper body, quite often uphill and not downhill like what people would associate with traditional skiing.”
However, cross-country skiing does not receive the recognition and media coverage other sports do. In the UK, the only place to see the discipline is the subscription-based service by Eurosport. In contrast, cross-country skiing is on mainstream television in Norway, Murray expands:
“It’s their number one sport, it’s part and parcel of Norwegian culture and everyday life. Cross-country skiing is the same as maybe football is considered in the UK where children will go along to the cross-country ski club.
“It’s viewed very much as mainstay sporting activity and hence Norway is top of the league in terms of the quality of athletes they produce in great regularity whereas in the UK we have a very limited pool of athletes that we can build on.”
Murray believes that increasing the popularity of cross-country skiing in Britain starts at grassroots level:
“When young children try out roller skiing – and there are a number of groups throughout the UK that are providing roller ski training – they absolutely love it and to capture them at an early age is important.
“This is certainly something we would like to expand further in the UK. But funding is pretty limited and therefore there tends to be just local groups that have to rely on volunteers and self-financing to get it off the ground.
“Some grassroots funding would be ideal, but it takes the personnel, coaches etcetera to roll that out on a national basis which is quite a large undertaking.”
There are several local cross-country skiing clubs in Scotland welcoming new members.
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