WHISTLER, B.C. — In the end it was about the length of a ski that separated Devon Kershaw from an Olympic medal.
The Canadian cross-country skier came into a roaring stadium in the lead pack in Sunday’s 50-kilometre race and lunged against the sport’s superstars in a photo finish that ended with him in fifth.
It was, once again, a best ever for the Canadian men. Seven times in the past two weeks they’ve been in the top 10 in Olympic races, leaving them proud but also frustrated.
This time, seven skiers came into the home stretch, with Kershaw, 27, reaching and reaching as he closed in on the front three.
He came up just short, finishing in two hours five minutes 37.1 seconds, 1.6 seconds behind the gold-medal winner, Petter Northug of Norway, and half a second behind the bronze medallist, Johan Olsson of Sweden.
“One and a half seconds from gold . . . I’m going to leave this Olympics really proud of what we accomplished, but also you never know if you get another chance,” said an emotional Kershaw.
Axel Teichmann of Germany took the silver.
Kershaw looked strong through the first 40 kilometres, skiing in the lead pack and conserving strength on the downhills.
His wax technicians appeared to have created some of the fastest skis among those used by the 48 skiers who finished the race. At times Kershaw seemed to be flying past other racers in the downhills.
As he strode up a hill at the 30-kilometre mark, his usually unflappable father, Will Kershaw, of Sudbury, Ont. was on pins and needles.
“He’s giving me a case of the nerves,” he said. “He looks so good.”
But in the end, the race came down to a thrilling sprint in the stadium, and Kershaw acknowledged he was up against rivals with stronger sprinting skills.
“I paced that race perfectly,” Kershaw said. “I did everything exactly as planned and I got beat by four stronger skiers.”
George Grey, 30, of Rossland, B.C., also remained with the pack through much of the race, fading in the last 10 kilometres to finish 18th.
Alex Harvey, 21, of St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., wasn’t pleased with his effort, saying he felt fatigue from earlier competitions. He placed 22nd.
Ivan Babikov, 29, of Canmore also struggled, placing 33rd.
The race was surrounded by some controversy for the Canadian team, as the four participants were selected over partially blind athlete Brian McKeever.
Since the announcement, McKeever has spoken of feeling “crushed” by the decision, comparing his emotions to the day he learned his sight would gradually degenerate to 10 per cent vision.
International Ski Federation rules only allow four entrants in each race.
Canadian coaches said they had to make the selection based on the performance of their athletes and that all four had shown potential to medal.
However, Cross Country Canada had also held news conference and issued press releases before the Games trumpeting that McKeever would compete in the Games and promoting him as the first Paralympian to compete in the Winter Olympics.
Grey said knowing he’d been selected over McKeever made him push harder.
“There was a bit of added pressure,” he said.
“It’s a tough situation for us. We were almost feeling should we sit out and give him a spot? You know we’ve still got unfinished business and we want medals. Look at Devon in fifth place.”
He said he and other starters discussed whether to give him their position, but decided against it.
“We weighed the pros and cons, and thought ‘Is it our duty to sit out for Brian?’ But in the end we’re individual racers in an individual sport and unfortunately we are challenging for medals and we have unfinished business we wanted to finish off today.”
He also praised McKeever, who was named as the alternate for the race, saying he will forever remain a member of their tight-knit group.
“He’s part of our Olympic team and you can never take that away from him.”