Nordic on notice
When you grow up near the Arctic Circle in Russia, like Ivan Babikov did, winters are long and dark, cold and snowy.”So what can you do?” said the 24-year-old Babikov, who has taken the North American nordic skiing world by storm this winter. “Well, lots of skiing.””I’ve been skiing since I was 2 years old and it’s my life.”Unfortunately for Babikov – whose wife and son live not far from his native Pechora in Syktyvkar, Komi Republic – life isn’t as simple as skiing.A rookie with the professional Subaru Factory Team this season, Babikov now lives out of his duffels and ski bags, chasing purses all over North America. He calls Canmore, Alberta, home, but his passport still bears the Russian seal. And that’s the problem – he’s a World Cup- and Olympic-caliber racer without a national teamAt separate Canadian and U.S. national championship events this winter, Babikov, as he tells it, “pretty much won everything.”One nordic observer characterized Babikov this season as “hugely dominant – he’s not won only a couple of races.” The results include seven victories on the Super Tour (formerly known as the Nor Am) and the title of international grand champion at the U.S. National Championships, with two wins and a second, at Soldier Hollow, Utah, last month.”But actually,” Babikov said in a telephone interview from Denver on Wednesday, “I’m not counting.”What Babikov is counting is the cash he continues to accumulate with each victory. So far this season, he’s collected $5,000 to $6,000 in purses. “But they take 30 percent from my prize money right away; taxes, right? What can you do?” he said.The money goes back to Syktyvkar to Babikov’s wife, Svetlana, and 2-year-old son, Sergei. “That’s why I’m racing here,” he said. “So I can bring them over here.”Babikov’s lead on the Super Tour – which stops in Aspen on Saturday for the 18th running of the 25K Owl Creek Chase from Snowmass Village to Aspen – is insurmountable. He enters the Owl Creek Chase, once a local race that now counts as a Super Tour, an FIS North America Marathon Cup event and a 2006 Olympic qualifier, as an almost laughable favorite.The defending champion, Nathan Schultz, is a teammate of Babikov’s on the Subaru team.”Nathan will most likely be Ivan’s closest competitor in the Owl Creek Chase,” Subaru team director Andrew Gerlach said this week.Babikov immigrated to Toronto in May 2003, following in the footsteps of an older sister who immigrated to the Canadian capital six years ago.”All the time growing up I was really close to making the national team in Russia, but I never quite make it,” Babikov said. “My sister asked me, ‘Try it in another country, take a chance.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ And it’s good so far.””In Russia it’s a lot of political stuff. If you’re from a big town like Moscow or St. Petersburg, it’s much easier to make the team because the coaches know you.”Syktyvkar, Babikov said, is about an hour and a half from Moscow – “by airplane.””But,” he continued, “maybe I was also looking for a better quality of life, because it is better here.”Babikov’s first international flight brought him to his sister in Toronto for the summer of 2003, but he returned to Russia for September and October. “I can’t stay so long without my wife and son,” he said.He came back to Canada last winter to race with a local club from Canmore, Alberta. He raced a few Super Tour events in Canada but still managed to keep a low profile. Then, in his first international race, the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, he finished sixth – just five seconds behind the winner. “I was happy with that,” he said.The nordic world was put on notice. Soon after, Babikov signed with Subaru.Since, he’s earned an invitation to race the nordic World Cups in Europe this spring. But, because he’s not with a national team, the cost would be prohibitive. And then there’s the prospect of the 2006 Winter Olympics next year and the probable disappointment that holds. It’s likely he won’t have Canadian citizenship by then.”It’s really complicated, kind of tricky, lots of rules and laws,” he said. “And it all kind of sucks.””To be on the Russian Team I have to race there. But I’m racing here. And I have no chance to get U.S. citizenship. So my only chance [for the Olympics] now is to race for the Canadian National Team. But I need citizenship … and I have a young child to support, and he needs a lot more stuff than me. The Canadian team wants me but they say they can’t do anything until I get a Canadian passport.””But I can’t do a lot about it. I’m trying not to think about it, just trying to race and make money.”The Owl Creek Chase starts at the Snowmass Club golf course, climbs up Sinclair Divide along Owl Creek Road and then traverses over to West Buttermilk. The course then cuts across West Buttermilk to Tiehack, crosses Maroon Creek over the new bridge and then ducks under Highway 82 to Aspen municipal golf course. The race finishes with a loop of the Aspen links.The race starts at 10 a.m. Saturday with the elite men’s field first, followed by elite women, then the citizens’ field (which is open to the public).Aspen native Casey Ward, the runner-up to Schultz last year, will be in the field. But it seems all but a minor miracle will prevent Babikov from skating to another victory.But where does Babikov go from here?”I feel really bad that I’m not on the World Cup, that some guys that are slower than me are on it. Yeah, it hurts. But what can you do? I hope I still have time, that I still have time for the  Olympics and a World Championships,” he said.”It’s the dream of every athlete, every skier, to try himself in the highest competition, but now it’s not even on me, it’s not in my power to change. It’s just some guys in the immigration service. I have some friends trying to help the process go faster, but nothing special for now. I hope they can do something.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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