He was losing, coming in seventh. Worse, this was Rimouski, his mum and dad’s hometown. Worse still, he was Alex Harvey, son of Pierre, the legendary Canadian World Cup champion. “The media were wondering why Pierre Harvey’s son was not winning everything in cross-country skiing,” Alex recalls of the 2001 Jeux du Québec. “If he’s seventh in Quebec, maybe he’s 20th in Canada. And 100th in the world.” He was only 12 years old.
His mother Mireille, a doctor, organized a hasty media conference. “Okay, this is the last time that Alex is going to talk to the media,” he recalls her telling reporters. “There’s a press conference, it’s going to be an hour long—and that’s going to be it.” A tough start perhaps, but likely good preparation for Alex’s life now, in the last weeks heading into his first Olympics at the tender age of 21. Indeed, the parallels are striking, and some of his mother’s chutzpah has rubbed off on him. “Since then I was able to manage stuff,” he says, large studs punctuating both ears. “I’m lucky to be fairly gifted emotionally. I can handle pressure and I can stay cool-headed.”
And how. In a sport that generally favours much older athletes, Alex has already demonstrated he can handle himself on the trails as well as in scraps with opponents off the snow.
He won his first World Cup medal in 2009 at Whistler Olympic Park, coming in third in the men’s team sprint. “I knew he was good, but not that good!” Pierre, providing stadium commentary, gasped over the loudspeakers. Soon after, he picked up another bronze in the 50-km classic ski race in Trondheim, Norway—the very race Pierre won almost two decades earlier. “I know he’s really tough,” Pierre tells Maclean’s. “I’ve seen him racing and I know sometimes you should be careful and he just goes in front and tries to break the pack—he’s really, really confident in himself.”
That confidence extends to his dealings with Cross Country Canada, the sport’s governing body, which last year threatened to banish Alex to the development team after he refused to participate in some national team training camps. He didn’t back down, negotiating a compromise so he could spend more time at home in Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, just outside Quebec City, and keep to his custom of glacier skiing with his personal coach Louis Bouchard in Dachstein, Austria. “He’s shown himself to be prepared to have his feet dug in in terms of the east-west pulling that goes on in cross country in Canada,” says J.D. Miller, a founder of the private, not-for-profit B2Ten program that supports Harvey and other elite athletes. Says his father: “He’s a guy who likes to do what he thinks is the best. He knows that you have to follow the rules, but sometimes, if you want to get better, you have to go a bit farther.”