Cross-country Inspiration

    January 10, 2011

    MORE THAN 30 YEARS AGO, when the elders in Inuvik, N.WT, gathered around their radios to hear Sharon Firth and her twin sister, Shirley, zip over the finish line at their latest cross-country ski competition, it filled Sharon with giddy pride. Today, she feels proudest when northern youth tune in to her message. For almost four years, this youth program adviser with the Northwest Territories government has travelled in and out of 33 northern communities, motivating kids to get healthy and make big plans for themselves – and follow these plans through. Her tools? Her ­own amazing story, and as many cross-country skis as she can round up.

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    At 13, Sharon and Shirley joined a ski program designed to inspire northern youth. But even before that, Sharon had, big plans for herself "I started setting goals at the age of four," Sharon says. "We didn't call them goals back then, though, we called it dreaming." Her fantasy? To see the world beyond remote Aklavik, where she spent her early years learning to hunt, trap and fish. Her skiing career made that dream happen. As the first Aboriginal women to compete internationally in their sport, the sisters went to four consecutive Olympic Games in cities around the world.

     

    Then, six years ago, Sharon found her second calling when she was a “show and tell” guest in her niece Justien's Grade 2 class. When her story and the "treasures" she showed the kids-a few medals, a racing bib, her Order of Canada ­pin -wowed the small audience, she realized she was on to something. Youth in the north face problems common to kids everywhere-obesity, inactivity and the temptations of drugs and alcohol- but they also contend with long, dark winters, temperatures of -45C and unique social problems.

     

    Sharing her story and, her sport with these kids might help, Sharon realized.  "Skiing saved me," she explains. "It was healthy, it was positive, and when you're around positive things and positive people, you do positive things.

     

    As Sharon sits with a group of kids watching footage of her and Shirley speeding down snow-covered paths or training in summer on rollerskis on steep roads, someone always asks, "Was that really you?" The question gives Sharon, now 51, the window she needs to talk about exercise and healthy food, and to hand out some goal-setting homework.

     

    Every morning first thing, she tells them, "Look at yourself in the mirror and ­say what you want to do today." Since Sharon will be back to visit them again, she'll check that they actually do it. This, says her friend and former coach, Anders Lenes, is a strength of her classroom program. "Hockey players corne up north and everyone oohs and ahhs," he says. "But they don't corne back."

     

    Her words sink in for another reason, explains Shane Thompson, senior recreation development coordinator, Dehcho Region, for the Northwest Territories government: Sharon's a northerner. He hears the kids at school say, "She's from a small place, just like us."

     

    Her skiing lesson, of course, is the main event. Trucking around donated skis to her sessions, Sharon gets the whole class to strap on gear and try out their ski legs. She tells them the sport is the perfect activity for the north. They have almost 10 months of snow and trails running through everyone's back yard.

     

    Justien, now 14 years old and a recreational skier, says her favourite lesson from her auntie is: "Just to believe in myself" And that's exactly what Sharon aims to pass along to every kid she meets.