Barely one in a thousand Canadians is a Yukoner -- yet they're huge on the national ski squad. How did a tiny territory come to kick so much cross-country butt? By Eva Holland. Photography by Christian Kuntz.
Great athletes know when they’re on their game. A figure skater knows whether they’ll land a jump while they’re still spinning in mid-air; a hockey player knows whether their shot will be on target before it leaves the stick. And skier Graham Nishikawa knew, halfway through the race that was his last chance to qualify for Canada’s 2010 Olympic team, that he wasn’t going to make it.
Unfortunately for Nishikawa, one of the Yukon’s most promising cross-country skiers, the race was a 50-kilometre classic. He still had 25 kilometres to cover when the biggest disappointment of his career sank in. The race went on and on. “It was definitely the hardest racing of my life,” Nishikawa says. He kept going, fighting through Canmore, Alberta’s notoriously hilly course under a blinding December sun, and finished in fifth place. He’d needed a win to get a spot in the Games.
More than two years after that defeat, Nishikawa, 28, isn’t looking back. He’s in his third season on the Canadian senior development team, and last year he collected 17 top-three finishes on the North American racing circuit. And he’s not alone: five other young Yukoners are currently training in the national team’s development system, collecting victories of their own at nationals and NorAms. Even for a territory with a proud tradition of skiing, the success is unprecedented.
Nishikawa skis and works out year-round at a national training centre in Canmore. So does Emily Nishikawa, 22, Graham’s sister and his colleague on the senior development team. Together the Nishikawas make up 20 per cent of their 10-skier squad, while three more Yukoners – Dahria Beatty, 18; Janelle Greer, 19; and Knute Johnsgaard, 19 – compose the same proportion of the 15-member national junior team. A sixth Yukon skier, Janelle’s 22-year-old brother David, has graduated from the junior team and is training at another national centre in Quebec, pushing to make the cut for the seniors.
The numbers are remarkable, especially when you remember that the Yukon accounts for just one one-thousandth of Canada’s population. Thomas Holland, the director of Cross-Country Canada’s high-performance program, thinks time, tradition, and community commitment have created a rare skiing culture in Whitehorse – a culture that produces champions. “Really, the fact that one community is able to produce as many skiers as a division like B.C., that’s amazing,” he says. “Certain communities, certain cultures, they’re not always big, but they produce skiers over time at a high level …. When you see a strong ski club, usually there’s history. Around that history it creates a culture.”
Flash back five decades, to another race, another finish line, this one in Midland, Ontario. The 1963 Canadian senior cross-country ski championships were under way, and Martha Benjamin, a mother of five and lifelong resident of Old Crow, was racing for the Yukon. When Benjamin crossed the line ahead of the pack in the women’s 10K, she became the Yukon’s first skiing hero. The front-page headline in the Whitehorse Star the next day read: “Martha Beats Them All.” Benjamin’s coach, Father Jean Mouchet, told the paper, “Martha is steel, straight steel. She could go on forever. Old Crow skiers have the ability to find a source of energy that we don’t know exists.”
Mouchet is the patriarch of cross-country skiing in the Yukon. He came to Canada from France in 1946, a missionary priest bound for the remote North. For years he bounced around, with postings to Telegraph Creek, Dease Lake, Iskut, Watson Lake, Teslin, Old Crow and Inuvik. It was in Old Crow, in the late 1950s, that he launched TEST, the Territorial Experimental Ski Program. “I was very impressed by the fitness of the Northern people,” Mouchet says. His observations were confirmed by a group of Norwegian physiologists who visited the village in 1959 and found that many residents had the fitness levels of elite athletes.
Mouchet, who now lives in Whitehorse, has skied since age four – he grew up in the Jura Mountains, on the Swiss-French border. He saw the sport as a way to challenge Northern kids, to push them to reach their full potential and improve their self-esteem. He also saw changes sweeping the North: the rise of the snowmobile, the erosion of traditional lifestyles. Skiing, he hoped, would be a counterforce, helping maintain the old-time values of healthy living and robust outdoor activity.
In the program’s heyday, TEST’s skiers flourished. Benjamin was the program’s first champion. A few years later, Sharon and Shirley Firth, Gwich’in twins from Inuvik, emerged to compete in four straight Olympics. But even as TEST was enjoying its greatest success, in the 1970s, a group of Whitehorse-based skiers was breaking away from the program and its aims. Their goal was to lure major ski competitions to the Yukon. The territory’s new generation of elite skiers would emerge not from TEST, following in the tracks of Benjamin and the Firths, but from this new program. In 1980, the Whitehorse Ski Club was born.
Today, Mouchet sounds like a man who sees a job left unfinished. At 94, he still skis almost every day, but he doesn’t follow the accomplishments of the new crop of Yukon racers. “My interest was the natives,” he says, “the Northern child from Northern Canada.” He sees the decline of TEST, which faded away in the late 1990s, as a missed opportunity. “I don’t think the child coming out of [aboriginal] society has the toughness that they used to have in those days,” he says.
In 1981, the organizers behind the breakaway Whitehorse Ski Club pulled off an unlikely feat: They hosted a World Cup race in Whitehorse. Athletes from a dozen nations, over 100 of the world’s best skiers, arrived in town on chartered flights, and members of the international media came with them. It was the first race of its kind ever held outside Europe, and it had taken years of effort to bring it North.
The race didn’t result in any made-in-the-Yukon world champions. But it generated government funding, corporate sponsors, a paid coaching staff and serious trail improvements – by the time the athletes began arriving, the trails at Mt. Mac had been shaped into one of the most challenging cross-country race courses on the planet. This – cash, coaching, a committed volunteer base and a world-class facility – was the foundation on which the new generation of Yukon racing would be built.
The conditions in the Yukon were ripe for a successful program: long winters with reliable snow, combined with a population that was active and eager for physical challenges. “It’s one of the best places to ski in Canada,” says Knute Johnsgaard. “Our season is a month or two longer than most people’s … and Whitehorse, it’s a tight, tight community.” David Greer adds: “We take so much for granted here.”
Mike Gladish, the operations manager at the Whitehorse Ski Club, agrees there’s a culture that keeps the Yukon ski scene strong. “There are a lot of people moving here for the lifestyle,” he says. “They’re people who like winter and like the outdoors. We have new people coming in every day saying, ‘I just moved to Whitehorse and I’ve decided to take up cross-country skiing.’” Dahria Beatty figures the Yukon’s natural beauty doesn’t hurt the ski club, either. She’s the only one of the six skiers who still trains in Whitehorse year-round, and she relishes her after-school outings on the trails. “It’s dark 15 minutes after we start,” she says. “None of us ski with headlamps, we just go out. You get this beautiful pastel sunset and it’s so spectacular, sometimes you forget about your skiing.”
Alain Masson, head coach of the Yukon ski team and a former Olympic skier, thinks the trails built for the World Cup three decades ago are still making a difference. “If you succeed on these trails, you’ll find the trails outside no more difficult,” he says. He adds that when one skier excels, the rest see what’s possible – and the territory’s young skiers have had plenty of role models. Masson’s wife, Lucy Steele-Masson, skied in the 1992 Olympics. Says Masson: “Having successful skiers makes it easier for upcoming skiers to have self-confidence and know that they can succeed at the national and international level.”
Janelle Greer got started early: She first strapped on skis as a two-year-old. She has dim memories of those first skiing attempts, connected to her mother by a rope, following her – and a trail of gummy bears – through the snow, shuffling more than gliding. Even before those early outings, she and her brother David were on the trails – their parents, both active recreational skiers, towed them in pulks as infants. She’s had a long time to master her kick and glide.
Her longtime coach, Masson, measures the making of an elite skier in decades, rather than months or years. “It takes a long time to build a program that has results,” he says. “So the athletes that are on the national team now, it took them about 10 years to make it to this level. They start when they’re 8, 9, 10 – it takes a long, long time.”
And even after that first decade, they’re in it for the long haul. Cross-country skiers often peak in their late 20s, and can keep competing with the best when they’re well into their 30s. (“It’s not like gymnastics,” says Johnsgaard.) With that in mind, the young skiers have to make tough choices. Do they attempt to balance skiing and school, maybe chase a scholarship to a U.S. college with a strong skiing program? Or do they go all in, plan on spending most of their next 15 years on skis, and sign up for one of Cross-Country Canada’s year-round national training centres?
Graham Nishikawa was the first Yukon skier to choose the training centre route, and the rest – with the exception of Beatty, who’s still in high school – have followed. “I thought about going to [university in] Anchorage or Fairbanks,” says Janelle Greer. “It was a hard decision, but I figured if I wanted to see how good I could be at skiing then I had to put all my focus on it.” Johnsgaard echoes her: “Coming out of high school in grade 12, that’s really the time where you’ve got to make decisions. I’d had a really good year when nationals were here in 2010 …. I thought, I’m doing so well now, I might as well see how far I can go.”
Nishikawa has a few years on the rest of the group – the age gap is big enough that when David Greer and Knute Johnsgaard were growing up, they both saw him as a role model rather than a peer. He remembers the challenges of his first years in the program. “There’s a fine balance of moving out on your own as a young person,” he says, “cooking for yourself, trying to have enough money, trying to travel, stay healthy, train, and get success, and then if you’re struggling, trying to find ways to get yourself back on track, have good races, and meet the standards that the national team sets.” For her part, Emily Nishikawa is glad to have her brother’s path to follow. Going to a training centre is “not that unusual anymore, and so it’s kind of less frightening,” she says. “Once you know someone and you’ve grown up with them, it’s not as hard to make that jump.”
Lorrie Greer, mother of Janelle and David, still worries about their choices sometimes. “It’s hard to put all your eggs in one basket, and I always hope they’re doing the right thing,” she says. “My bottom line is, you have lots of years to go to school, and this is the only chance to see how far you can go athletically. I have to keep telling myself that, because once in a while I do think, ‘Oh dear, what are they going to be when they grow up?’”
The answer for these six skiers – maybe, hopefully – includes the word “Olympian.” Thomas Holland of Cross-Country Canada thinks that Yukoners have reason for optimism in 2014 and 2018. “You’re going to pop somebody through at some point,” he says. “It would be surprising if we don’t see somebody from the Yukon there in one of those Olympic Games.”