Home / Thoook News / Canada’s unlikely Olympic pipeline: Whitehorse has ‘everything you need’ to pump out elite cross-country skiers

Canada’s unlikely Olympic pipeline: Whitehorse has ‘everything you need’ to pump out elite cross-country skiers

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Knute Johnsgaard freely admits that he loves to brag about all things Yukon, even traits he cannot easily explain.

“It’s one of those statistics that almost doesn’t make sense,” he began during an interview in December. “Canada will likely send 10 (cross-country skiing) athletes to the Olympics. Three of those, or 30 per cent, come from a town that makes up something like 0.07 per cent of the country’s population. It’s just crazy.”

Cross Country Canada nominated 11 athletes to the Olympic team on Jan. 29, and three hail from Whitehorse: Johnsgaard, Dahria Beatty and Emily Nishikawa, a rather remote place with a population of about 29,000. And all three sharpened their skills and bolstered their aerobic capacity as members of the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club.

It’s among the largest clubs in Canada, with more than 1,300 members, all of whom get an early jump on the ski season every fall. They have 700 kilometres of groomed trails at their disposal, with a variety of terrain that challenges the competitive athlete and welcomes the recreational skier. The program’s storied history dates back to the 1970s. It has had a paid head coach longer than perhaps any other club in the country, and it hosted Canada’s first cross-country skiing World Cup in 1981.

A strong club and supportive community certainly play a part in sending any athlete to an Olympics. Alain Masson has been head coach there since 1995. A former national teamer and Olympian himself, he knows how to transform talented kids into elite level racers. And he knows that he’s in a great spot to keep doing it.

“We have so many advantages. Our club is five minutes from downtown, easily accessible to kids. They can take a school bus, they can take transit. We start training right after school. We have multiple programs, we have a really strong coaching community, we have 30 volunteer coaches running all these programs, a long ski season, the terrain is fantastic, and it’s all right there, accessible for everyone.

“The club has had great support from the community, the territorial government, and the ski community in terms of hosting events and having volunteers. We have everything you need to produce skiers.”

And they have done just that. Johnsgaard tried hockey and soccer but gravitated to endurance sports like biking and eventually decided skiing offered him the greatest opportunity.

“I saw skiing as the sport that could take me places, something I could make a name for myself in. Once I began ski training full time, it demanded my full attention and any other sport got pushed to the side as things I would do just for fun.”

Those other sports aren’t going to be pushed aside for much longer. The 2007 Canada Winter Games funnelled federal funds into the sport community and left a valuable legacy, the Canada Games Centre. It boasts an Olympic-sized pool, a track and Olympic-sized hockey rinks.

“When I came here there were four, five sports that had structure, programs and leadership that could take kids to a national level,” Masson said. “That has more than doubled. We have so many winter sports now that can take kids to a national level success, which is great for the sporting community. But we still have a limited number of kids who are really active and interested in competitive sport, so right now there are many more sport governing bodies going after the same kids, so it has created a stress and challenge in terms of attracting kids.”

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis, who lives a few doors down from the Nishikawas, said the Canada Games Centre is a hub of activity year round, and fits seamlessly into what he says is a culture of physical activity.

“People come here to live here because of what we offer, our culture and customs and what have you — the sense that there is a beautiful outdoors, a wilderness city, and let’s enjoy it. People are active every single day of the year here. I think that really manifests itself at a very young age and because of that, it’s natural.”

He sees it as a broad, grassroots movement that feeds much smaller numbers along elite pathways to national teams and international competitions. The ski club works similarly, with just 80 members in the racing program. That makes putting three former racers on the national team, all at once, even more impressive.

“I hate to say this because it sounds like I’m kind of bragging little bit, which I am, but it’s almost become the norm for us,” Curtis said. “We just anticipate that we’re going to have some elite athletes who compete against the very best in the entire world.”

Whitehorse weightlifter Jeane Lassen and track cyclist Zach Bell of Watson Lake competed at the 2008 Olympics. Lassen will be in Pyeongchang as an athlete mentor. And Graeme Nishikawa will be at the Paralympics as a guide for cross-country skier Brian McKeever.

Curtis said credit for the flow of high-performance athletes goes to the societies that run sports organizations in Whitehorse, as well as the tireless volunteers who are the backbone of every event.

“We haven’t been able to pour trillions of dollars of resource into producing these great athletes, these heroes of our community, but the community has really propped them up, the people have stood behind them, and ensured they get all the tools they need.”

Members of the cross-country club get the winning combination of Masson and wife Lucy Steele, another former Olympian. She was born in England and grew up in Yukon.

“They run one of the best developmental programs in the country up there. They both know the sport incredibly well and they both have a passion for it, which is the most important thing, to really love it,” McKeever said. “They manage to pass that on and I think that’s important.”

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