Warm breaths freeze in the crisp air. Squeaky-dry snow crunches underfoot. Athletes bend down to lace and zip boots. Snap into skis. Slide gloved hands into pole straps. Don reflective glasses designed to handle the intensity of labour in the task ahead. The blue-striped athletes straighten up to face a white gauntlet with mental readiness and physical preparedness.
Cross country skiers are a rare breed of athlete. Emmylou Grieve, 13, says before she joined the Toby Creek Nordic Club, she thought it was a sport “your grandma did.”
“The community has a perception that it’s walking on skis,” adds Masha Stich, 15.
But this is no leisurely pursuit. Cross country skiing, Emmylou sums up, is “exhilarating.”
Toby Creek Nordic Club teammates Emmylou, Masha, and Carly Nickaruk are quick to defend their sport, citing the endurance and strength needed to compete. After all, every movement is self-propelled, compared to its higher profile downhill skiing cousin, where simply pointing your skis downwards will whip you forward. The teammates, who gathered inside the warm high school foyer following a cross-training session on the track, said it helps to have a team mentality to push you forwards during races, to conquer not only the physical challenge but the mental one too.
“Me and Carly are in the same age category. It would be hard for us to ski without each other,” says Emmylou. “She’s always trying to get away from me; I’m trying to catch up to her. So we kind of need each other to go faster.”
Carly agrees: “The biggest part of being on a team is motivation … it makes you want to enjoy the race more and push yourself harder.”
Above the competitive side of the sport, the three agree that the friendships forged in the nordic club run deeper than ski tracks and training sessions: “My favourite part is that we’re so close,” says Carly. “We all work really well together.”
Head coach Ted Bigelow says that is one of the biggest goals he has set for the Toby Creek club – to build social connections, alongside having fun, taking in trips for races each season, and building up the gear, or ‘swag’ for the athletes to help facilitate a team mentality. That’s why Toby Creek Nordic members sport matching poufy red jackets, their club logo proudly emblazoned on the front. With the addition of Toby Creek toques, they look, and feel, every part the team they are when they show up to loppets around the region.
Carly, Emmylou, and Masha are on the club’s Junior Development team. While other teens were eating drippy ice creams at the beach last summer, these three and their other teammates were cross-training: they could be seen around Invermere with roller-skis and poles. Masha estimates the Junior Development team trains about nine hours per week. Any other exercise basically qualifies as cross-training, since their sport requires full-body fitness.
On top of the regular training, the three girls were invited to join the BC Talent Squad this past season, a series of provincial camps run by Cross Country BC and open to only about 100 athletes across the province. Athletes are ranked and selected for the Talent Squad based on performance at provincial races. The three girls recently attended the Talent Squad snow camp in Vernon. They got to train with other coaches and practice with athletes they usually compete against. While they agree it was a good learning experience, the girls assert the coaching team here is giving them everything they need to succeed right in the Columbia Valley. The head coach has brought a lot to the little club over the past couple seasons, as well as volunteer coaches such as Cam Gillies – “His commitment is through the roof” – says Masha. She has not felt pressured to succeed, but instead supported in her efforts to push harder without burning out.
Coach Bigelow couldn’t be prouder of the talent squad or his whole Nordic team.
“These kids are total outliers,” he says, citing the incredible athletes and community of families that provide a supportive environment for the kids.
Mr. Bigelow, who has filled his days and years with coaching, says he still enjoys it after almost 50 years by following three rules: the kids have to know he cares before they will care what he knows, he believes in the words of Gordie Howe, who said the greatest legacy one can leave is to inspire others; and he lives vicariously through other people’s kids as his own three sons never reached the level of cross country skiing that his Toby Creek kids are now reaching.
“They’re astounding, they’re quite amazing,” he says. “They’re so positive, and hardworking.”
But above that, says Mr. Bigelow: “The most important thing is we’re building great people.”
He shares the story of one team member who asked him what would happen if they put in all the effort and the racing results didn’t reflect the hard work. In response, he told the athlete, “Is winning B.C. championships, or national championships, good, or is it good just developing yourself as a person, and developing an understanding and lifestyle that will be with you forever?”
That perspective shift has really resonated with the kids, the head coach comments.
“These kids probably won’t remember their results, or not remember many of them. But they will remember the good times with their friends,” he muses. “Having fun, meeting social needs, and developing a cooperative social environment makes them stronger people in our community.”
That message is flowing through the team, as evidenced by the Toby Creek Nordic team’s Talent Squad members. Masha sums it up well, saying cross country skiing “definitely teaches you to take your own path. Not many people do cross-country. So you don’t become a follower.”