By Steve Hubrecht 

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A pair of Columbia Valley teens recently took part in the Nordiq Canada Ski Nationals held in Quebec.

David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS) students Anika Rievaj and Virginia Denchuk started their March break a week early this year, leaving the valley to head to Gatineau for the 2024 nordic nationals from March 10 to March 16.

Warm temperatures made for challenging snow conditions at the Nakkertok nordic centre, but that did nothing to dampen Anika and Virginia’s spirit. The pair managed to participate in three separate U18 (under 18 years old) races, although the lack of snow (and the slushy nature of what little snow there was) meant some of the events they were to take part in had to be altered or cancelled at the last minute. They returned to the valley with plenty of positive memories.

“It is great being able to compete with athletes across Canada that have the same ambitions and interests as me. Nordic skiing has such a strong supportive community and it is really fun being able to get together with other clubs and ski with each other all season creating life long relationships and memories,” Anika told the Pioneer.

“Being at nationals is an amazing experience. The fact that everyone, all 500-plus athletes, are there because they have the same passion and goal as me makes the atmosphere powerful and exciting,” added Virginia.

Anika found connecting with other cross country skiers to be the highlight of her time at Nakkertok, saying that “it is such a cool experience supporting other athletes and creating stronger relationships with them. We may be in competition, but off the race course we are all really close.”

Both teens were supposed to ski in a one-kilometre skate ski sprint, a seven-and-a-half-kilometre skate ski race, a 15-kilometre classic ski race, and a classic ski team sprint race. But the snow conditions meant classic ski events of any kind were out of the question, so Anika and Virginia ended up racing the one-kilometre skate ski spring, the seven-and-a-half kilometre skate ski race, and an alternate five kilometre skate ski race.

“It was really warm out and people were racing in a T-shirt and shorts. We really struggled with snow and volunteers were working day and night shovelling and making enough snow. We were only able to race on two and a half kilometres of track the whole time, and it was very difficult to keep the track in decent condition. The snow conditions were super slushy and slow and races had to be re-scheduled or cancelled in order to preserve the track as much as possible,” said Anika. “This was super hard as the plan was constantly changing and thus so did our mindset. We did our best to stay positive and give it the best we could, given the conditions. At the end of the day, everyone was in the same boat so we all had to navigate the conditions together.”

Virginia Denchuk recently competed in the 2024 Nordiq Canada Ski Nationals in Gatineau, Quebec.

Unlike most sports, nordic skiers do not qualify for nationals based on results in other events. Instead, the top level cross country ski event in Canada is open to any nordic skiers of any ability from across the country, so long as they hold a nordic race licence.

That said, the Outaouais is a long way from the Columbia Valley, and Virginia and Anika spent weeks fundraising more than $6,000 to cover the costs of participating in nationals. Donations from local private and nonprofit groups helped the pair raise the money.

For Virginia the trip to Gatineau was her second time at nationals (she went last year), but for Anika it was the first time. Both are experienced cross country skiers: Virginia has done the sport for 11 years, and Anika for six.

“I chose nordic skiing because I never liked team sports and it was something that we could do as a family to stay active in the winter. And as I got older, I realized that I enjoyed becoming fit and wanted to build on that,” Virginia told the Pioneer.

“I started nordic skiing because all of my friends were in it and it was an affordable winter activity. It is really important to have a supportive community in whatever sport you do and I have really found this in nordic. I find it super important to encourage younger athletes to continue with sport and I try really hard to make sure all the younger athletes in the (Toby Creek) Nordic Ski Club feel safe, supported and that they always have fun,” said Anika. “Nordic skiing is a very tough sport and it can be super hard to continue, especially if that support is not seen by the athletes. Our club has gone through a lot of changes recently and it is super important to show the younger athletes what is possible and that it is a sport for life, especially when coaching and organization is limited.”

Toby Creek Nordic Ski Club general manager Quentin Randall said in an email that “it’s exciting to see (Virginia and Anika) represent our community on the national stage. 

Opportunities like this are the result of Virginia and Anika’s hard work, as well as support from community members who build and maintain trails, volunteer to coach, and support our club in one way or another . . . everyone in our club is very proud of them.”