Most high achievers head off to university after they graduate from high school — it’s the natural progression.
But if you’ve got a chance to represent your country in the sport you love, well … higher education can wait.
That’s the case for cross-country skiers Bryn Knight and Emily Nishikawa — both Yukon Ski Team members were offered a spot on the brand new Callaghan Valley Training Centre team this summer.
“It was a tough choice, I wanted to do university as well, but this was a good opportunity, and something I couldn’t pass up,” said Nishikawa on Sunday — after winning the 7.5-kilometre open women’s Don Sumanik Memorial race at Mt McIntyre.
For Bryn Knight, the decision was a little easier: “I was looking into a couple universities, one in Alaska, but after my season in April, I realized what I really wanted to do was ski — and school wasn’t really a priority at this point for me — for a while I didn’t know what I was doing, then I got named to the training centre and I accepted pretty much right away.”
Both skiers returned to Whitehorse for the holidays, for a bit of downtime.
They joined the team in July, spending the summer dryland training and working out with coach Amy Caldwell and just three other skiers, two U-23 skiers from BC and a junior from Alberta.
“We’re living in Squamish, the whole team lives together, and our coach lives nearby,” said Knight, who added the Training Centre moniker isn’t really accurate.
“There’s no physical centre yet, it’s more of an idea, I guess,” she said. “But we’ll be based out of the Callaghan Valley Nordic Ski Trails — that’s the Olympic venue, and it’s closer to Whistler than it is to Squamish.”
“In the summer, we’d get up and train at nine, for between half an hour to two hours, roller ski or running, then eat, have a nap, and maybe more training in the afternoon, strength workout and then, we’d relax,” said Knight.
Now that the ski season is in full swing, the schedule has become much more intense.
The team has been on the road since early November, attending training camps and competitions in Alberta and BC — and they’ve never actually skied their home trails.
“The first race there was yesterday, and that’s when it officially opened,” said Nishikawa. “We got a tour of it in the summer, all the trails were done and it looks amazing — it’s going to be an amazing venue.”
Although Nishikawa is taking correspondence university courses, the focus for both athletes is firmly on skiing.
“Now I’m a full-time athlete, so I’m pretty committed to it,” said Nishikawa. “When you’re in school, you’re busy all day, it’s tiring — I get more recovery and rest time.”
“It’s been great — a really good experience for me, training with a new coach and team — the whole new environment has been really positive for me,” she added.
That focus is paying off, two weeks ago she won gold in the five-kilometre classic in Canmore, part of the Heywood NorAm series. She also took a bronze in the 10-kilometre continuous pursuit.
“It was really great to see a good result for me — knowing that my summer training is paying off, hopefully I’ll just keep racing faster and faster,” she said.
While Knight had an amazing finish to her season last year — winning medals at the Canada Winter Games and the national championships — she admitted that a couple of injuries this season have made her training “interesting” and she’s taking the longview on her predicament.
“Skiing is such a long-term sport, how you do in one season at this stage, isn’t going to make a huge difference — I’m putting in the hours, and maybe I don’t have an awesome year — but if I look at that, and improve on that — then maybe I can have a awesome year next year.”
The Callaghan Valley Training Centre is the newest addition to Cross Country Canada’s network of National Team/Athlete Development Centres, the others are in Thunder Bay, Ontario and Quebec City.
“It’s a way for the national team to concentrate all of the skiers that have the potential to make the national team,” said Yukon Ski Team coach Alain Masson. “To make it more competitive and to give the athletes better support.”
Yukon skiers David Greer (a member of the national junior team) and Graham Nishikawa (who was bumped from the national team, due to funding cuts) are at the Pierre Harvey Training Centre in Quebec.
For the territory to have four skiers at this level is a testament to the depth of the Yukon Ski Team.
“We’ve had a few good years, we’ve had some good success and some good skiers,” said Masson.
He added that the training centres only have about 20 spots, total, for the whole country.
Other Yukon Ski Team members competing Outside include Brittany Greer, at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Ray Sabo and John Perry at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Most of those skiers will be traveling to Collingwood, Ontario in two weeks for world junior championship trials — only the top four male and female skiers will make the team to represent Canada at the Junior Worlds in Poland in February.