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Friends and former students celebrate a northern trailblazer

Father Jean-Marie Mouchet bought a new set of bright yellow skis last week.Those should be good for the next 20 years and beyond, said former…

Father Jean-Marie Mouchet bought a new set of bright yellow skis last week.

Those should be good for the next 20 years and beyond, said former student Carolyn Coombs with a smile.

The 89-year-old Catholic priest, who still logs 20 kilometres a day on the cross-country trails near his current home in BC, was honoured at a ceremony at Mt. McIntyre on Tuesday afternoon.

It’s wonderful, bringing all those people around and getting them to participate, said Mouchet, while standing before the crowd of friends and former students.

It’s the people of the North, of Old Crow and Whitehorse that produced me, it was not the other way around, Mouchet told the crowd.

Then he turned to more pressing matters.

It had been snowing pretty steady all morning leaving the trails in rough condition.

The snow is very bad, said Mouchet.

I mean this is awkward, I have to make my own tracks today, he added, eliciting a round of laughter.

Then Mouchet turned from the crowd, dug his poles into the snow and glided around Mt. Mac’s one-kilometre loop.

He was there to open the final races in the 1,200-metre sprints.

And the noise from the crowd was deafening.

Nearly every spectator was madly clanging a cowbell in support.

It’s a long-standing tradition in Europe  in France and Switzerland it’s a typical thing to hear on race days, said Yvonne Frostad a friend of Mouchet’s who was braving the wintry weather to pay tribute to the elderly priest.

Frostad never skied with Mouchet, but three of her children went through the program that he crafted to teach kids the importance of physical fitness  the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program, or TEST.

He knows the snow, he knows the technique, Frostad said, while ringing a wide European cowbell.

For Coombs the program was more than a lesson, it was a lifestyle.

I don’t know where I’d be right now without TEST, said Coombs.

She went through the program with a handful of coaches, but Mouchet was always present in the background.

He was subtle and sometimes not so subtle, she said with a laugh. He was always watching, we would be going on the ski trails and you would never know where he would pop up  he’d be behind trees and he’s take little shortcuts through the trail so you always knew that you were being watched, she said.

He was always encouraging and he would always say you can reach your potential.

The program gives youngsters a sense of who they are. And it fosters healthy, positive relationships with adults.

We learned to not worry about beating others, to not get caught in the hoopla, but to race against ourselves and to strive for personal bests, said Coombs.

She also had the opportunity to go to Mouchet’s hometown in France twice with the program.

Cross-country skiing was a way of life there; everybody seemed to ski from toddlers on up, she said.

Originally from Malbuisson, France, the Oblate priest came to northern Canada in 1946 and was posted in Telegraph Creek, Old Crow, Inuvik, Whitehorse and Ross River.

It was in Inuvik that the idea for the ski program developed in 1955.

Over decades Mouchet trained young athletes in cross-country  a sport well suited to their environment.

And the results were impressive.

He taught children that physical fitness was a necessity and not a luxury.

As the program grew, dozens of children got involved and got fit.

He trained countless competitors in the Arctic Winter Games and Canada Games.

He even sent Sharon and Shirley Firth from Inuvik to four consecutive Winter Olympics.

Among many other honours, Mouchet received the Order of Canada in 1993.

A modest man just two months away from his 90th birthday, Mouchet had to be cajoled into coming to Tuesday’s ceremony.

And, not surprisingly, he’s now working to implement a similar fitness program in Iskut, BC.