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Cross Country Yukon gets home-grown head coach

Alain Masson is stepping down after about 30 years. Graham Nishikawa will take his place.
Brian McKeever and Graham Nishikawa celebrate after winning gold in the visually impaired 10-kilometre race at the 2018 Paralympics. (Bob Nishikawa/Yukon News Files)

After nearly 30 years with Alain Masson at the helm, Cross Country Yukon has a new head coach: Graham Nishikawa, a born and raised Yukoner.

The coaching shuffle announced April 24, comes as Masson is retiring from full-time coaching.

Nishikawa started off racing in the Cross Country Yukon Jackrabbit program and then with the territory’s ski team. Within the first few years, Masson was its coach. Nishikawa went on to race in a host of international competitions including more than 30 world cup events. He also left his mark on para nordic skiing by racing as a guide for visually-impaired Paralympian Brian McKeever including in four gold-medal performances at the 2014, 2018 and 2022 Paralympic games.

Since 2021, Nishikawa has been working as Nordiq Canada’s Next Gen coach for the Para Nordic team. He coached athletes who represented Canada at the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing.

He’s been living away from the territory for almost 20 years but says he’s glad to be back.

“I’m grateful for this opportunity and it feels great to kind of come back full circle. I mean, I grew up on these trails and went to F.H. Collins and I was a member of the Yukon Ski Team.

“I think it’s just neat how, where the sport has taken me and now coming back with my own family, and I’m so excited to be back.”

Nishikawa said his goals for his first season of coaching are getting familiar with the program, getting to know the athletes and figuring out how he can help them go further in the sport. That process is beginning in earnest as the team is soon to resume its off-season training.

“I’ll be working all of May while Graham is here to try to ease the transition as much as possible,” Masson said.

Masson said his decision to step down was prompted by the Yukon government’s decision to discontinue its bid to host the 2027 Canada Winter Games.

“I always told everybody, if we got the games in ‘27, I’m gonna make it all the way there because I feel it’s such a great opportunity for legacy for the ski community to try to do a lot of things that are possible during Canada Games and too good an opportunity to pass,” Masson said.

“But then the government says for sure, we’re not having the games in ‘27. And so, okay, now it’s a good time for somebody else to take over like, younger, more energy, different visions to come in and take over.”

Masson said in selecting his replacement, the ski club’s board wanted someone with roots in the Yukon who would be more likely to stay long-term making Nishikawa a natural fit.

“I know everybody is very supportive, obviously, and I feel very welcomed. And yeah, you know, I’ve travelled all around the world and been to a lot of places that have high-level skiing, and I just look around and this place has everything we need to have a great ski program and a place where athletes can get faster at skiing, and learn to race,” the new head coach said.

For Nishikawa, the sense of community was a huge draw in to return to Whitehorse. He noted the multi-generational involvement with the ski club as people he raced with now have their own young families out on the trails. He also described being able to bump into five people he knows on the trails or at the chalet on any given Saturday and says that community forms the base of what makes Whitehorse such a great place for skiers.

Masson agrees, calling the close knit community one of the advantages that Team Yukon has over ski teams from other parts of Canada. He said all of the Team Yukon skiers train together in Whitehorse and “do everything together” when they aren’t on the trails rather than coming from many communities and clubs.

Both coaches acknowledged the challenges the Yukon’s remote location poses with the team having to travel out of the territory often to compete.

“We compensate for that challenge by having people in a team who all want to be on those trips more than anything else and are excited and feed on each other to challenge themselves,” Masson said.

Masson added that while travel costs and the fees for athletes are charged by event organizers are on the rise, he has always tried to schedule the team’s season strategically, selecting out of territory races that give the Yukon’s elite skiers elite competition while also exposing newer racers to the sport at a high level.

Nishikawa plans to keep up a similar plan for the coming season, recognizing that a packed travel schedule is just part of being a skier living in the Yukon.

As thrilling as the competitions are, Masson said when he talks with former racers about Nishikawa’s age, their foremost memories involving the ski club usually aren’t out of territory events but the adventures the ski team would go on together in the Yukon.

“Lots of people remember the big long skis or bikes. Like we biked the Dempster and we biked the Canol Road and did these long camps,” Masson said.

“That’s the reason I did it because I always love that side of skiing and the ski team. That’s what I loved when I was a skier and I enjoyed it as a coach.”

Contact Jim Elliot at

Jim Elliot

About the Author: Jim Elliot

I’m a B.C. transplant here in Whitehorse at The News telling stories about the Yukon's people, environment, and culture.
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