When Whitehorse’s Emily Nishikawa finished the women’s 15-kilometre classic pursuit race at the FIS World Cup event in Trondheim, Norway, on Feb. 23, she did not know it would be her last race at cross-country skiing’s highest level.
But after COVID-19 led the FIS to cancel the final three events of the season — including the finale in Canmore, Alta. — Nishikawa’s planned retirement at the end of the season meant no last performance on home soil in front of family and friends.
“I definitely didn’t want my career to end that way,” the 30-year-old skier said. “I had been looking forward to the World Cups in Canada and I had prepared really, really well for them. … A part of me was sad to end that way, but I also knew that it wasn’t realistic to go another year just because of that.”
Nishikawa has plenty to be proud of.
She’s made 90 starts on the World Cup, competed at two Olympic Games and completed the gruelling seven-stage Tour de Ski.
“Qualifying for the Olympics in 2014 was a huge highlight for me,” Nishikawa said. “There are just so many emotions involved with that whole qualification process and the whole time between being named to the Olympic team and going to the Olympics and actually racing at the Olympics was just such a high for me.”
When she qualified for Sochi 2014, Nishikawa was the first Yukon woman to ski at the Olympics since Lucy Steele-Masson.
At the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Nishikawa was joined by fellow Yukoners Dahria Beatty and Knute Johnsgaard. To Nishikawa, that success is a reflection of the skiers who came before and the program in place at the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club.
“It’s really cool to see how strong the Yukon program is and how many high-level skiers that we’ve been able to develop,” Nishikawa said. “My brother (Graham) went through the Yukon ski team program; there are so many athletes that were older than me and ahead of me that I was looking up to and chasing after as a young skier.”
Alain Masson, head coach for Team Yukon, said Nishikawa’s background as a gymnast put her in a good place to begin her career.
“She started really young as a skier in the Jackrabbit program at the ski club, then she joined the travel team — what we call the blue squad — a year earlier than most,” said Masson. “She was also, at that time, a high-performance gymnast. Before she joined our program, she was combining gymnastics and cross-country skiing. … She was 13 and she was already quite competitive.”
To Masson, her 25th-place finish at the 2019 Tour de Ski stands out as a highlight alongside the Olympics. The Tour de Ski in a four-country, seven-stage race held over nine days.
“It had been a really long time for a woman from Canada to have participated and completed the Tour, so the fact she completed the entire tour and finished 25th — one of her best results in a stage race — … is probably (one) of the most important achievements she’d had.”
While Johnsgaard retired in 2018 following the Olympics, Nishikawa and Beatty both continued to ski for the national team.
Beatty said she’s happy for her friend and teammate, but will miss having her around.
“It’s been amazing having her as a teammate and I will definitely miss her a lot,” Beatty said. “Emily is one of the most level-headed people I’ve ever met, which I’d say is a pretty rare quality in an athlete. A lot of us are a little neurotic, get really nervous, that sort of thing — so having Emily as a teammate, she was always the one that was really grounded and knew what she had to do.”
Having Nishikawa around made the transition to the World Cup easier for Beatty.
“I think she was really one of the people to pave the way in a transition in women’s skiing in Canada and she didn’t really have many cohorts in her year that kept skiing and were able to excel to that top level, so she really took on the World Cup and a lot of those barriers on her own and made it easier for girls my age to follow suit,” Beatty said. “I still remember, 2015 and it was my first World Cup in Europe. She actually had an extremely strong result and placed 23rd in that World Cup and it was just really inspiring to see. … She didn’t have an easy path of people to follow and she really broke a lot of ground herself.”
More than a decade after it happened, Nishikawa still remembers her very first World Cup race in 2008.
“I was a junior and I got to race a World Cup here in Canmore actually,” Nishikawa said. “That was my very first World Cup and I didn’t qualify for World Juniors that year, but I did qualify — snuck in — to the World Cup because when they’re hosted in Canada, we’re able to start more people.”
Nishikawa finished 53rd out of 54 in that race, but the result didn’t matter.
“It was such a cool experience that the result and being I don’t know how many minutes behind the leader, it didn’t really matter to me,” Nishikawa said. “I was just honoured to be able to race alongside some of my heroes.”
The plan is for Nishikawa to move back to Whitehorse and start in the teaching program at Yukon College this fall.
Before that happens, the final exam of her undergrad degree in psychology is this weekend.
“She did her entire undergrad by correspondence while racing at the highest level possible. I think not many people realize how difficult it is to self-teach and self-motivate an entire undergrad degree,” said Beatty. “That’s always something that has really inspired me and impressed me.”
Despite spending most of her career based in Alberta, Nishikawa said the support from the Yukon is something she never stopped appreciating.
“A huge thank you,” Nishikawa said. “I’ve been so fortunate to have so much support from this community. I know that I wouldn’t have felt this much support coming from anywhere else. … I’ve always been very proud to represent Whitehorse and the Yukon.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org