‘I promised myself I would get to the Yukon this year, and now here I am, standing before you,” said Sharon Firth, with a beaming smile and twinkling eyes, as she spoke to an intimate gathering at the Kwanlin Koyotes Ski Club on Tuesday.
Every day, Sharon Firth sets goals, and then she works to achieve them.
That was the essence of her message to the young Kwanlin Dun athletes in attendance: Success depends on hard work, dedication, and perseverance.
“If you’re going to cross-country ski, or do anything else in your life, learn to love it, because that will make it easy.”
Firth is a skiing legend in Canada; born in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, she grew up on the Mackenzie River in a Gwich’in family of hunters and trappers.
When she moved to Inuvik for schooling, she began her life’s journey in the sport.
Along with her twin sister Shirley, she is the arguably the most successful athlete to come out of the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program.
Together they made the Canadian national team, competed in four Olympics (1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984), three world cups (1970, 1974, 1982) and dominated women’s cross-country skiing in Canada, winning 37 national championship medals (19 gold, 14 silver, and four bronze).
It has been 25 years since Firth last set foot in the territory — for the 1981 World Cup race — so Tuesday’s gathering provided an emotional reunion for several T.E.S.T alumni.
“Seeing Shirley Frost and Norma Kassi, that was just overwhelming for me,” said Firth, who trained with the pair in Old Crow. “We spent our teenage years together.”
“Norma just told me she beat me in a race, I didn’t remember that,” said Firth.
“I wouldn’t forget,” said Kassi, to much laughter.
Even Firth’s old coach, Jim Boyde, who led the T.E.S.T. program in Inuvik in the 1960s, came out to see his old student.
“It’s probably been more than 30 years since I’ve seen her, it’s wonderful to see her again,” said Boyde, who recalled her skill as a young skier.
“I remember standing on the top of a hill, and Sharon was getting some backslip coming up, using wooden skis, of course, but that didn’t slow her down, she was very, very quick.”
Firth’s Yukon tour, which included stops in schools in Carcross, Watson Lake, Lower Post and Whitehorse, came about when Brittanee Laverdure, a wrestler from Watson Lake who trains in Calgary, wanted to start giving back to her own community.
She thought Firth would be a great person to reach out to Yukon’s youth.
With sponsorship from Conoco Phillips, Laverdure’s employer, Firth agreed immediately.
“Sharon was super-exited to come,” said Laverdure, whose life has followed a similar path. “I can really identify with her … how she left home to train in Banff.”
Firth shared a short documentary film about her and her sister’s ski career, and answered questions from the attendees.
“I think it’s really inspiring; it makes me want to ski more, try harder, and not go down the wrong road,” said Stacity Bailie, a Koyotes skier.
“They were trailblazers, they set the path for others to follow,” said Kwanlin Koyotes ski coach Gary Bailie, another T.E.S.T. veteran.
“Sharon really inspires me, she lights my fire … thinking back, it makes you realize what a gift it was, that Father Mouchet gave us the gift of skiing.”
Firth said that skiing kept her on the straight path as she grew up, and she was too focused on her goals to get caught up in the destructive behaviour that she saw around her.
“I saw my first drunk person at the age of four, and it scared me to death, I promised I wouldn’t ever do that,” she said.
“It breaks my heart, to see these problems, but you have a choice about it — a responsibility.”
The job of role model puts a lot of pressure on Firth, but she said the way she lives her life comes naturally, “It’s just a lifestyle that I’ve learned from my parents, and being involved in sports.”
Shirley Frost agreed that sport is a great way to set youth on a good path: “Fitness and health is so important, for all your life.
“When you learn that, you have gifts to live a good life. It’s like teaching a man to fish, so he can feed himself, his family and his community”
“Children need to believe in themselves,” said Firth, who now works as a motivational speaker.
She is also working to resurrect the T.E.S.T program, which was phased out in the late 1980s.