Members of the Yukon cross-country ski community gathered at the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club on April 10 for the unveiling of three new signs on the Olympic Trail, honouring the achievements of Knute Johnsgaard, Emily Nishikawa and Graham Nishikawa at the Olympic and Paralympic games in PyeongChang, South Korea, last winter.
The trail started in the mid-1990s as a way to recognize the achievements of Lucy Steele-Masson and Jane Vincent at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France. Today, the trail recognizes Olympians, Paralympians and Special Olympians living in the Yukon.
Fellow Olympian, Dahria Beatty, was honoured at a similar ceremony in the fall.
All three athletes expressed appreciation for the support from the community in reaching the Olympics. For Emily and Graham, this was the second time being recognized on the trail as both were recognized following the 2014 Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, respectively.
Emily finished 30th in the mass-start 30-kilometre classic, 32nd in the 10-km free, 34th in the classic sprint, 44th in the skiathlon and 13th in both the team sprint and relay. She said the trail is something that inspired her as a young skier.
“It’s such an honour. It’s something I’ve kind of dreamed about since I was little kid,” said Emily. “Seeing the other signs along the Olympic Trail of Olympians from the Yukon has inspired me and I hope I can inspire some younger kids who see my name up there (to) just know that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and put a lot of hard work in.”
Johnsgaard earned his ticket to the Olympics after stepping up as part of the Canadian relay team that won bronze at the Ulricehamm, Sweden, World Cup event in January 2017. At the Olympics, Johnsgaard was part of the Canadian relay team that finished ninth, as well as individually finishing 69th in the 15-km free and 62nd in the skiathlon.
“It’s pretty special — the Olympic Trail, having your name up here, trying to give back and inspire the up-and-coming skiers. I’m sure there are going to be tons of them; the program is stronger now than it has ever been I think,” said Johnsgaard.
“I remember watching on the sidelines while Emily qualified for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and I think that was the first time in my ski career that I saw a Yukoner qualify for the Olympics. … It was really inspiring. Now there is my name up next to hers.”
Johnsgaard said Graham was always a mentor to him, and that Graham’s help played a big part in his success.
“I really kind of credit my success to the help he has given me,” said Johnsgaard. “He actually helped me with my training plan one year. … It’s pretty special.”
Johnsgaard retired from the sport at the end of last season and it is clear he has no regrets.
“My winter was exactly what I needed and exactly what I was looking for,” said Johnsgaard. “I spent the longest time I’ve ever gone without being on an airplane, which has been a joy because the travel and the airports and the buses were never really a highlight for me. …
“To be able to spend the entire year here in the Yukon was really, really nice and very different from previous winters. I spent most of the winter out on my trap line and going days without seeing another human, so it’s a lot different than travelling in a crowded race venue with screaming fans and all the things that go with high-level ski racing.”
Although Graham was previously recognized after his work guiding Brian McKeever at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics, he said this award is perhaps a little more special.
“It’s a huge honour for sure,” said Graham. “The last four years have been super hard training. I mean, I got thrown in at Sochi and it was kind of a whirlwind, but we really geared up for four years of hard work to win those three medals in Korea.”
McKeever has the most medals of any Paralympian cross-country skier in history, so Graham and Russell Kennedy, who was also a guide for McKeever, felt the pressure.
“There was a ton of pressure because he’s the most decorated Paralympian of all time,” said Graham. “It felt like a huge relief after those (games).”
While the snow is gone in Whitehorse, there is at least one more race in the cards this season. Old Crow is the site for the sixth annual Father Louis Mouchet Memorial Loppet later this month and Johnsgaard, for one, is excited.
“That will be a lot of fun,” said Johnsgaard. “(It’s) going to be back to wintertime in Old Crow, hopefully.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at email@example.com