Chasing Career Goals – in the Classroom and on the Ski Trails

by Rita Mingo

There are those young people who aren’t fulfilled unless they’re being tested on a daily basis, mentally and physically.

Remi Drolet appears to be one such individual.

“I’m focused on my goals,” points out the 19-year-old. “I have to keep working hard. I perform best when I’m challenged because I seem to have better motivation when I’m striving for something that’s difficult rather than just doing it for the heck of it.”

Drolet doesn’t do things just for ‘the heck of it’. One of Canada’s new generation of elite cross-country skiers, he’s quickly schussing up the ladder, hoping to keep his name in the national conversation. Along with that, he’s starting his tenure at prestigious Harvard University in the field of Physics.

He is just one of a large number of athletes in the sport who are doing double duty, many of whom attend Canadian universities. Nordiq Canada helps in the national team member’s quest for an education by, among other things, adjusting training schedules.

On the surface, given his NCAA racing schedule, continued development on the Canadian team and his studies, there isn’t a lot of down time for Drolet. And that is the way the Rossland, B.C., native likes it.

“Of course there will be some challenges with that,” Drolet concurs, “and it’s doable, but it’s going to require a lot of focus. I think Harvard is well organized to support high performance athletes.”

A member of Rossland’s Black Jack Ski Club, Drolet wasn’t inspired to be a cross-country athlete; it was serendipity.

“I originally played hockey, but I came to a point where I didn’t enjoy it anymore,” he explains. “I thought it was important to keep playing sports. At school, we’d had some lessons in cross-country skiing and the teacher recommended that I join the racing team because she thought I had some potential. I ended up absolutely loving it and ever since then, I haven’t looked back.”

His path included the 2017 Junior World Ski Championships, but a concussion and illness prevented him from competing much the next season so qualifying for the 2019 Championships in Lahti, Finland, was paramount in his mind.

“I had to fight really hard and it felt really good to make it there and to have the top results on the team,” says Drolet.

He was back at it again last week in his third trip to the premiere international junior cross-country ski event. Hours after finishing just 10 seconds off the podium in fourth place in the 30-kilometre mass start race in Oberwiesenthal, Germany, Drolet anchored a historic silver-medal finish by Canada’s 4×5 kilometre relay team. It was the first time ever that Canada has been on the podium in a relay event at the World Championships.

Drolet spent part of this past summer at a camp in Sjusjoen, Norway, put on by the Norwegian Ski Federation, attending lectures and doing dry-land training … rubbing shoulders with the Norwegians, the Russians, the Germans, his biggest rivals on the world stage to prepare him for a big 2020 season.

“When I first started competing against them, it was quite daunting and I didn’t really have much of an idea what they were doing to be at such a high level,” Drolet acknowledges. “But then, learning about this camp, I realized that they’re just doing the same things as I am. It’s little things I can do here and there to make my performance as good as possible.”

Drolet is one of a handful of young Canadian Nordic athletes who will attempt to sandwich training with high-level schooling, or vice versa, this upcoming season.

Sam Hendry is another.

This fall, Hendry – a member of the Canmore Nordic Ski Club – is off to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City enrolled in Biology, with an eye on medical school.

“The big motivation for me to be interested in this program was really because I felt I was quite limited in the amount of schooling I was able to pursue here, especially with the driving time between here and Canmore,” says Hendry, who attended the University of Calgary part-time for the past two years. “What I was looking for was a greater school commitment.”

Hendry, like Drolet, competed at the last two World Juniors, and also came away with the confidence he can compete at that level internationally.

“It was kind of like the epitome of my skiing career,” the 20-year-old describes. “Everything I’d done over the many years was leading up to what I could achieve as a last-year junior. I just missed out on qualifying for the team in 2018 so I was really motivated to not just qualify for the team but to really succeed at the Championship and have some good results there.”

Hendry, whose sister Isobel is also a cross-country skier, was on a pair of skinny skis as soon as he could walk, and from the very start, has looked to Canadian icon Devon Kershaw as a mentor.

“I can remember waking up in the dead of night to watch him racing in Europe, watching his World Cup results,” he recalls. “Even one day, I forgot to check the results in the morning. My father checked them, and he came to school to tell me that Devon had won a World Cup race. Pulled me out of class! Devon was for sure a huge role model for me and just a big inspiration as well.”

Divisions and clubs understand the importance of finding the balance in the post-secondary and racing schedules, and have worked with universities to increase the available options to the athletes.

Education is more than just relevant for Nordiq Canada. In fact, their policies state: Nordiq Canada recognizes the importance of supporting and integrating athlete academic pursuits as a critical component of the athlete development pathway in Canada.

Alex Harvey was one such supported individual as he nearly completed his law degree while on the World Cup circuit.

Alannah MacLean was doing the student-athlete thing years ago and now, in her second year at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, still competes in the odd races with the Big Thunder Nordic team and the Lakehead varsity squad.

“I see myself in more of a mentorship role now,” says MacLean, who was on the national team development squad for seven years. “I mentor younger athletes and I hope I continue to serve as an inspiration that you can excel in both.

“When I first entered the sport, there was pressure saying you can’t be a student. I was one of the very few athletes in Canada who was pursuing high-performance sport and an undergraduate degree at the same time. This is my continuation of the legacy; there is space in Nordiq Canada now for post-secondary athletes and those who have a genuine love for the sport.”

If anyone knows the challenges, it’s MacLean, who is technically retired but still competes and still has success.

“The usual ones for any student-athlete,” she lists, “time management, are you getting enough sleep, are you able to commit enough time to your studies as well as skiing.

“I said, hey, I’m so used to being a student and an athlete, why don’t I just continue that. I’ll ski part-time and I attended as many races as I could (last year). It just turned out that I ended up winning the 30km at Nationals and was the national University Champion and qualified for the World Cup.”

Hendry, meanwhile, is looking forward to his tenure at Utah to help hone his burgeoning skills.

“I’m super, super fortunate to have a lot of flexibility from the university and the team which allows me to ski and train and compete for the school, but also to be able to come back to Canada and compete as a Canadian and represent the national team,” says Hendry.

Both Henry and Drolet were proudly sporting the maple leaf on their race suit in Germany, and will be taking on the world on home snow when they hit the start line for World Cup competitions in Quebec and Canmore later this month.

Given the drive of these young men and women, no one should be surprised at anything they achieve.

“We have a long way to go in Canada,” admits MacLean, “but we can get there if we continue to have the Remi Drolets and the Sam Hendrys that are saying ‘hey I’m super talented and this is what I need to do to not only be a successful athlete but a successful person’.

“We need to recognize that education needs to play a critical role for the development of our athletes. I’m very happy to see this massive shift in the last decade.”