Chasing Excellence: in the Classroom and on the Ski Trails

September 20, 2022

School, refuting the claim of shock rocker Alice Cooper’s anthem of the early ‘70s, is never out, at least for Emily Nishikawa.

And won’t be, at least not for the next three decades or so.

“Awesome,’’ is the way 11-year member of Canada’s national women’s cross-country team describes the beginning of her first full year teaching Grade 2 students at Golden Horn Elementary School in Whitehorse, Yukon.

“I’m loving it.

“I’ve known this is what I wanted to do for a long time, taking psychology and then going into teaching. Getting my first job right after I got out of school was kinda like winning a race. The same sort of elation.

“I miss the people in skiing and that relentless pursuit of being your best at something. But I find that drive in other avenues of my life now and I have a lot of great co-workers and mentors here. It’s a totally different world than skiing but I’m really enjoying it.”

With International Day of University Sport being celebrated Tuesday, the retired Nishikawa is a shining example for an abundance of Canadian student-athletes in Nordiq Canada’s athlete pathway who are currently balancing athletic and academic lives. Afterall, she is someone who enjoyed a lengthy athletic career and has successfully segued into the work force.

That challenge of blending current athletic passion with future vocation, after all, is often a tightrope/balancing act worthy of the most daring of high-wire aerialists.

“Sometimes,’’ confesses Nordiq Canada national teamer Tom Stephen, who lives in Canmore where he trains and begins his 90 there-and-back minute commute on weekdays to attend school at the University of Calgary, “there doesn’t seem to be enough daylight to get what needs to be done, done.

Tom Stephen Races at the 2022 World Junior Championships in Lygna NOR. Photo Credit: Doug Stephen

“I worked with a psychologist about making time for things that need to get done and scheduling in those things in when and where I need to be, so I know what my day will look like.

“This year I’ve gotten quite a bit better at that.

“Right now, we’ve just started university again, so it’s starting to be a challenge. But once I get into a rhythm, taking that time to rest and recuperate so I don’t just run myself into the ground – so I can train, rest and recover, not just do school – things will sort themselves out.

“I won’t be able to cross-country ski at the level I’m at now in my ‘40s, so it’s important to be working towards another goal.”

Stephen, who will miss the first half or the current ski season after undergoing hip surgery, is studying engineering at the U of C.

“Ever since I was young, I had a fascination with how things work,’’ he explains. “So, it seemed a natural thing to go into. My dad used to bring home computers and TVs, big electronics, and I’d just disassemble them and see how they worked.

“I never put them back together. I’d just take them apart.”

Para Nordic prospect athlete, Emma Archibald of Nova Scotia, meanwhile, is currently enrolled in a BA nursing course at the University of Ottawa.

“Going into this year, I’ve had to adjust to big changes,’’ she says. “But I’m learning to adapt and that’s really going to help going forward. As an athlete, adapting to your environment is very, very important because you could, say, have a race across the world in a different time zone than you’re used to. But if you have an adaptable way of seeing things, that’s a really good skill for anyone to have. The combination of university and sport gives you that.

“These four years of university end up determining whether you like the career path you’ve set out for yourself and getting the degree for what you want to do for the rest of your working life.

“In this case, the Paralympics are also in four years’ time. So, for me, it’s great because cross-country skiing is a sport where, as you age, you build up more stamina and endurance. You can just keep getting better and better.

Emma Archibald attends a Nordiq Canada Para nordic prospects camp in Canmore AB

“I’d like to qualify for the Paralympics in four years. Myself, I’d be looking at the Paralympics eight years away to maybe try and medal. Bigger goals down the road. Seeing the bigger picture rather than stressing out about this week. ’Oh, I had to miss training because I had exams!’

“For me, it’s looking at the bigger picture.

“These next four years are about developing a good balance.”

The easing of pandemic restrictions has altered the landscape for most student athletes. In most cases, in person learning is back and that can be tricky for athletes who need to travel as well as train.

“With the flexibility at Athabasca University and dealing with the pandemic during my two year teaching course (at Yukon University), I’ve only done all my schooling online,’’ says Nishikawa, thankfully.

“That” —expected to physically attend classes— “would be a whole other challenge, I’m sure.

“At Athabasca, there was the flexibility of taking a course and having six months to complete it. So, I could be like: ‘OK, my big, big stressful races are during these months so I can focus on school before these races start.’

“I kind of set my own schedule which I found really helpful. Once I got the hang of it, after the first couple of courses where you literally don’t do anything for five months, and then you go: ‘Oh, oh. I have to get this done’ I figured things out and realized if I didn’t let that happen, I’d be fine.”

The NCAA route provides another direction for athletes, easing the financial burden of tuition for many while providing a strong team camaraderie environment.

National Team NextGen coach Eric de Nys recently made a trek south, making stops to visit Canadian athletes attending the University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire, Dartmouth College and Harvard.

“With Zoom and all of these other technological advances of course it’s getting easier and easier to keep track of our athletes down there,’’ points out de Nys. “But the whole purpose of my trip was to create some bridges for us as the National Ski Team program. We’ve put a lot of resources into these athletes over the summer and we have a plan for the future, so we don’t want to see that go to rot, so to speak.

“We’re trying to strengthen the relationships with coaches and programs down there (and here in Canada). They’re putting in a lot of money, as well, so they have interest in where these athletes can go and race and at what level.

“It’s a mutual agreement that needs to work symbiotically.

“I need to be able to call up: ‘Hey, how’s George doing? I see from his training log he isn’t doing that well. ‘Oh, no, he’s been doing everything he’s just a little behind on getting it entered.’

“Then you can follow it up with the athlete.

“Another reason to visit was to see what they have at their disposal as far as training and where they can go for location, terrain, all that lovely stuff.

“It’s give and take. I ask questions. And their coaches asked me about what we’re doing. At Dartmouth, for instance, I gave them a warm-up routine athletes are using before strength training and they were like ‘Oh, man, this is awesome! We’ve been looking for something like that a long time.’

“So they left energized. I left energized. It’s a win-win.”

What also hits home for de Nys is the schooling ambition of the athletes and their future goals. Remi Drolet, who helped make history at the 2020 FIS Junior World Ski Championships as part of Canada’s silver-medal winning foursome in the 4x5km relay, as an example.

“Last week,’’ laughs de Nys, “Remi, who’s at Harvard, asked me: ‘Hey, Eric, want to go to my QFT class?’ I said: ‘What’s QFT?’

“He said: ‘Quantum Field Theory.’ I said: ‘Yeah, sure.’

“So, I sat with him and the professor is this physics prodigy out of China and when he said: ‘OK, class, I think we’ll get started.’ And that’s the last thing I understood, for, like, the next 75 minutes. The guy might as well have been writing Chinese on the board because I had absolutely no clue.”

Hyper intelligent people. Top-calibre athletes. A smooth transition into life after sport.

29.12.2018, Toblach, Italy (ITA):
Emily Nishikawa (CAN) – FIS world cup cross-country, tour de ski, individual sprint, Toblach (ITA). © Modica/NordicFocus.

That’s the ideal end game.

As a Canadian example of the successful student-athlete, what advice would Emily Nishikawa offer to the current crop of nordic hopefuls aiming to strike that delicate balance between education and a sport schedule this year that will see them potentially race World Championships, World Cups, Canada Cups and for some in 2023, the FISU World University Games.

“Not to sweat the small stuff,’’ replies the Grade 2 teacher, heading home from her teaching gig at Golden Horn Elementary on a mid-September late afternoon.

“That applies to both my skiing and my school. There’s always going to be something that isn’t totally perfect.

“Sure, there’s stress involved. But I do think school benefited my skiing, and vice-versa. I wouldn’t dwell on a bad training day or a bad race because I could go write a great essay or do something positive on my skis to be proud of myself.

“You have to teach yourself to go with the flow and trust that it’ll all sort itself out. You’ll have essays you bomb or races that aren’t so great but brush off the disappointment and move on.

“It’s a long journey.

“As athletes, we’re driven to excel, as we are in whatever our chosen profession, but if you dwell on the negatives, you’re kind of missing the point of learning.

“That’s as true in my new career as a teacher as it was during my athletic career.”