Hometown Hero: Alison Mackie Strides into Canada Winter Games with Edmonton in her Heart
The ritual of heading over to Brio Bakery post-training-session for a slice or two of Todd Barraclough’s artisanal bread alongside he and wife Sian’s two daughters and fellow cross-country ski enthusiasts Annie and Ngaire is only one example of what makes cross-country skiing in her hometown so special for Alison Mackie.
The understanding of the 17-year-old’s high school, Ross Sheppard, located in the northwest section of the city, allowing her to incorporate skiing with schooling, another.
The influence of her coach at Edmonton Nordic Ski Club, Ulf KIeppe, yet another.
She feels very fortunate to be a part of it all.
“Edmonton’s skiing community may be relatively small – we only have two clubs, Edmonton Nordic and U of A – but it’s still so strong,’’ says Mackie, who has turned heads with a breakout early-2023 that included a pair of top-15 finishes at the Junior World Championships late January/early February at Whistler, B.C.
“The whole nordic community here is super welcoming, super close-knit. The Canadian Birkebeiner is held close to Edmonton every year and that attracts a lot of skiers.
“I grew up skiing. My parents introduced my younger brother and I to it since we could walk. I joined Jackrabbits when I was younger and since going to Track Attack, I made a lot of very good friends and we always skied together, which made it a lot fun and really helped maintain my interest.
“Without that ingredient, the friendships I’ve made, I probably wouldn’t have continued and reached the level I’m at now.
“And I can’t say enough good things about my coach, Ulf KIeppe. Absolutely incredible. Not just with me. With everybody in the program.
“He came to Trials to support me and a teammate trying to qualify (for the World Juniors).
“He is … amazing.”
From the Nordiq Canada Selection Trials in Prince George, B.C. through her first exposure in the international spotlight at World Juniors and now, on to the upcoming Canada Winter Games to be held in Prince Edward Island, the past couple of months have proven to be a whirlwind of new experiences and ever-heightening ambition.
“I think I was actually more nervous before the Trials because it was a big goal of mine to qualify. Being a part of the National Development Team, there were definitely a lot of eyes on me, people watching me,’’ Mackie admits.
“Once I made the team … To be honest, I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be in Whistler. I kind of felt the pressure lessen.
“I just went out there with the goal of skiing my best and it turned out pretty well. I mean, I set a high bar on what I wanted to achieve and getting two top-15s was, like, crazy to me.
“Picking a favourite? Hard to choose. But I’d say the 20-kilometre classic mass start. I’d never done a race that big before and it was really cool to ski in a pack with other people. For some reason, in all the ones before that, after the first lap in I’d be alone and have to work by myself.
“This was much different.
“But I was really proud of myself, being able to stick with a group and do well there. Eventually, when the group broke apart, I was able to stick with the leaders.
“The relay was awesome. So much fun to compete with your teammates, right? I haven’t had the chance to do many relays, so to do one in Canada, on that kind of stage, in that sort of environment, was really cool.”
Kleppe, involved with Edmonton Nordic since 2011, believes we’re witnessing only the beginning of the Alison Mackie saga.
“I think,’’ he says, “that the sky’s the limit. I’ve always seen such great potential in Alison.
“She has the work ethic. She’s physically and mentally strong. She’s very coachable. She wants to improve. She’s keen to improve on the details.
“I can’t put my finger on what we do that’s right,’’ Kleppe acknowledges. “We try to make it fun, make it athlete-led. Not just a my-way-or-the-highway. There’s a lot of flexibility in what we do.
“Our actual training days are etched in stone. But I guess I could say there’s a lot of laughter within our group.
“The social fabric is very strong and that’s vitally important.
“The kids – I call them kids, but they’re 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds – love to train together, be together, they feed off of each other. That breeds excellence.
“Alison exceeded her own and everyone’s expectations (at the World Juniors). She just rose to the occasion. Anyone’s first international event is pretty intimidating, but she didn’t let it faze her.
“So, I believe she could reach the very top if she puts her mind to it.”
There sometimes don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for student-athletes.
“The people at my school have been so incredibly supportive,’’ Mackie emphasizes. “They deserve a lot of credit for the way I can live and train right now. I have a lot of flexibility.
“When I was at Trials in Prince George, I was allowed to defer some exams until April, to finish the ski season and then concentrate on exams – to be able to do my best in both parts of my life.
“They’ve been super happy for me, cheering me on through their social media sights and I feel super, super supported by them. By everyone.”
To decompress from school and sport, Mackie plays the violin, has done so for the last 10 years, since Grade 2.
“It keeps my life balanced. I find it good to have school, sport and something else that can take my mind off things when I’m stressed out.
“I like classical music. Right now, I’m working on a series of sonatas by (late 17th century to mid 18 century English composer) Henry Eccles. They’re fun to play.”
Next up, P.E.I. And after that? Well, there is that big, expansive “sky’s the limit” the coach mentioned.
“This year I plan to keep ski racing,’’ says Mackie. “I’d really like to reach the Senior National team, race some World Cups, even the Olympics in this next quadrennial or the one after that, depending on circumstances.
“But I can’t predict the future. I don’t want to have my sights set on one goal and limit myself.”
As much as she’s received from the Edmonton ski community, Alison Mackie is giving back. Not least in the example, that necessary sense of possibility, she is providing to other skiers in her hometown.
“That kind of accomplishment,’’ says Ulf Kleppe, “is contagious. It’s absolutely huge.
“We’ve created a good, positive milieu for people, I think. But the other kids will now literally look up to Alison because she did it: She’s been on the big stage. She reached The Show.
“We’ve got momentum right now. We have something like 400 kids in our jackrabbit program.
It was already growing.
“So, for those kids to notice, to see that someone in our Club has made it to that level …
“Hopefully it’s going to encourage others to aspire higher and higher.”