Hometown Hero – Martin Richer: Growing Cross-Country Skiing in Schoolyards through Coupe des Fondeurs

February 08, 2023

The size, the scope, of what he took on a quarter-century ago continues to astound Martin Richer.

“Some parents,’’ he laughs, “joke to me: ‘Hey, Martin, you cost me a lot of money!

“‘Since Coupe des Fondeurs, the whole family skis!’’

No offence taken.

The teasing is wholly good-natured.

Because everyone in town understands the three weekends of the Coupe des Fondeurs school-age cross-country ski races have become a staple of winter life in Saint-Jérôme, a city of 80,000 situated 50 kilometres northwest of Montreal, on the Rivière du Nord.

Thirty-seven years ago, Marc Desjardins, a gym teacher in the area, hatched the idea to connect local schools with another of his passion projects, the Fondeurs-Laurentides Club.

Following Desjardins’ retirement from the school district, the gauntlet of running the Coupe des Fondeurs has been taken up by Richer.

“At that time of Marc’s retirement, I was a gym teacher and I skied,’’ recalls Richer. “So he asked me: ‘Martin, do you want to take my place? I’ll prepare you.’

“I said: ‘It would be an honour to continue the tradition.’

“I meant it.

“I took Marc’s idea, and with time, improved technology and the greater visibility of skiing – Alex Harvey and the Olympics in Vancouver, it was more popular than before – it’s grown.

“In the beginning, five or six schools participated in the races, maybe 50 kids. Now we have almost 30 schools every year, and around 600 kids in almost every race.

“Nearly 1,800 kids participate every year.

“Pretty phenomenal.

“Our feeling is: Saint-Jérôme is close to Morin Heights, the place where cross-country skiing started in Canada. So why couldn’t Saint-Jérôme be the best place in Quebec to ski?’

The Coupe’s founder, Desjardins, typically, continues to help out in the ski community, as a starter during the three weekends of the event and working the Coupe du Québec held in Morin Heights.

The growth of the idea he thought up has taken even its founder aback.

“Every Saturday Marc looks at me and says: ‘Wow! This has become big!’ He never thought it would get so big.

“It’s one of, if not the biggest, races for school-age kids in the country.

“We did a good job in the schools, meeting every gym teacher to say: ‘We have something more than basketball or ice hockey or volleyball. We have Nordic skiing. ’And all the gym teachers said: ‘Yeah, yeah, but we don’t have equipment.’

“So we went to the manufacturers, Fischer, Madshus, Rossignol. And Rossignol said ‘I believe in your plan.’

“That was a turning point.

“Jacques Vincent, the representative for Rossignol Canada in cross-country skiing, told us: ‘Martin, Marc, I’ll be there with you.’

“So, they sold the equipment to the schools at cost level. The schools would buy, say, 10 pieces of equipment one year, 10 the next, and pretty soon …

“It became a wonderful boom. Without (Vincent), the whole thing would’ve been very difficult. And my bosses at the school board, they believed, too. They could’ve put money in basketball, swimming, you name it, but 20 years ago they looked at cross-country skiing and said: ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’

Now, schools share equipment. There is no cost to participants. All school-age kids are welcome – no matter their skiing prowess, or lack of same. The gym teachers in the city all pitch in with organization, as do parents. Skiing in schoolyards to keep the sport vibrant became a thing locally.

The City of Saint-Jérôme, seeing the growth in cross-country skiing interest, purchased a PistonBully to manage the ski tracks, replacing a light Ski-Do with a tracer on the back.

Local businesses – banks, a food company, a furniture company – have jumped aboard to show their support as sponsors.

All of which means the kids and the sport benefit.

The most notable graduate of the Coupe des Founders program would have to be Cendrine Browne, who retired from competition in 2022, aged 28, following a 10-year international cross-country career.

“Cendrine is the best example of how the plan can work,’’ agrees Richer. “She was a little girl in a small school close to Saint-Jérôme. She had gone skiing with her mom before, but not too much.

“Cendrine started to ski with the school. She came to the Coupe de Fondeurs and won the first race she entered.

“She was obviously talented.

“Right away we said to her: ‘Why not integrate into a club? There’s a club in Saint-Jérôme, Fondeurs Laurentides, so let’s go there.’

“Cendrine started to practice with the club … and we know the rest.”

The rest would go on to include Olympic Winter Games appearances in PyeongChang, South Korea and Beijing, China, five World Championship starts and 76 World Cup races.

Browne was also honoured with the 2022 John Semmelink Memorial Award, bestowed annually to the Canadian snow sport athlete who best represents the country internationally with integrity, conduct and ability. Even after retirement, she now works for Ski de fond Quebec, preparing the next generation of skiers.

She is the kind of first-hand example that helps in driving the program.

“There are other examples besides Cendrine,’’ notes Richer, “and we’re proud of that. We see kids at five or six years old, maybe they’ve never skied in their lives, they start, they fall in love with it, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

To no one’s surprise, this year’s annual Coupe proved to a resounding success, staying true to the foundations established by Marc Desjardins and updated by his successor.

“Sometimes,’’ laughs Richer, “people come up and say to me: ‘Hey, Martin! I was at the Coupe des Fondeurs in’ – say – ‘1992’ and they’ve come with their kids. And also, some from the late ‘80s are there with their grandkids!

“So, we have third generation skiers there.”

Asked to reflect on his involvement, the exponential growth of the event and the deeply ingrained love of the skiing in his community, Martin Richer considers a moment before answering.

“What am I most proud of? Well, I’d say the fact that people who started the sport with Coupe des Fondeurs years ago – maybe decades ago – are still skiing.

“That kind of longevity skiing can create is wonderful.

“Those people tell me ‘The Coupe Foundeurs gave me the chance to say: ‘Yes, I want to ski for the rest of my life.’

“And they are. They will.

“How amazing is that?”