Stories

Skiing Out a Dream, Emily Nishikawa Helped Yukon Break into New Territory

by Chris Dornan

The moment remains indelibly etched – no, engraved – in memory.

The 7,200-seat Laura Biathlon & Ski Complex in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, located on the crests and slopes of Psekhako Ridge, just before 2 p.m. MSK, Feb. 8, 2014.

“Being at the start line of the first race,’’ Emily Nishikawa is recalling, given the daunting task of selecting one touchstone moment from a commitment that had occupied most of her life. “For the skiathlon. Everyone runs out, it’s a mass start, and as I’m waiting, nervous, I was suddenly hit by this feeling:

“‘I’m going to race in the Olympics.’

“‘Me.’

“‘I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I’m going to do this …’

“I mean, that race was years in the making.

“Surreal.

“Absolutely surreal.”

She’d finish 42nd that afternoon, well behind now-retired Norwegian legend Marit Bjørgen, nicknamed ‘The Iron Lady’ and the most decorated athlete, male or female, in Olympic Games history.

No matter. The being, the doing, the journey from here to there, through injury and self-doubt, from the anonymity of Whitehorse, Yukon Territories to the world’s largest sporting stage, is what mattered, what resonated.

“Just to be able to finally say ‘I’m an Olympian’ meant so much,’’ Nishikawa says. “Achieving a goal, I’d been working toward for so long – an incredible, incredible feeling. I had such a big smile on my face, I just couldn’t imagine.

“A dream come true, really.”

There’d be further highlights over the next five cross-country ski seasons: An Olympic return trip, to PyeongChang four years after Russia, and being the lone Canadian woman to finish the grueling nine-day, seven-stage, four-country Tour de Ski in 2019 ranking high among them.

But now, nearing 31 years old, she has decided to step away from competitive skiing.

“It’s just time to move on to new things in my life,’’ Nishikawa reckons. “I’ve had a really great career with the national team. But I’m ready for new challenges.

“I’ll be finishing my psychology degree [at Athabasca College] in a couple of weeks and then I’m heading into a teacher’s program, two years, through the Yukon College in Whitehorse.”

From early on, Alain Masson, coach of the Yukon Ski Team program since the ‘70s and a triple Olympian himself for Canada – twice in cross-country skiing, at Calgary in ’88 and Albertville, France four years later as well as at the ’84 L.A. Summer Games in road cycling – had identified her potential.

“Oh, absolutely, you could tell,’’ he says, from home base in Whitehorse.

“Especially with female athletes, because they tend to mature a lot sooner, you have an idea when they’re young if they have the potential to be elite, to make it at the national and international levels.

“Emily qualified to represent Yukon at the Canada Games at age 13. That competition at the time was an under-22 category. Despite her young age, she was fairly competitive at the national championship level right from the get-go, at 14. She also came from a competitive gymnastics background, so that certainly helped her.”

Nishikawa has been at the forefront of a renaissance of cross-country skiing excellence in smallish, remote Whitehorse. Extraordinarily, of 11 athletes nominated by Nordiq Canada for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, three hailed from a city of only 29,000.

“As far as her career in World Cups, and she started in the sport relatively late, Emily was a distance athlete,” notes Chris Jeffries, who began coaching Nishikawa in her early 20s at the Alpine Insurance Alberta World Cup Academy in Canmore, Alta., home base for the national program. “To find success on the distance end of things is really, really hard. For her to come close to start cracking that top-20 barrier, knowing how close you are to top-10 … it’s quite exceptional what she did.

“If you don’t know her, you wouldn’t see the confidence she has. Her leadership style, who she is, is understated, quiet. But she could be outspoken when she needed to be. An amazing teammate. She’s very loyal. When she commits, she commits.

“I couldn’t begin to say enough great things about Emily.”

Just as Masson and his wife Lucy Steele, who also competed at Albertville, had inspired her (along with Beckie Scott’s 2002 medal-winning turns in Salt Lake City and Turin), Nishikawa provided impetus for the next wave of Yukon-trained high-performance skinny skiers, notably Dahria Beatty and Knute Johnsgaard,

“Emily,’’ says Masson, “has helped Dahria and Knute a lot. At the last Olympics we had the three Yukon athletes compete in skiing and part of the reason is that she set such a strong example.

“For sure it’s a boost to have mentors, people showing the way for you. And if they’re local, if you have that kind of immediate connection, it gives the young skiers even more reason to believe that anything is possible.”

“I’ve never thought of myself in those terms,’’ confesses Nishikawa in response, “but I know how important role models were to me as a kid, so if I can be one to someone else, I’m happy to do it.

“I hope I am.”

In the Yukon, thanks to stories like Emily Nishikawa’s, the improbable has become more, much more, than merely possible.

Skiing is skyrocketing. The Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club ranks among the largest in Canada, boasting more than 1,300 members.

“The program has been established with a full-time paid coach for a really long time, since the late ‘70s,’’ reminds Masson, head coach at the facility since 1995.

“Whitehorse was the first area to host the World Cup outside of Europe, in 1981. We’ve had athletes in multiple sports make national teams.

“This is a community that’s very supportive, very engaged, very involved. And we’ve had really good funding from the Territorial government for a really long time.

“Good snow. A long, wonderful winter climate, start early, finish late. The area and climate are really conducive to developing skiers.”

Emily Nishikawa being front and centre among them.

“Yukon has always had a history of strong cross-country skiers,’’ she points out.

“Between Lucy and Alain and when I reached the Olympics it was 22 years, so there had been a big gap but then to qualify three skiers to compete in PyeonChang was pretty special to be a part of.

“It’s amazing to watch the up-and-comers and see their potential. Pretty cool. We’ve got a great group of volunteer coaches, an amazing facility, long winters and the popularity of the sport is taking off now.

“So, it’s kind of the perfect set-up. And now, for younger skiers to see that it can be a reality to make it to the Olympics as a Yukoner is very exciting.

“I think everybody’s looking forward to seeing what comes next.”

Might that ‘next’ be a Yukon-skier standing on an Olympic podium sometime soon?

“As long as the structure and support at the national level remains the same,’’ replies Masson, “everything’s possible.”

From the sidelines, an aspiring teacher will be leading the cheers.

“The support that I’ve been able to draw from my community I’ve never taken for granted,’’ Nishikawa emphasizes. “I’ve been so fortunate to have so many people have my back.

“They’ve helped me get through the tough times and were there to help me celebrate the good times.

“I’ll miss the lifestyle of a high-performance athlete, where you have such a singular focus. You direct your whole life to one goal and there’s something rewarding about working towards that.

“I can now use that kind of focus, put it into school and other aspects of my life.

“But I’ll always love skiing. I’ll always ski recreationally.

“I’ve learned so much from the sport, where it’s taken me and what it’s brought me.

“It’s a part of my life now.”