The Essence of Cross-Country Skiing: A Welcoming Community for All to Enjoy Fun, Fitness and Health

June 04, 2022

The sport has given much to Roy Strum. And he, in turn, to it. 

 “I love  skiing,’’ says the Calgary elementary school principal. “It’s something I do. 

“I started off racing as a young person. I’m in my 50s now. I’ve got that kind of a background. When there was an Alberta College Athletic Conference, I was cross-country ski champion when I was going to school in Red Deer. Skiing is something that’s a part of me; is a part of my life.” 

Strum has segued from competing into the instructional and management side of things, acting as president and coach at the Foothills Nordic Ski Club in Calgary, founding and coaching at the Bragg Creek Ski Club.  

For a decade, he’s taken on a role as chief of events for the Alberta Youth Cross-Country Ski Championships and served as director of the provincial ski team for Nordiq Alberta. 

Indisputably among his most impactful initiatives is the formation in 2018 of the Calgary Gay Ski and Social, a place for the LGBTQI2S+ community to combine community, on-ski improvement and fitness. 

June, of course, is Pride Month, when the world’s LGBTQI2S+ communities come together and celebrate the freedom to be themselves. 

“The power of a sporting club, in this case a ski club like ours, can be very influential,’’ says Strum, who moved to Calgary four years ago. “Not all gay people care about hanging out with others in the gay community – it’s as diverse as any straight community that you can find. 

“But Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are small ‘l’ liberal places in a much different way (than Calgary). It’s easier to find acceptance in some of the bigger cities in Canada. 

 “So gay people in Calgary need to seek out and build their own gay community here; actively create spaces where gay people can hang out with each other.” 

The genesis of the Calgary Gay Ski and Social began when participants in the Gay Splash Swim Club mentioned to Strum that they’d be interested in becoming skiers, too. 

“So,’’ he says, “there was a form of momentum in place already.” 

Starting with a group of 10 or so, the initiative has grown to more than double in size, meeting Tuesdays in Calgary and Sundays in the mountains. 

And everyone – emphasis on everyone – is welcome.  

“Over the last few years, as word got out, well, things tend to grow organically,’’ reports Strum. “So, we have a number of people from a gay running group in town, the Front Runners, who run in a lot of big cities around the world. A number of them joined. There’s a gay swim club here in town called Different Strokes and a number of those people will come and join us, too.” 

Nordiq Canada is fully on board with the aim of promoting diversity and safety for all within the broad framework of its sporting landscape. 

“It’s part of our fundamental values simply because they are great human values,’’ emphasizes Nordiq Canada chief executive officer, Stéphane Barrette. “They’re also reflected in our mandate to put all Canadians on skis. 

“We’re getting to a point where our membership and people who cross-country ski in general are representative of the diversity of the Canadian ski population. That can only be done by being as inclusive as possible, going out and introducing programs and initiatives that are pro-active in improving that inclusivity.” 

 The organizational support is appreciated. 

“Just recently, in March, Nordiq Canada has applied for grant funds through Sport Canada to help grow, inclusive sport that reflects diversity in our community,’’ says Strum. “The initiative Nordiq Canada’s working on is how to engage more ethnic diversity, more diversity in terms of sexual orientation and gender diversity. How do we reach out and build that? 

“So there’s some work happening and we appreciate that.” 

A major step forward for Strum and his club endeavour occurred this past year, with admission of cross-country skiing into the Western Cup. 

The Western Cup began in 1981 with four people meeting, since then mushrooming to a multi-sport event involving 1,500 participants from across North America, making it the longest running, largest such LGBTQI2S+ multi-sport event in North America. 

Although focused on five sports – volleyball, bowling, curling, dodgeball, and hockey – it’s obviously open to adding new sports. 

 “Harri Ulmer – one of the guys who joined us from the Different Strokes Swim Club – and I were both aware of the Western Cup, run by a group called Apollo Friends in Sport,” Strum explains. 

“We got talking a couple of years ago about how nice it would be to build an event here that would be for our club and for other gay clubs to join us. In Calgary, there’s a gay curling association, a gay hockey association and they get together for many of the same reasons we do.  

 “So, I approached the board to say: ‘Hey, could we add a sport to the event?’ They were really keen. We got going organizing an event at the Canmore Nordic Centre, knowing there’d be snow there in mid-April – the Western Cup is held annually around Easter Long Weekend.

“The Western Cup is an open competition. Probably 90 percent in the events are gay men and women but it’s inclusive, like Calgary Gay Ski and Social, in that everybody is welcome. 

“I got in touch with people I know from all the local ski clubs in southern Alberta to say: ‘Hey, come and join us. We’re doing a gay event, the very first one in Canada, organized by a gay ski club in a gay multi-sport event with the aim of creating a space where gay people can be who they are and surrounded by allies.’” 

On April 16, the work paid off, with the introduction of cross-country skiing into the Western Cup schedule. A classic cross-country ski event, skate event and a relay were staged. 

And unique twists were added to the formats. 

Rather than simply be numbered, for example, relay teams were named in honour of openly LGBTQI2S+ athletes. Strum reached out to multiple Olympic medallist Eric Radford (pairs figure skating), hockey player Luke Prokop and Olympic swimming icon Mark Tewksbury for permission to use their names, and legacies. 

 “Eric and Mark got back to me right away,’’ recalls Strum, delightedly, “saying: ‘We think that’s a great idea!’  

“What we want to let young gay people know is that ‘Hey, you can be gay, you can be out, and you can be successful. Here are your role models.’ 

“I think we all know that people, when they can just be themselves, achieve more; perform better.” 

“Our event was small this year, but highly successful. Where do we go from here? Part of the magic of being part of the Western Cup … well, we could run a ski race any time of the year. No problem there. But when it becomes part of a multi-sport event and the potential of, say, a volleyball team comes to play in the event, and some friends of those guys and gals see there’s a ski event involved and come and join our event because their friends are coming – we hope it can grow that way. 

“Our hope is to have a bigger event every year. Last year there was a lot of joy for everybody.”

Fun. Community. Health. 

The essence of cross-country skiing. 

“The barriers are just kind of integrated, maybe, in the psyche and the culture of some people,’’ reflects Barrette. “So, it’s not enough to just say: ‘Well, we’re not doing anything to prevent anyone from joining our organizations, or club, or being on a board.’ Because those barriers exist nonetheless. 

“That’s what is important to recognize – to not be complacent and say, ‘Everyone’s free to join.’ If it’s not happening, it’s not happening for a reason. So, you need to be pro-active and recognize what those barriers are, even if those barriers belong more to culture than anything else. 

They’re still a reality. 

“We have to come up with initiatives to reach out to those various constituents, and say: ‘Why don’t you come out and see what we’re about? We want to know more about you.’ 

“Once you reach out in this way, people are more willing to try. When they feel safe. There are various aspects of safe sport, so we want to create a climate where people will be safe and not judged in any way.” 

The work towards that end is ongoing and reflected in initiatives such as Calgary Gay Ski and Social and the long-running Western Cup. 

“The big question,’’ asks Roy Strum, “is: How does Nordiq Canada help us get the message across? 

“Well, by visibly advocating for the rights and needs of gay people, gay youth, their right to be an athlete, learn how to cross-country ski and be openly who they are, without fear of having any kind of discrimination. 

“I think that’s the work of Nordiq Canada. And, while it’s all about baby steps when you move things forward, I think they’re on the right path.”