Team Canada’s cross-country northern connection

There are at least two big things that Emily Nishikawa, Dahria Beatty, Knute Johnsgaard and Jesse Cockney have in common.

They’re all world-class cross-country skiers who are part of Team Canada at PyeongChang 2018. And they all come from the country’s northern territories—Nishikawa, Beatty and Johnsgaard hail from Whitehorse, Yukon, while Cockney is from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

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Though it’s a remarkable feat, three athletes from Whitehorse reaching the same Games in the same sport is no coincidence. It’s actually a developmental payoff that’s been a quarter-century in the making.

When Nishikawa made it to Sochi 2014, she became the first Olympic cross-country skier from the Yukon since Lucy Steele at Albertville 1992. Also competing for Canada at those Games was Alain Masson, originally from Quebec.

Canada’s Emily Nishikawa competes in the Ladies’ 4x5km Relay at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Krasnaya Polyna, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014.

Masson and Steele (now Steele-Masson) would get married and settle back in Whitehorse, where Masson became head coach of the Whitehorse Cross Country Ski Club. There, he’d end up coaching all three of Nishikawa, Beatty and Johnsgaard, while Steele-Masson would also play a crucial part in inspiring a new generation of Yukon talent.

“She just has such a positive perspective on life and skiing,” says Beatty, who is making her Olympic debut in PyeongChang. “I have always looked up to her; she is a really incredible person and was an Olympian and one of the most humble people I have ever met.”

And while being from a relatively small and isolated community like Whitehorse may seem like an all-around disadvantage, it actually gave Nishikawa and Beatty some competitive opportunities they may not have had otherwise. Nishikawa went to the 2003 Canada Winter Games at age 13, while Beatty qualified for the Arctic Winter Games in 2004 at just 9 years old.

Dahria Beatty of Whitehorse, Yukon skies the course during practice on the Plaines of Abraham, Thursday, March 16, 2017 at the cross country World Cup in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Another formative event came in 2007, when Whitehorse hosted the Canada Winter Games. Nishikawa competed for the Yukon at those Games, while Beatty cheered her on from the sidelines as an event volunteer.

A decade later, the boost from that event—combined with the existing coaching infrastructure—has brought us three childhood friends all ready to compete for Canada at the Olympic Games.

“I’m very proud of my country and I am very proud of the way the world perceives it too,” says Beatty. “It’s always something that I’m happy [about], when people ask what country I’m from and I get to tell them where I am from.”

In addition to representing Canada, they’ll also be looking to give back to everyone in the Yukon that has helped get them where they are today.

“It’s really special that we just have so much support from the whole community, especially the ski community,” says Nishikawa.

Members of the local ski club have signed supportive flags, t-shirts and even cardboard cutouts, which Nishikawa’s parents have brought along to PyeongChang.

“It’s really special just to know how many people are cheering for us back home,” says Nishikawa. “It really makes this such a special journey. It’s cool to be able to share it with so many people.”

And Nishikawa doesn’t suspect that this influx of northern talent is going to be a one-off, either. At least as it relates to cross-country skiing, she believes the best may be yet to come.

“There’s a lot of development coming up,” she says. “There’s, like, 14-year-olds who are awesome… they have so much potential in the sport. It’s really cool to see this whole pipeline. We were brought up in the system, but looking back now, we were so lucky to be part of it.”