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Friday, May. 24, 2019
Cutting a trail across the spectrum of nordic skiing
by Randy Pascal

Spend just one winter in these parts and it quickly becomes apparent that nordic skiers span the spectrum of ages, taking to the trails in all shapes and sizes.

Certainly, the influx of Scandinavian immigrants to northern Ontario throughout the middle of the twentieth century helped spur the interest in the winter pastime. Loppets organized by the Finnish community and the folks involved with the Voima Athletic Club catered to the needs of the more competitive athletes in the group over the years.

These days, the popularity of the sport locally is just about as multi-cultural as pretty much every other aspect of life in Greater Sudbury. Nowhere is the broad reach of cross-country skiing more evident than in the work being done by local coach Patti Kitler, establishing this region as one of the top spots in the country when it comes to the development of international para-nordic talent.

The reputation of her program was already firmly entrenched thanks to the success enjoyed by 2018 Paralympian Collin Cameron, long before the accomplished sit-skier would begin to enjoy some Sudbury companionship on his international excursions.

At the same time that Cameron was claiming gold on the World Cup circuit for the second time recently in Finland, Bracebridge native turned Sudbury resident Kyle Barber was partaking in such an event for just the third time in his career.

Currently in his first year as a member of the Team Canada national prospect pool, Barber was one of the many Canadians who were allowed to compete last year in Canmore, the races at home providing an ideal opportunity to the Canucks to garner international classification. With the support of Cross Country Ski Ontario, he was also able to join the World Cup crew at a meet in Germany in early 2018.

“The first one, in Canmore, was very eye opening,” said Barber. “First, it was nerve-wracking, because I didn't know what to expect. But I had also competed against only Canadian athletes in my division. The jump from the competitors that I skied against nationally, compared to the athletes that were competing internationally, was a whole different level.”

Picking up points in only one of his five races at both Canmore and in Germany, Barber decided to amp up, noticeably, his level of commitment. “I trained this whole past summer intensely, that was a big part of the reason for moving to Sudbury.” The results would speak for themselves. “In Finland, all five of my races were the best five races I've had in my skiing career so far.”

He would register points in four of the five races. “A major thing for me, especially in a classic race, is that I need to find a pair of skis that gives me the best kick possible,” he stated. “I have learned that I am willing to take a little bit slower ski if my kick is superb.”

Because of the nature of Barber's disability, he is unable to ski with poles, creating increased emphasis on his skis. “We really focused on that at this World Cup,” he said. “I was able to climb the hills pretty much 95% of the way up, without having to jump out of the track and do herringbone. That was a huge area of improvement, along with just the overall fitness and getting more ski time.”

Most of those who braved the -15 to -18 degree weather Saturday morning in Naughton, site of the annual Woolly Hippo Loppet, will never experience the thrill of competing in Europe, a la monsieur Barber or Cameron. Not that this makes them enjoy the sport any less.

“I love skiing here,” exclaimed 17 year-old Special Needs race champion Laura Foy. “I had an amazing race and won first place. I love skiing the downhills, that's fun. Going up hills is harder. I have to step up, do the herringbone.”

“I need fast feet,” summarized the enthusiastic teenager who took to the trails with her father at the event that is notably more relaxed than the Ontario Cup races that are set for the same venue in mid-January.

Both meets, however, attract a very nice cross-section of the Sudbury Nordic Racers youth membership. “I left hockey, about four to five years ago, and decided to try cross-country skiing,” recalled Lasalle Secondary grade nine student Brandon Radey. “I was skiing an age group down from what I should have been, but I had never skied before.”

“When I started, I couldn't do anything – I was so bad,” Radey added with a smile. “But my skate skiing has really improved, I think because I played hockey for eight to ten years. It's kind of similar, because you bring your feet together and push out. But in hockey, you're kind of going forward. In skiing, your pushing more to the side.”

The Woolly Hippo allowed for a relatively relaxing environment where Radey could test out his new skis, without the pressure of O-Cup competition. “They're a lot bigger, heavier and longer than my other ones,” he said. “It's a little harder in that way, but I'm getting used to them.”

“The skate skiing is more challenging, because you have to bring the skis together, so it's easier for them to get tangled when the skis are bigger.” Radey was not alone in adjusting his racing mindset, just a tad, for the open loppet in Naughton. By her own admission, 12 year old Maxine Wiss wasn't really up to racing her best, on this day, still feeling a little tired with the holidays.

That said, the grade 7 student at Macdonald-Cartier and fellow member of the Sudbury Nordic Racers was more than happy just to be able to get out on the trails, given the wild fluctuations in weather patterns recently, that created all sorts of challenges for the dedicated course groomers with Walden Cross Country.

“It wasn't that bad, because it snowed last night,” said Wiss. “There were a few patches of twigs coming out, a little bit of gravel, but that was only in two or three places.” And on a day when the cold could easily add a touch of discomfort for the more youthful competitors, Wiss would draw on any mental stimulation she could muster in helping the race pass quickly by.

“I just sing in my head, whatever songs are stuck in my head,” she said. “And there's a few downhills that have tight corners, so in those places, you need to be more aware of the corners and stuff. In practice, I always train with my friend, Maggie (Parks), because we talk a lot. We even ski together, sometimes, after practice.”

And in this part of the province, the girls are far from being alone on the trails.

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