The Nakoda Nordic Lost Wolves are on the prowl.
The cross-country ski team, the first of its kind from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, made its race debut Saturday (Feb. 25) at the Kananaskis Ski Marathon in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park as four athletes suited up to represent their community.
Koby Rider, Dretin Goodstoney, Emma Salter and Tommy Chiniquay showed up for the first race, wearing matching blue jackets and sporting fast skis.
For the past three months, a team of eight Stoney Nakoda children have trained at the Canmore Nordic Centre under the watchful eye of former Canadian national team head coach Justin Wadsworth. The team is an offshoot of the massively successful SkiFit North initiative, which has brought free cross-country skiing to First Nation communities across Alberta.
The program has proven so successful it is now a staple in many First Nations schools, which tout its positive effects upon their students.
“We knew there was a big group of kids in Morley and Exshaw who wanted to ski. Beckie Scott’s Ski Fit North program got them going in the school and some wanted to do more than one day a week every few weeks. So we got this group together and they’ve been training one day a week every Thursday afternoon at CNC. This was our big goal for the year and our first race,” Wadsworth said.
“They showed a lot of bravery today. I think I’m as proud of these guys today as I’ve ever been of the national team when they won a medal on the world cup.”
Although they wore race bibs and rubbed shoulders with several former world cup athletes, Wadsworth emphasized fun in training and on race day.
“Skiing is a fun sport and you just have to let the kids have fun on their skis. Every Thursday, we let them dictate what they wanted to do. We played some games, and all four who came out to race today came out for the love of the sport. Our goal is to keep them going,” Wadsworth said.
Goodstoney, 11, powered through his three kilometre classic race. He said his coach told him to “keep strong” through the race, and he did so with a decent race debut.
“It was hard at the finish, but at least I made it,” said Goodstoney, who, like a pro, commented on wax conditions. “The snow was so slippery here.”
“A lot of times in practice, we don’t make it three kilometres. I’m really proud of how these kids did today,” Wadsworth said.
Many Stoney Nakoda families also came out to watch the races and cheer on their children. Margaret Rider, grandmother of Koby Rider, felt immense pride to see her grandson on the trails.
“I’m really excited for Koby. He’s been excited to be a part of the ski team at school and was really excited to race today. He’s very determined and was very positive about it. For us, it’s exciting to see him starting to race,” Margaret said.
SkiFit North began working with Stoney Nakoda, Chiniki Nation and Exshaw school to create the team. Through Scott’s work, grant funding was found to pay for after school transportation and coaching for the Grade 6 students.
Now, these young athletes have a cross-country ski program co-ordinated by the greatest Canadian cross-country skier of all time, Beckie Scott and coached by a national level coach in Justin Wadsworth, with community buy-in through the Chiniki First Nation and Exshaw School. Trailsports provides the skis, and the Canmore Nordic Centre ensured students and their families felt welcome.
Genevieve Soler, a teacher with Exhaw School, said the program has been a huge hit with the students and community.
“Throughout my 17 years working with the Nation, I’ve seen a huge discrepancy between kids able to access programs. This program is about healthy living, confidence and leadership. It’s about building capacity in the school and in the community. That’s why it’s so exciting to see families provide support,” Soler said.
The plan is to double size of the team for next year, as a new group of Grade 6 students discover cross-country skiing. The Lost Wolves showed great poise against stiff competition, which was encouraging to the coaches.
“I hope they had a great time. They were competing against kids who have been racing since they were five or six. They have been strong to step into the mix,” Soler said.