Sunday, February 20, 2011

Two Days...Two Golds...Two Memories

Two days…Two Golds…Two Memories

It was -36c. The organizers figured it was warm enough to hold the 1975 NWT Canada Winter Games trials. I concurred. After all, I and other Inuvik Ski Club members had spent one month training in Fort Smith, a small town in the southern part of the Northwest Territories. We felt ready no matter what the weather. Our club figured it was best to escape Inuvik, a small town further north, and the winter darkness and relentless -45c daily temperatures typically experienced there during January. I concurred.

The Canada Winter Games (CWG) were to be held in the host city of Lethbridge, in southern Alberta. That year the CWG was not my focus as I began another year of training and competing in cross-country skiing earlier that summer. I ran, hiked, and roller skied as much as I could. I had established myself as a young champion as I had won the 1973 and 1974 Canadian Junior Championships. Therefore, although still a junior, my goal in 1975 was to make the senior national team to compete overseas in Europe. My training had paid off. In early skiing trials, I had shown I was good enough as I had beaten a number of older skiers on the National Team. Still, for some reason, I was rejected but not dejected: in fact, I was a little pissed off and even more motivated.

That cold but sunny January day in Fort Smith, the roster for the 15-kilometer CWG trials race started to line up with mostly Aboriginal kids like me. My older brother Rex, the 1972 Canadian Junior champion, was lined up in front of me. I didn’t care but he seemed a little insecure, as he knew his younger brother was looking very confident. After all, unlike me, he was spending a little more time playing hockey than putting in the training hours I had.

The starter counted down his start time and he left the start-line: 30 seconds later, I pursued his tracks. I knew I could catch him if I wanted to but I stayed relaxed and set a leisurely pace. Still, within one kilometer, I saw him look behind at me and it seemed he wanted me to pass him. In the end, I “let” my older brother win and even after skiing a leisurely pace: I was second. We both made the NWT team along with two others. We were off to Lethbridge: the dreaded opening ceremonies showcased all the respective teams from the provinces and territories; everyone figured that the NWT team was highly favoured to obtain medals. We must have exuded a lot of confidence and certainly had a good track record of winning.

The cross-country and alpine ski athletes were housed in military barracks in Pincher Creek, a small town outside of Lethbridge and near our ski trails close to West Castle Mountain, now known as Castle Mountain. The weather turned on us…a snowstorm came through and blew in over a meter of snow and the temperature dropped to -25c. I guess in our favour. The next couple of days were spent skiing and getting familiar with the trails. Soon followed an epidemic of illness that hit the over-crowded barracks with a lot of athletes succumbing to a virus including one of our athletes. Somehow, three of us stayed healthy including my brother, Rex.
Race day was fast approaching.

The day started as usual: athletes with their respective team jackets jumped on the bus to the race site but we all seemed more focused as the atmosphere was not as jovial as previous days: it was time for the 15-kilometer race, lots of powder snow and cold, around -22c.  I had a good night’s sleep; good breakfast, and felt ready. It was not difficult to figure out the wax in that cold temperature so my skis had good grip and reasonable glide. The start list was confirmed yesterday with around 70 skiers to race. The organizers figured I was one of the favourites to win so I was seeded towards the end. Didn’t matter to me as I warmed up, took off my distinctive NWT parka and stepped on to the start line: not knowing I was to embark on one of my most painful but memorable races.

I started off with confidence and felt comfortable, passing as many skiers as I could with a polite utterance of  “track.” Sometimes, I did not have to utter the word as skiers simply let me pass. I obliged every time. The cold temperature had resulted in very slow snow so I, and others, had to work a lot harder to obtain some glide. My coach let me know I was doing well but it was close between me and an older skier from British Columbia. I wasn’t surprised. His name was Lauri Karjauloto, a fast Finnish immigrant in his mid-twenties. I thought: “son of a bitch” as I was beginning to feel the stress and lactic acid building in my legs. The race was on…with each other and the long hard-climbing hills of the 15-kilometer loop. At times, I was all alone with only the sounds of loud exhalations of freezing carbon dioxide and ski poles squeaking in the cold and the sandpaper like sound of skis fighting to inch forward. By the 10-kilometer mark, the pain was almost unbearable but I kept thinking, “with every f’ing stride, I’m that much closer.” I began to doubt I was in the lead. Around the 11-kilometer mark, I passed someone but he hung on to me like a dirty shirt. He was also stressed as I heard his heavy breathing and cursed him at every stride. To my relief, he dropped off. Soon, I heard noise and cheering up ahead. It was the 14-kilometer mark where my coach was waiting…anxiously too. It was on another damn uphill; more bystanders were around, cheering, yelling, and making too much noise as I was trying to hear my coach give me the low-down on my placing. I looked up and we made eye contact.
Much to my surprise, I heard him say,

“You’re number one!...45 seconds ahead! Go!”

The news was such a relief, I started crying…unbelievable, how could I be first, I was hurting so bad. Near the finish line, there was a downhill; I coasted without pushing off letting my skis take me closer to the finish line finally in sight. In my mind, I had done it. I was the 1975 CWG 15-kilometer champ…50 seconds ahead of Lauri Karjauloto. That evening, on a black and white TV, with the recap of the days CWG events, the host announcer had mentioned a young Eskimo from the NWT had won a cross-country ski race. It was not over though; we still had to compete in the 3 x 10 kilometer relay event in two days. As a team, were we to live up to being the “favorites?” I had my doubts but little did I know then, I was to embark on an even more memorable event.

The day of the 3 x 10 relay started as usual. The pain of winning the 15-kilometer was long forgotten. I felt fully recovered. Thank God too, Rex, Kevin King, and I were still healthy and had not caught the dreaded virus that infected athletes in the barracks. Kevin King was the only white male skier to make the NWT team. He was not as talented as Rex and I but through hard work, he had made it. Our other and better native skier had caught the virus. Through experience, we did not have to discuss strategy as our coach had submitted the order on who would start the first lap, second lap, and final lap.

The ski conditions were still the same: more powder snow and around -20c. The Canadian military had done an excellent job grooming the trails and set up a public address (PA) system with a main announcer at the start-finish area who communicated with a spotter located at every kilometer along the 10-kilometer loop. I could feel the other teams had brought their A-game and it showed very early in the relay.

Rex had started the first-leg mass start. I watched him with uncertain hope and the other 11 teams’ members disappear into the forest. Very quickly, our sense of hearing became acute. The PA announcer reported every kilometer the name of every skier who passed by. Rex started out well but his lack of conditioning caught up to him. He led the group for a while but ended up coming in third behind Nova Scotia and British Columbia. He tagged off Kevin with more skiers following him into the forest. Kevin was skiing very well; in fact, he was having his best race ever. Still, he dropped back to fifth by the nine-kilometer mark. The final leg skiers were being tagged off as I waited calmly at the stadium. The lead pack was being announced. While still waiting at the stadium, Pierre Vezina, the second ranked junior skier in Canada and skiing for Quebec had already passed the one-kilometer mark. Finally, I saw Kevin approaching. A huge deep breath eased a sigh of relief. The race was on… but still with an uncertain hope as it all began.

To my surprise, finally racing felt easy, skis were good and most of all, I felt relaxed. Very quickly, I passed Ontario, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia: all without having to say, “track.” Where and how far ahead was Quebec? Throughout all this, everyone back at the stadium was updated on my progress: liking it or not.

By the 4-kilometer mark, silence ruled, again only broken with sounds of squeaky poles, sand paper-like screeching of skis gliding but I was breathing easy. Suddenly, I couldn’t see anything but I heard cheering up ahead at the six-kilometer mark: was that Quebec? Now the uncertain hope felt more certain.

Like the 15-kilometer course, Clarence Servold, the 1958 Canadian Olympian from Alberta, designed the 10-kilometer course. I guess he knew how to challenge us skiers with long steady climbs especially between the six and seven kilometer mark. Back at the stadium, the PA announcer mentioned Pierre had passed the six-kilometer mark. According to skiers back at the stadium, 15 seconds later, he announced that Angus Cockney of the NWT had passed the six-kilometer mark. Later, Kevin had said his eyes had lit up and wondered, “Was it real?”

Nearing the top of the long climb up to the seven-kilometer mark, I saw Pierre up ahead. At that point, I was beginning to feel the struggle but I sensed and saw that Pierre was hurting even more. At the top of the hill, Pierre slowly stepped aside. Like all day, there was no need to call, “track.” For the first time too, I slipped and fell to one knee and stayed there for one second: just enough time as Pierre and I glanced at each other. Seemed he had acknowledged defeat. Back at the stadium, the announcer revealed that Angus Cockney of NWT had passed the seven-kilometer mark; two seconds later he announced that Pierre Vezina of Quebec had passed the seven-kilometer mark. Later, everyone felt that the race was over and won. Still, I had three kilometers to the finish line.

After the long climb, we headed downhill. Incredibly, after some 30 seconds of relative ease, I recovered quickly and began to sprint the last three kilometers. Later, Pierre said he could not believe how fast I took off after that downhill reprieve and eased passed the eight and nine-kilometer marks. I appeared out of the forest coming down into the stadium, a crowd of various other team members and officials had gathered: waiting. I stood up out of my tuck with both arms up and glided across the finish line: Rex and Kevin were there: hugs of joy ensued. An incredible team effort.

An incredible two days, two golds, two memories.