'The coach-athlete relationship is a fickle beast. It can be rewarding, difficult, pure magic or completely toxic. Usually it's a combination of all of these things at one time or another but if absolute trust and respect are established, and the athlete buys in, magic things can happen. '
- Kristina Groves. In Praise of Tough Coaches
There are few institutions in this valley as venerable as the Whistler Mountain Ski Club. And even fewer who have contributed so much to the community's overall identity. Think about it. What would Whistler be without Dave Murray and Rob Boyd and the Janyk kids and Manny and Davey Barr and Julia and Ashleigh and...
But it's not just on the race hill that its members shine. WMSC alumni have infiltrated every level of Whistler society. They're your neighbours and friends — artisans and magazine publishers; administrators and real estate agents. They run restaurants and manage hotels, teach and nurse and coach your kids. They're everywhere. And best of all, most still love to ski!
But seriously — could Whistler have hosted the Olympics without the WMSC's international renown? Without its respected officials and legendary events? Would the FIS have ever agreed to sanction international races here without the club's reputation for getting things done when the going got rough? Hmm.
I know. I know. Ski racing has taken a beating in the last few years. For many West Coast kids — and their parents — the sport has become irrelevant. Old School. It's seen as too elitist. Expensive. Stuck in the past. And dominated, alas, by the square-headed thinking of central Europe. In short, it's no longer on their radar.
And that's a shame. Because you could do way worse than getting involved with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club. I mean, the venerable old beast is virtually buzzing with positive energy these days. A stellar team of coaches and administrators. An outstanding group of parent volunteers. And a growing gaggle of happy, outgoing young athletes. What more do you need from a local sports club?
But wait. There is more. My spies tell me that there's a heightened sense of community at the club these days. A stronger bond between its members. A greater sense of purpose if you will. Obviously, there's more going on here than just ski racing.
It all comes down to leadership. And vision. And respect. And right now, the WMSC has it all in their 43-year old program director. You see, after three years at the helm, Nigel Loring's quiet, lead-by-example approach has made believers of pretty much everyone who has worked with him.
How's that for an intro? How's that for putting a guy on the spot? And it couldn't have happened to a more modest man...
He's part Honourable Schoolboy, part Johnny Appleseed. He's the kind of person who always takes care of the details. Whose professionalism and hard-work ethic are never in question. What makes him unique, however, is that he's also deeply, madly, uncontrollably in love with skiing and ski racing. He's a mountain romantic. A guy who can't believe his luck at landing what he calls "the best job in the world."
And maybe, just maybe, that's the source of his magic.
Nigel grew up near the village of Oakfield, Nova Scotia. Everyone knows Canada's maritime provinces are rather wanting in the way of vertical excitement. No matter, the Loring family lived next to a golf course, where "there were hills," asserts Nigel. And his first downhill rush, he tells me, came from zigging his way down those great maritime mounds... on cross-country skis.
Don't get me wrong. Nova Scotia does boast conventional ski areas. Just not big ones. Take Ski Martock and its vertiginous 183 metres of vertical drop. "That's where I got my first taste of alpine skiing," says Nigel proudly. And laughs. "It was on a school outing. And it was a terrible day — cold wind, freezing rain — but I didn't care." Given his "extensive" cross-country experience, the12-year old was convinced he'd be great at this new skiing thing. "So I got my lift ticket and went straight up the mountain... only to discover that the hill was a solid sheet of ice." More laughter. "So I slid down the whole hill on my bum."
And that was that. "From then on, I was hooked," says Nigel. "All winter, pretty much every weekend, my parents would drop me off at the highway on-ramp and I'd hitchhike the 100 kilometres to Ski Wentworth (yet another down-east area)."
Considering his enthusiasm for the sport, it it's no surprise that the young ski junkie was soon introduced to racing. "I got hooked up with a bunch of kids, you know, and they convinced me to give it a try." He smiles. 'They were the coolest kids ever. And racing, well, that was pretty thrilling too..." But he's quick to add: "It wasn't just the skiing or the racing, you know. It was the whole package: the ski racing community, the culture, the great characters I got to know."
It was a school ski trip to Mont Ste Anne in 1984, remembers Nigel, which really sealed the deal for him. "Ste Anne was hosting a World Cup race," he recounts, "And I'd never seen anything quite so exciting. I thought to myself: 'my gosh, this is pretty cool. I think I want to make this a bigger part of my life.'" He shrugs. "I was only 14 then, you know, but that experience is pretty much the reason I'm here at Whistler today."
Now the path wasn't smooth — or easy. "I had a lot of catching up to do," he says. And lets a chuckle escape. "But what I lacked for in experience and skill, I made up for with hard work and determination."
This is where it gets interesting. Nigel soon realized that he'd have to leave the Maritimes if he wanted to get better at the ski racing game. And by the end of high school, he was ready. In the fall of 1987, Nigel moved to British Columbia... to Rossland to be precise, where he joined the Red Mountain Racers. Which at the time was probably the top performing ski club in the country. If nothing else, Nigel was bold.
He laughs. "I knew I would never be good enough to become a member of the BC Ski Team." He pauses. "Still, I reached a level of proficiency that was quite satisfying."
But time was passing. "My parents had expectations," he says. So did Nigel — university was next. But his love affair with ski racing was far from over. Now he wanted to coach. But what kind of a degree does one pursue, he wondered, for a career in ski coaching?
It didn't take him long to figure it out. And in the fall of 1989 he was back in Nova Scotia, attending Dalhousie University and studying for a degree in kinesiology. He also landed his first coaching job that winter... at Ski Wentworth. "I'd study all week," he says, "and coach on the weekends. It was a very busy winter."
And it stayed busy. Nigel studied and coached and skied and travelled and coached and studied some more. A summer skiing stint in New Zealand after graduation led to a coaching opportunity in Europe. "I was offered a job working with a ski club in this little village called Leysin," he says. "It was more play-coaching than the real thing. But I absolutely loved it." Indeed, the Swiss Alps would work some serious magic on him. For it was there that he would meet his future wife Christiane.
He laughs. "She was the office manager at the Leysin Ski School," he says. " And I had to work really hard to convince her to return to Canada with me."
But she did. And followed him dutifully to his next coaching stops: four years running the racing program at Sun Peaks — "That was the turning point," he says. "That's when I took the leap from ski coach to manager,"— followed by another four years in the U.S. as director of alpine for the Pacific Northwest Ski Division, and finally back to the interior of B.C. for another season, but this time in Kimberley. 'That was a really sad time," he says. And sighs. "Like most ski clubs in the Kootenay, the Kimberley program is facing really tough times now..."
The program director job at Whistler became available in the fall of 2009. 'That's when I realized," he says, "that of all the positions in North America, this was the one that really resonated with me. This was the one that would allow me to create the kind of club-as community environment I'd always dreamed of." So he went for it.
And now? He laughs. "I feel so at home here now. It's such a great place to live and work — for me, for Christiane, for my two boys. To tell you the truth, I just couldn't imagine being anywhere else."
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