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‘Work hard. Ski fast. Be humble’

'Jonny's weekend' celebrated the life of a beloved Whistler Mountain Ski Club Coach Jonathan Kellock, who died from brain cancer in 2021.
Well over 100 friends and family took to Whistler Mountain last month to finally say “a proper goodbye” to ski racer and coach Jonny Kellock, who died from brain cancer in 2021.

If you spotted the massive crowd gathered around a dual slalom course set up at the Dave Murray National Training Centre on Whistler Mountain last month, you’d be forgiven for assuming the event was a spring race, or maybe an end-of-season celebration for the local ski club.

But the group of nearly 200 skiers and snowboarders gathered on Whistler’s slopes on April 16 was marking more than a successful season—they were finally celebrating the life of Whistler Mountain Ski Club (WSMC) coach Jonathan Kellock, better known to most as Jonny. 

He died of glioblastoma—an aggressive form of brain cancer—on Jan. 5, 2021, just three months shy of his 29th birthday. 

The impressive turnout for “Jonny’s weekend,” made up of friends and family from across North America and Europe, was indicative of just how big an impact Jonny made on his various communities over the years. Loved ones remember him as an honest, hilarious, and charismatic presence; a great cook; a natural yet determined athlete, “a wicked skier,” and a passionate coach who loved to have a good time and was always surrounded by friends.

Most of all, “he just loved being on snow and he loved the mountains,” said his mom, Jennifer. “He was just a really good human being.”

They also remember him for his brave, courageous battle with the disease that ultimately cut his life short. “Never did I see him ever give a ‘woe is me’ kind of reaction,” said Jonny’s dad, Rob.  

“He never complained once—not once,” agreed Jennifer. 

Those attributes didn’t come as a surprise for anyone who knew him. They were on display throughout his racing career, right from the minute he first clicked into a pair of skis as a toddler.

“I think Jonny was just born with a pair of skis on,” Jennifer said with a laugh. 

His love for skiing started with family trips to their chalet at HoliMont Ski Club in Ellicottville, N.Y., a few hours south of their home near Toronto. Jonny would eventually go on to ski for Team Ontario and for Northwood School, a private boarding school in Lake Placid, N.Y., before heading to New Hampshire to compete with Plymouth State University’s NCAA team. All the while, his goal remained the same.  

Skiing “was never just a hobby for him,” said Rob. “His goal was … to make the World Cup, 100 per cent.”

A dream delayed

But Jonny wouldn’t finish his last semester of university, after suffering a seizure during his fourth year and ultimately being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. 

“When he was first clear of cancer and healed and ready to do something, that’s when he said, ‘Well, you know what, I think I’d like to coach,’” remembered Rob. Initially, Jonny intended to return to his old stomping grounds in Lake Placid.  

“I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, what about Whistler?’ I said, ‘Why don’t I call [WMSC coach] Bob [Armstrong] and see?’” Rob explained. Armstrong’s response? “‘Give me a day,’” Rob recalled. “I mean, I didn’t even have to finish my pitch.” 

The timing was “serendipity,” said Armstrong, a longtime family friend of the Kellocks. “We happened to have a spot, and next thing you know Jonny was on the plane and … the rest is history. He really found his zone in Whistler, and in the mountains here. We talk a lot about the community in which Jonny lived and worked, and wherever he was, he was a vibrant part of that community.”

Despite his years of skiing and training in far-flung locations all over the world with those various teammates, Whistler is where he rediscovered the fun in skiing and found a tight-knit community on the slopes, in the backcountry, on the mountain bike trails and on the golf course. 

It’s also where he developed a passion for coaching. He worked with WMSC athletes for three years before his cancer returned. 

“He found his real calling as he started coaching,” said Henry Yeigh, Jonny’s housemate and fellow WMSC coach. “He was a supportive coach that challenged athletes to work hard and put their best foot forward on race day.

“That’s one common theme that kept coming up from them: ‘He was one of my favourite coaches of all time.’”

With COVID hampering most group gatherings since Jonny’s death, the weekend celebration in Whistler was a long time coming. It was emotional, recalled Jennifer, and highlighted by the group ski down from the Roundhouse to “Beauty Can Start” on lower Ptarmigan on Saturday afternoon, where the zone was officially re-named Jonny’s Start. 

A sign unveiled during Jonny’s weekend now hangs in the start zone, alongside a plaque with a few lines about its namesake. “Once met, never forgotten,” was one line Armstrong opted to include, as well as the words "Work hard. Ski fast. Be humble."

“That was sort of Jonny’s mantra without him ever having a true mantra," said Jennifer. "But he lived that way."

Now, “every day we’re there, Jonny’s legacy will carry on,” explained Armstrong. “His name will be mentioned many times every day, either by coaches or kids—you know, ‘we’re using Jonny’s start today.’”

A lasting legacy

The weekend was “incredibly cathartic” for his parents and sisters, said Rob.

“It couldn’t have worked out better,” he said. “That weekend was perfect. It was absolutely perfect. And it was so good for all of us, his family—we were just humbled by the incredible amount of people that came … It was so good for all of us to be able to see that and be able to be with all of his friends and his colleagues and say a proper goodbye, really.”

Jonny’s parents say they’re thankful their son will live on not only through the athletes he coached, but through the foundation created in his honour. 

A small group of friends formed the Jonny Kellock Foundation shortly after his passing with a dual-purpose mission in mind: supporting the development of Canadian ski coaches, while also raising funds and awareness for brain cancer research. 

So far, the group has managed to deliver a $10,000 donation to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, as well as sent two up-and-coming ski coaches to national team training camps and races. Those funds were raised, in part, through challenges like “29 for Jonny Boy,” where friends would clock 29 laps (or kilometres or minutes, depending on each participant’s chosen activity) to mark what would have been Jonny’s 29th birthday. 

A group of 11 friends, including Yeigh, now make up the board of directors and get together for weekly calls. The Foundation gained charitable status last fall. 

“I think it’s been pretty cool what we’ve been able to accomplish in a year … The only reason that’s possible is because of who Jonny was and the community behind him,” Yeigh said. “People are just so keen to support us because of Jonny.”

In continuing to support Jonny’s passions through the foundation, “we’re able to continue that legacy so that younger kids coming through ski racing in Canada, they’ll know who Jonny was and they’ll know his values and what made him such a great person,” Yeigh added. “So certainly there’s a lot of comfort in knowing that we’re able to pass on who he was so that it’s not like he’s just gone. He’s still there, his legacy is still there and his core values are still there. And so that’s certainly healing, for sure.”