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Nordics, assemble

Coast Corridor United is a new biathlon and cross-country ski team with members from all three Sea to Sky clubs

When Nicolas Pigeon signed on as head coach for the Whistler Nordic Ski Club, former club president Tony Peiffer saddled him with a clear mission: to breathe new life into the organization and its racing branch. 

That mission is well underway, with young locals entering the competitive field as part of a greater unit for the first time. 

Coast Corridor United (CCU) is a brand-new team with members from three different organizations: the Sea to Sky Nordics, Spud Valley Nordics and Pigeon’s own club. More than 20 athletes are on the roster as of this writing, split fairly evenly between the 10-12 and 12-14 age brackets. It’s an exciting new development for cross-country skiing in the area.

“The team has [grown a lot],” said Pigeon, referencing the fact that Whistler Nordics had only six registered racers in 2022. “If we want to make it look good, you know, that’s more than 100 per cent year-over-year growth.” 

Finding a path

Pigeon can’t take all the credit, as impetus for a combined race group originated from a tad further north. Spud Valley Nordics coach and board member Naheed Henderson contacted Peiffer and board member Maria Lundgren two years ago about the idea of clubs pooling their resources to form something greater. 

Pemberton is something of a cross-country skiing hotbed, with anywhere from 60 to 75 kids enrolled in the Jackrabbit kids program at Nairn Falls Campground. Unlike its contemporaries, Spud Valley Nordics is fully volunteer-run, with locals donating their time to coach youngsters, groom trails and keep the lights on. The region boasts several quality venues for older skiers as well, including The Beer Farmers and the Cranberry Farm. 

“There’s a very classic Pemberton spirit of volunteerism, very grassroots,” Henderson said. “People are out there sun, rain, or snow or whatever the weather is. [Cross-country skiing] is really experienced as a lifelong sport for all ages that people can do together on a recreational basis. 

“What we haven't had a lot of strength in recently is creating that pathway for skiers to go beyond being recreational…and that's what the Coast Corridor United team presents the opportunity for.” 

Henderson’s pitch dovetailed with Peiffer’s own vision for growth, and Sea to Sky Nordics decision-makers likewise saw value in banding together. 

There was a time that Pembertonian youth who wished to explore higher-level skinny-skiing had no clear developmental route to take, causing many to fall away from the sport or put it on the backburner. That’s begun to change in recent years, with an avid new generation (including Henderson’s daughter Veya and son Teja) making their interest known. 

As part of CCU, Veya and Teja have a golden opportunity to cut their competitive teeth alongside a healthy circle of friends.

Better together 

Teenagers are frequently social creatures. You may not get one to stay engaged in an activity alone, but give them a thriving peer group and they’re much more likely to stick around. Sports is no exception to that rule. 

“Between [the ages of] 12 and 14, it really shows when kids need to have more members, peers and friends at practices to have a good time, so making that bigger by merging all the clubs together helps to retain kids,” Pigeon said. “That's all it is. They will keep training and having fun if they are with their friends.” 

Sarah McCaw, who coaches biathlon for the Sea to Sky Nordics in Squamish, agrees. 

“The social aspect [for teens] is really important,” she said. “If we can have a team that encompasses more athletes, I think we'll be able to keep them longer just because there's going to be a bigger pool of athletes to have that social connection with. The anticipation and the excitement [comes from] the kids being a bigger team to potentially travel together. 

“Even just preparing for the races here, they can help motivate each other and challenge each other. That’s what I’ve seen on the biathlon side.” 

CCU casts a fairly wide net as far as recruitment is concerned. Most of its skiers live in Pemberton, Whistler or Squamish, but a few reside down in Vancouver. The Sea to Sky corridor is more spread-out than many areas with cross-country clubs—say Canmore or Kelowna—which naturally presents a few logistical hurdles.

That said, the commitment is there. Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) presents a common meeting point for all athletes, with Pembertonians, Squamolians and even North Vancouverites regularly making the drive to Callaghan Valley for training multiple times a week. The Whistler Nordics and Sea to Sky Nordics also offer sessions at Lost Lake, a slightly more northern alternative. 

A wealth of ski knowledge 

A blended team also allows for clubs to combine their coaching assets. 

High-level mentorship is difficult to retain in the cross-country world, especially in a transient place like the Sea to Sky. Whistler Nordic Development Centre (WNDC) athletes have helped out before, but they aren’t usually a long-term solution as competitive seasons draw them away each winter. 

That’s why CCU is blessed to have a man like Pigeon at the helm. The Chelsea, Que. native has competitive experience on the Nor-Am Cup circuit, where he once raced alongside eventual 2022 Canadian Olympians Antoine Cyr, Laura Leclair and Katherine Stewart-Jones. In terms of athlete development, he’s worked with experienced coach Moe Samm at Chelsea Nordiq and served his own clientele at Unis pour le sport (United for Sport), an organization partnering high-level athletes with their communities. 

“To bring on a coach like Nicolas is amazing,” Henderson said. “Not only is he the head coach for the athletes, but he also brings to the valley a huge amount of ski knowledge. Whether he's teaching masters’ [classes] or doing clinics for other coaches in the valley, he's able to spread out that wealth of knowledge in many other ways.” 

Pigeon’s approach to coaching balances the nitty-gritty with the social atmosphere that keeps things fun for those entering adolescence. He aims to emulate BC provincial team coach Chris Manhard, fostering fundamental technique development that will keep his pupils healthy whether they go for Team Canada or treat cross-country skiing as just a form of regular exercise. 

“One thing I’ve pushed a lot for is maturity within the athletes,” Pigeon said. “We train almost professionally, and they’re doing quite well. The early season has been a really good start. We’ve had a couple of injuries among some of our older athletes, but they bounced back and qualified for the BC Winter Games. We’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.” 

Veya and Namumiskoo Lammens from Spud Valley Nordics recently represented CCU at the BC Winter Games, as well as Sea to Sky Nordics biathletes Claire Benson, Holden Wilson, Max Murray and Reed Murray. Wilson came away with two bronze medals, and Benson earned one of her own. 

More results are available on the Pique Newsmagazine website.

Several other experienced individuals like Lundgren, McCaw, Tyler Greenwood and Marie Corriveau are also involved with CCU in some capacity. Pigeon shouted out Corriveau in particular, a World and Nor-Am Cup veteran who he intentionally brought into the fold.

“I knew she was in Squamish and I said: we have to get a hold of her for the sake of the girls’ growth and mentorship,” he explained. “She is a phenomenal athlete and person. Some of the kids even say she’s cooler than I am.” 

‘Trust and collaboration’

Nordic skiing can sometimes go unheralded as people flock to the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb and other mountains around the world for their downhill adrenaline rush. Even so, it is a tried-and-true source of fitness and fellowship for many, from ex-athletes to laypeople. Sometimes, all it needs is a stage to shine on. 

The 2023 FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships provided that stage, generating plenty of buzz in local cross-country and biathlon circles when they graced Callaghan Valley. More than a year later, that energy remains palpable. 

“There were lots of members of all the clubs—adults, masters and youth—out watching those events, being inspired and cheering on Canadian athletes,” recalled Dan Wilson, president and treasurer of Whistler Nordics. “It's really carried the momentum through with the clubs. I even saw some folks who you typically wouldn't consider cross-country skiers out there, just because of the caliber of the athletes and the size of the events.” 

While CCU is a cross-country team, McCaw is optimistic that it and the effects of the Nordic World Juniors can drive growth on the biathlon side as well. 

“Our youth nowadays don't know and don't remember the Vancouver Olympics, so, the World Juniors are as close to an image [of that] as they can get,” she said. “I think it inspires the younger athletes to see what potential is out there.” 

There is no doubt a learning process ahead as the Sea to Sky’s three Nordic clubs continue to work together in a way that is functional for the whole, yet accommodates the needs and traditions of each organization. Differing boards must get together, and parents must trust the vision of what CCU can become. 

“We're really lucky that everyone is keen to try to do something together,” Wilson said. “It's not always the easiest thing when you have different clubs with different names and things like that, so we're really happy that the team is moving in this direction.” 

Henderson would agree with that sentiment. From her point of view, things are coming together with “a true sense of trust and collaboration” as each club remains committed to facilitating new opportunities for Nordic athletes in the corridor.