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Sonjaa Schmidt becomes first Canadian woman to win U23 Nordic World Ski Championships

Maria Lundgren of Whistler Nordics helped coach Schmidt to her record-breaking victory

Whistler Nordics coach and board member Maria Lundgren recently had a front-row seat to watch some history. 

Sonjaa Schmidt, one of Lundgren’s newest pupils, left the cross-country community buzzing on Feb. 6 with her sprint gold at the U23 Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica, Slovenia. Schmidt is the first Canadian woman to triumph at the event in any discipline. 

“I was not on the national team last year, so I almost feel like I’d started from ground zero [to get here],” she remarked. “It means a lot to me to have so many people reaching out and saying ‘congratulations,’ saying that I've worked hard for this and that I deserve it. Really inspiring and motivating to never give up on something you truly want.” 

Steps in the right direction

Schmidt barely advanced to the quarterfinals after qualifying 29th by the skin of her teeth. She appeared to find an extra gear after that, though, blasting her way through semis and into the last heat. 

The Whitehorse, Yukon native ultimately rode a strong finishing kick to victory, dropping into her polished free-skate posture with 80 metres to go. Reaching the line in two minutes and 35.82 seconds, she upset Finland’s Hilla Niemela, who took silver (2:36.30), and bronze medallist Maria Hartz Melling of Norway (2:36.38). 

“I'm pretty proud of it,” Schmidt added. “It just really shows what I'm capable of, as well as what the rest of us Canadians are capable of on the world level. Seeing me take the win, and then my teammates feeding off of that … I think it's a bunch of steps in the right direction and I'm really excited for what the future holds.” 

Liliane Gagnon paced Team Canada with a fifth-place effort in the women’s 20-kilometre mass start, while Max Hollman ended up 12th in the men’s race—as well as the 10-kilometre interval start classic. Gagnon and Jasmine Drolet were ninth and 10th, respectively, in the ladies’ interval start. 

“It was absolutely amazing,” Lundgren said. “This was my first trip as a coach for World Juniors, and I was super, super excited to get the opportunity from Nordiq Canada. I think there was a lot of excitement. We knew that we had some very fast skiers who could perform well, and they certainly did.” 

A face to look up to

Lundgren first met Schmidt at a national development camp in 2023, and the two became further acquainted in Ramsau, Austria during the leadup to this year’s worlds competition. They don’t work together extensively, with Schmidt training out of the Alberta World Cup Academy in Calgary, but they’ve begun to bond nonetheless.  

“I really like Maria,” said Schmidt. “She has a good positive mindset and outlook as a coach, and I was actually really happy to find out that she was going to be on this trip [to Planica].” 

Assisting U23 head coach Tormod Vatten at World Juniors, Lundgren noticed that a number of skiers were veering right coming into the sprint finish area. They tried to tell their athletes to stay left at the last turn, where the snow was firmer and faster. 

Schmidt doesn’t remember if going left was a conscious idea in her mind during the race. She tends to think on her feet during sprints, rather than adhere to a more regimented plan. Either way, it worked out: the 21-year-old positioned herself well for a decisive late push. 

“I tend to remain in the back to try and stay out of trouble,” Schmidt explained. “I knew there were a lot of crashes in the junior heats the day before, so I was comfortable in the back from the very beginning. [I thought that] if I could keep up with the first girls leading the heat, then I could attack where I needed to at the end where my powerful free-skate came into play.” 

For her part, Lundgren is over the moon. 

“It's one of the top moments in my coaching career,” she said. “I'm not a personal coach or anything for Sonjaa. I only helped out during the trip, but to be able to be a part of that experience was amazing. Of course, I’m super, super proud of Sonjaa for what she did. It’s unbelievable. It's hard to describe. 

“What does this historical moment mean? It means so much for our sport, for all the coaches and all the athletes coming up too. My own daughter is 11 years old and she was practicing her free-skate like Sonjaa. Now [she and her peers] have a face and a person that they look up to.”