How to create (or become) an elite Northern athlete

It's difficult for territorial athletes to break through on the big stage, but according to CBC North reporter Garrett Hinchey, there is a blueprint to minimize the disadvantages — and maximize the advantages — of living up North.

Despite many disadvantages, there are territorial athletes, like Nadia Moser, that find national success

Nadia Moser, a 17-year-old biathlete from Whitehorse, joined rarefied territory this week after winning 3 medals at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, B.C. (Team Yukon 2015/Sarah Lewis)

Nadia Moser did a remarkable thing this week — three remarkable things, in fact.

By picking up three medals at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, the 17-year-old from Whitehorse joined an elite Northern pantheon of territorial athletes who've found success on the national stage — a group that includes Olympians like Brendan Green, Emily Nishikawa, Michael Gilday, and Zach Bell.

Moser's success would be remarkable anywhere, but it's particularly impressive given her place in the country: athletes and teams from the territories just aren't expected to compete against their southern brethren. It's sometimes hard to see, given its now intercontinental scope, but it's the reason the circumpolar Arctic Winter Games were created: the territories (and Alaska) wanted a chance to have their own competition on a relatively equal playing field. The idea was conceived at the first Canada Winter Games in 1967, a brainwave from Yukon executive Cal Miller as he watched his team outclassed in sport after sport.

Reasons for the perpetual mismatch are myriad, and well documented. With a far smaller talent pool to work with than in the more populous provinces, the possibility of elite athletes is diminished right off the bat. In addition, the disparate nature of communities in the territories makes bringing top talent together an expensive and difficult proposition. Many teams try to make up for this by exposing their athletes to a higher standard by travelling south, but this, too, is expensive. When southern athletes are playing top competition on a weekly basis, this is quite often too massive a hurdle to overcome.

And yet, like Moser, there are Northern athletes who break the mould. How? By following three simple guidelines:

1. Be an individual

Notice a common thread in those Olympic athletes I listed above? You should — like biathlete Moser, their chosen sports are all solo endeavours (not including relays). It's extremely rare to see a true team from a territory compete on the same playing field as their provincial counterparts, simply because it exacerbates the population disadvantage: if your talent pool is much smaller than your competitors, you're often hard pressed to find one player at an elite level, let alone a full team. 
Olympic speedskater Michael Gilday, from Yellowknife, is an example of one of the few Northern athletes who have managed to break through on an international level.

This can often lead to that single (or two, or three) elite players' individual growth being stunted by playing with less-talented peers, and, on the team level, typically leads to the type of blowout results that got Cal Miller's goat all those years ago. There are exceptions to this rule (see: Tootoo, Jordin; or Sanderson, Geoff), but it's almost universally true.

Individual greatness, however, is greatness everywhere. A lack of high-quality competition isn't as stark in many individual sports: athletes like Gilday, Bell, and Moser could compete against their own personal bests, becoming their own high-quality competition. In addition, travelling with a small team of individual athletes is far cheaper then with a full hockey or basketball team. Individual sport federations can see their dollar go further when it comes to coaching, travelling, and equipment, giving these athletes a practical leg up on their team-oriented peers.

Of course, nobody is an island. And regardless of the sport an athlete practices, their ceiling will always be limited, unless, either by luck or by design, they are able to satisfy guideline number two.

2. Find that great situation

No matter your talent level, you can't go far without a great coach. As essential as community volunteers are, it's nearly impossible for an athlete to compete at a national level without a national level coach. Sometimes, athletes from small communities luck into fantastic situations. The North's original Olympians, the cross-country skiing team from the N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Delta, were led in Inuvik by a Norwegian coach working with Ski Canada. 

However, in most cases, the chance to compete at such a high level means moving south. Gilday, for example, moved first to Calgary, and then to Montreal, in order to continue his Olympic dream. Moser hasn't had to do this quite yet, but she very well may in the future — just ask fellow biathlete Brendan Green, who trains with the national team in Canmore, Alta. It's a bit of a cheat, perhaps, but the best method to mitigating the advantages of provincial competitors is simple: take advantage of them yourself.

Of course, living down south while being a full-time athlete is expensive. Government grants can alleviate the pain somewhat, but many athletes supplement their stipends through sponsorship from small business. This is perhaps one the greatest hidden advantage of being a territorial athlete in the North: small businesses in the territories are extremely charitable. A 2009 CFIB study, the latest available data, found that 90 per cent of all small businesses in the Yukon and N.W.T. donate cash on a regular basis. What's more, the list of potential donees is far shorter in Yellowknife or Whitehorse than it would be in Calgary or Toronto. 

Want that support, though? Well, then you'd better make sure you follow guideline number three.

3. Never forget where you came from

The firm support base that the territories provide for their athletes goes far beyond financing, though. Being a "Northern athlete," rather than just an athlete, ensures that high profile competitors from the territories will also have access to the moral support that comes from a small, dedicated community that is intensely proud of its own residents.
Despite his success, Jordin Tootoo has always maintained his connection to Nunavut — and remains the territory's favourite son.

As a former territorial athlete, I can attest that this effect is not simply superficial. In contrast to my contemporaries, who felt representing their home province was a hard-fought, pressure-filled reward for winning a competitive rise to the top, representing your territory feels like being accepted into a family. You've already exceeded everyone's expectations, and you know your supporters will be at your side, no matter the result.

Maintaining this goodwill at later stages of competitive life requires work, but is absolutely essential: it's one of few advantages Northern athletes have on their Southern counterparts. Giving back to your home territory or community, whether it is through returning to coach or simply to continue saying you're from Nunavut in post-race interviews, not only fosters goodwill but can help ensure the survival of sport. If you can't see it, you can't be it, after all, and territorial athletes need all the role models they can get in order to slowly narrow the performance gap with their more well-stocked provincial neighbours.

Will performances like Moser's this week ever be more than just an anomaly in the territorial sporting landscape? It's unlikely. However, there are ways that top athletes can mitigate the disadvantages of living in the territories, enhance the advantages, and ensure that the slow trickle of Canada Games medals — and Olympians — continues long into the future.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared on The Region.


Garrett Hinchey

Managing Editor, CBC North

Garrett Hinchey is a Métis journalist based in his hometown of Yellowknife, where has worked since 2014. He has worked at CBC North as a social media presenter, copy editor, multimedia reporter, and senior assignment producer. He has been CBC North's managing editor since June 2021.


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