Thunder Bay·Video

Meet the family behind the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Many in Thunder Bay's cross-country ski community watched this past Olympics with a vested interest, as Thunder Bay-based Graham Ritchie raced to Canada's best-ever Olympic finish in cross-country team sprint. But Ritchie is just the latest in a long line of Olympic and world-class athletes that have trained in the trails of Lappe, Ont.

Originally based out of the Puiras family home, Lappe Ski Centre has grown into a world-class facility

Tuija Puiras (right) and her eldest grand-daughter Maaritta Puiras (left) go out for a ski together at the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre, just outside of Thunder Bay, Ont. (Logan Turner/CBC)

At 2 a.m. last Wednesday, Tuija Puiras's alarm woke her up and she immediately flipped on her television.

Puiras had tuned in to watch Canadian duo Graham Ritchie and Antoine Cyr take home Canada's best-ever Olympic finish in men's classic style cross-country team sprint in Beijing.

"It had to be watched live," laughed the owner and manager of the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre, located on the outskirts of Thunder Bay, Ont.

Many in Thunder Bay's cross-country ski community watched that race with vested interest, as Ritchie trains with the National Team Development Centre, based in the northwestern Ontario city.

But this is just the latest in a long line of Olympic and world-class athletes that have trained on the trails and hills in Lappe. That was always the point of the trails, Puiras told CBC News.

WATCH | Graham Ritchie and Antoine Cyr's post-race interview with CBC Sports

Historic finish for Canadian men's cross-country team sprint

4 months ago
Duration 2:34
Graham Ritchie, who trains in Thunder Bay, Ont. and Antoine Cyr, from Gatineau, Que., placed fifth in the men's cross-country team sprint final in Beijing. It's the country's best-ever finish in the event.

Ski centre began in family living room

In the 1970s, Puiras and her late husband Reijo bought the property, and started building ski trails through the dense bushes of the region.

"He started the centre as a training ground for himself and for local skiers so that people would hone the kinds of skills that you need at the international and national level," Puiras said of her husband.

A skier walks out of the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre after going for a ski. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Reijo Puiras, who died in 2017 at the age of 65, competed in the 1974 World Cross-Country Ski Championships in Falun, Sweden, and then the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

While it may be hard to imagine now, with its extensive trail system and well-established culture, the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre was originally run out of the Puiras's family home.

Reijo Puiras takes off during a skiing competition at the Lappe Nordic Ski Centre in 1979. (Submitted by Tuija Puiras)

"In the very first years, we'd have everybody sitting in our living room, changing their shirts after a ski," Puiras said.

Over the years, the family bought more land so they could expand the trails. The ski centre — which today hosts a canteen, changing rooms, saunas and waxing rooms — was originally a school bus garage that the family converted.

The Lappe Ski Centre, which today includes a canteen, changerooms complete with saunas, lockers and a waxing station, was originally a school bus garage. (Logan Turner/CBC)

The centre hosted a number of national and international competitions, including the World Junior Trials and the Canadian National Championships. In the 1990s, the ski centre began to support the National Team Development Centre (NTDC), which works under Cross Country Canada to train elite athletes.

"It is exciting, and I think in some sense you feel like a part of their story," Puiras said of the fact her family created the trails used for elite training and competitions.

A family affair

Throughout its many years, the Lappe Ski Centre has remained a home for the Puiras family.

"It's a lifestyle for sure," Puiras said, adding that all of her grandkids — even the youngest at just one-and-a-half years old — ski regularly.

"That's just in our blood, so we can't help it."

Reijo Puiras skis with one of his children at Lappe in 1981. (Submitted by Tuija Puiras)

Puiras's son, Timo, is the current head coach for the NTDC, and her oldest grandchildren have been helping around the centre for years.

The eldest grandchild, Maaritta, 15, remembers telling her grandpa Reijo that she wants to take over the Lappe ski trails when she gets older.

"I'm starting off learning how to groom [the trails in the winter] and taking care of the trails in the summer," she told CBC News. "I guess we'll see where it goes from there."

While there are now more than a dozen kilometres worth of trails at Lappe, it started out as just a small ski centre built by the late Reijo Puiras to help him train for international cross-country skiing competitions. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Maaritta grew up hearing stories of all the hard work that went into the trails.

"It's a really big part of my family and my life … just being here everyday with my family and skiing, it's really special to me."

WATCH | Highlights from the historic run by Ritchie and Cyr:

Watch Canada's historic finish in the men's cross-country team sprint Olympic final

4 months ago
Duration 4:12
The Canadian duo of Antoine Cyr and Graham Ritchie placed fifth place in the cross-country classic team sprint final, marking the country's best-ever Olympic finish in the event. Watch the key highlights.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said Ritchie and Cyr had Canada's best ever finish in cross-country team sprint at the Olympics. In fact, they had Canada's best ever finish in the men's classic-style cross country team sprint.
    Feb 25, 2022 11:09 AM ET

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