Karin Harjo becomes 1st female head coach in World Cup ski racing with new Alpine Canada job

Alpine Canada has named former American assistant coach Karin Harjo the new head coach of the women's alpine team, making her the first-ever woman to lead a World Cup team.

American coach comes to Canadian team after working with Olympic champions Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn

Karin Harjo takes over the Canadian head coaching role with a promising women's program, becoming first woman to lead World Cup team. (Michael Probst/The Associated Press)

Alpine Canada has named former American assistant coach Karin Harjo the new head coach of the women's alpine team, making her the first-ever woman to lead a World Cup team.

"It's not the first thing that I think about, but it is really important," Harjo told CBC Sports about breaking the gender barrier in coaching. "I'm really excited, and it is an honour to be entrusted with this leadership role and to work with such a talented group of athletes."

Harjo comes to Alpine Canada from the U.S. Ski Team, where she worked with Olympic champions Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsay Vonn, among other American skiers.

Canadian alpine skiers posted strong results in 2021-22 and while none cracked the podium, Valerie Grenier, 25, came close with a fourth-place finish in giant slalom in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia while Ali Nullmeyer, 23, finished fifth in a slalom in Zagreb, Croatia

 "I'm not going to come in and give them the magic to put them on the podium," Harjo said. "It's about teamwork, working with them and figuring out as a group what we can do to be successful -- I'm just here to facilitate an environment to make them successful."

WATCH | Canadians impress at World Cup finals with top 10 results:

Ali Nullmeyer, Amelia Smart finish inside top-10 in World Cup Finals slalom

6 months ago
Duration 3:22
Toronto's Ali Nullmeyer and Invermere, B.C.'s Amelia Smart placed 6th and 9th respectively in the women's slalom competition at the FIS Alpine World Cup Finals in France.

A native of Underwood, Washington, Harjo focuses on the controllable factors as the most important. While working with Shiffrin and Vonn, Harjo concentrated on ensuring they managed what they could, right down to the smallest details. 

"The consistency that they choose to do their jobs with the small details every day sets them apart," Harjo said. "It's something that I want to bring to this team, and it has been incredible watching these ladies do that."

The experience Harjo brought to the table made her the main target for the Canadian team heading into the next season. 

"It's relief and excitement," Alpine Canada high performance director Phil McNichol told CBC Sports. "It's not easy to find someone as good as Karin to come in and provide leadership and quality at the level we're looking for."

Although the Canadian women's team fell short of their goals at the Beijing 2022 Olympics, the strong World Cup results point toward future success. Young athletes Cassidy Gray, Britt Richardson and Kiki Alexander competed on the World Cup circuit this year, taking the next step in their careers and ensuring Canada's future at the top level. 

"It's about culture, attitude and approach, how you train, and how you can conduct yourself and behave is the margin of difference," McNichol said. "I'm really excited to hit reset, and start a new [Olympic] quad with the first spring camp of my limited time here and start it right and with a change in leadership."

The Canadian women's alpine team makes its way to  Calgary for physical testing from April 24-26, meanwhile, the team lead staff meet at the Alpine Canada headquarters from April 15-26. 

'I definitely believe that creating a strong culture or even helping to continue that and evolve, will help them grow as athletes," Harjo said. "I'm really excited to see what they've accomplished so far -- I think, bodes well for the future of the team."

Breaking barriers

While Eileen Shiffrin works with her daughter Mikaela, and Norway's Karina Wathne was part of a mentorship program through the International Ski Federation, having a woman lead a World Cup team is a novel move and one that Alpine Canada hopes ushers in a new era of Canadian ski racing and acceptance of women in sport. 

In 2016, Harjo became the first woman to set a World Cup slalom course, and now she becomes the first woman to take on a World Cup head coaching role, proving that there is a place for more women in the top roles in the sport.

"I believe that sharing the message that if you love what you do, and you believe in the process that anything's possible, is very important," she said.

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