From a pickup truck to Slovenia: How Canada's ski jumpers defied all odds to win Olympic bronze

As opportunities for ski jumping decline in Canada, forcing the national program to move abroad, its athletes hope an Olympic medal will spark a resurgence in the sport.

Program hopes medal will spark a resurgence of the sport in Canada

Bronze medallists Alexandria Loutitt, Matthew Soukup, Abigail Strate and Mackenzie Boyd-Clowes of Canada celebrate on the podium at the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

When she was 10 years old, Alexandria Loutitt cut some Olympic rings out of paper, and stuck them to her bedroom door.

She had already been ski jumping for two years. But if she had it her way, she would have tried the sport even sooner, after being mesmerised watching it during the 2010 Vancouver Games.

"My parents wouldn't let me because they thought it was too dangerous," Loutiit told CBC Sports from Beijing, fresh off Canada's bronze medal in the mixed team event — the country's first ever Olympic ski jumping medal.

"At the time, there was no women's ski jumping [in the Olympics]. So they're like 'There's not really any point. If you want to go to the Olympics, maybe let's try some other sports.'"

In 2011, the International Olympic Committee announced women's ski jumping would be on the Olympic program for the 2014 Sochi Games. So when Loutitt's brother was recruited at a WinSport summer camp in 2012 and got into the sport, her parents conceded and let her try it too.

The Olympic rings that Alexandria Loutitt put up on her bedroom door when she was 10 years old are still there today. (Courtesy of Tracy Mckay)

It was a WinSport camp which also got teammate Abigail Strate recruited when she was six years old.

"We tried a bunch of different sports. Ski jumping was one of them. I went off like a little tiny jump on alpine skis and the people that were recruiting for the sport at the time went up to my mom and they said, 'Abby, Abby, she can go to the Olympics in the sport.' And my mom kind of laughed and was like, 'Haha, yeah,'" Strate recalled.

"I just found this out a few weeks ago, she told me they just handed her a two-week free camp thing and she was like 'OK, yup. I'm sold. She can try it' 

"Obviously, I never left. I was hooked."

But as the remaining ski jumping facilities in Calgary shut down in 2018 — the expense of maintaining them being one of the driving forces — so did the opportunities for young jumpers to get into the sport.

"We need a home," said Todd Stretch, the chairman (and jack-of-all-trades) of Ski Jumping Canada, adding the WinSport summer camps no longer offer ski jumping as a sport for kids to try.

The large 120-metre ski jump at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary closed in 2013, with the remaining hills closing five years later. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

The only Olympic-sized jumps in Canada are located in Whistler, B.C., leftover from the 2010 Olympics. But they're only open for winter months — useless for a high performance winter sports team.

"It's difficult to be a ski jumper or build the ski jumping program if you don't have ski jumps or athletes in the air 700 times a year," Stretch said.

For Strate, Loutitt and the rest of the Calgary-based national team, the shuttering of the Calgary jumps meant leaving the country in pursuit of their Olympic dreams.

WATCH | Canada wins historic ski jumping medal

'Cash strapped program'

Leading up to the Beijing Games, the team had been training out of Slovenia since June 2021. Before then, global travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic kept them confined to a field in Alberta, training out of the back of a pickup truck.

"That decision [to move to Slovenia] was not tough for me at all," Strate said. 

"I've actually been wanting to do that for a lot longer than just this past June. I knew that was what we needed to do in order to be competitive in the sport."

(Clockwise from top left) Abigail Strate, Alexandria Loutitt, Matthew Soukup and Mackenzie Boyd-Clowes celebrate with their bronze medals at the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. (Courtesy of Abigail Strate)

And while the move made sense from a competitive standpoint, with the Slovenians having world-class facilities, it was also an economical move.

Ski Jumping Canada, along with Nordic Combined Canada, are the two organizations which did not receive a quadrennial funding recommendation from Own The Podium for the Beijing Games, or the Pyeongchang Games — though Own The Podium has provided technical guidance.

Mackenzie Boyd-Clowes celebrates with teammates after his final jump placed Canada into a podium position. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

"In the case of ski jumping for both Pyeongchang and Beijing, there was not evidence of medal potential," said Own The Podium CEO Anne Merklinger.

"[Ski Jumping Canada], with our encouragement, made a bold decision to centralize the high performance program in Slovenia, as opposed to training in Whistler. Training in Slovenia was a more economical solution for this cash strapped program. This has been a difference maker."

But it hasn't been easy. Stretch estimates it costs about $50,000 a year for a ski jumper to live abroad and attend competitions. 

The team is so cash-strapped, Loutitt reportedly borrowed a pair of skis from a teammate for Monday's bronze medal-winning jump.

Stretch said his organization does get $80,000 annually from Sport Canada as base funding, and another $80,000 from the Coaching Association of Canada's Safe Sport program. The rest of the team's budget is through self-fundraising by hosting a golf tournament and accepting in-kind donations.

"For a long time, I did work a summer job when I came back," said Strate, who worked as a cart girl at a golf course. "I've honestly been saving money my whole life. I'm just that kind of person. I don't like to spend it, I like to keep it.

"But yeah, we still find ourselves kind of scraping for any bit of help we can get. We're never going to pass up an opportunity for a sponsorship."

(Left-right) Loutitt, Soukup, Strate, and Boyd-Clowes celebrate on the podium of the inaugural Olympic mixed team ski jumping event. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Impacting the next generation

With the bronze medal under their belt, Loutitt, Strate and the rest of the organization hopes this bronze medal is the spark to help rebuild the sport in Canada, starting with new facilities and inspiring other kids to take up ski jumping.

"I hope that I can do for some kid what my now-teammate McKenzie [Boyd-Clowes] did for me. He was the one who inspired me to ski jump from watching him and those boys compete in Vancouver," Loutitt said.

"I hope this [bronze medal] will bring funding to not just us as the national team, but also to clubs ... and build small hills and create this new community in Canada of ski jumpers that isn't just starting kids on cross-country skis, or driving an hour-and-a-half to get to a ski jump."

Merklinger said the bronze medal would "definitely ignite this program in the lead up to 2026 and 2030."

"These athletes have the potential to form a strong base for future performances and will have inspired a new generation of future ski jumpers," Merklinger said. "OTP will continue to work with Ski Jumping Canada to build on this breakthrough performance with a focus on replicating this in 2026 and 2030."

Own The Podium's mandate is to fund programs with medal potential. The caveat of this bronze medal, however, is one could argue it was aided in part by a slew of controversial disqualifications.

Among them was Germany's Katharina Althaus, who won the silver medal in the women's normal hill individual competition. The disqualification cost the Germans — the top-ranked ski jumping country in the world — a spot in the final.

"Yeah, the disqualifications nobody was expecting," Strate said. "But at the end of the day, I know that myself and all three of my teammates had excellent performances and we deserved to be up there."

"I definitely sympathize and I understand how hard it is," Loutitt added, herself being disqualified in the individual competition for her skis being 300 grams too light.

"But at the same time it gave us the opportunity to really show our jumps. And so we had some luck. But we also had good performances, so it wasn't relying on one or the other"

A young Alexandria Loutitt competing on the 20-metre hill at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah. (Courtesy of Tracy Mckay)

'We need small jumps. We need them all over Canada'

Since their win, the team has already raised more than $4,000 through a GoFundMe campaign.

Stretch, the Ski Jumping Canada chair, also says he's already received about 20 inquiries from parents about how to get their kids into the sport.

But whether more funding comes, and more people sign up for the sport, Loutitt, Strate and Stretch all agree the first step is to get the infrastructure back up and running. Ski Jumping Canada says there are plans to build three additional plastic-covered junior jumps in Whistler.

"There is a serious, significant lack of young athletes in our country. What we really lost when we lost our jumps in Calgary is the hills that the young kids could train on," Strate said, adding the Whistler hill isn't accessible.

"We need small jumps. We need them all over Canada. And we need young athletes starting in the sport. I lived eight minutes away from the hills [in Calgary] and my parents would drive me there, drop me off and I would be able to jump. 

"If my parents had to drive an hour, or an hour-and-a-half to drop me off for an hour of time on skis, I don't think I would have stayed in the sport."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Murray

Reporter

Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.

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