Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of our recently relaunched ‘Pros of Tomorrow’ series, which highlights some of the most notable up-and-coming athletes around the world. See also: Cendrine Browne.
Fresh off her last races of the season at Canadian Nationals in Whistler, British Columbia, Heidi Widmer plunged into the backcountry in early April for some ski touring in Callaghan Valley.
There, the 22-year-old Banff native knocked off the 1,275-metre (nearly 4,200-foot) Mt. Cayoosh and headed to a lodge in the Selkirk Mountains for more touring. Even with all the physical activity capping a long season, Widmer considered the trip relaxing amid beautiful scenery.
“It’s really a huge mental break,” she said on the phone Sunday from Switzerland, where she’s training with the Swiss national team. “It’s really a good chance for reflection because you’re out for hours on end, most of the time slogging around.”
Now in Davos, Switzerland, Widmer also visited El Salvador (for surfing) and New Orleans (for a music festival) for a total of two weeks in late April. Then it was back to training, first with the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA) for five days in Canmore, Alberta, then for a weeklong camp in Vernon, B.C.
Widmer spent another five days back in Canmore before flying to Switzerland on May 25, and she’ll be there until June 24.
Doesn’t she get tired?
“Surprisingly not,” Widmer said with a laugh. “I have to take my downtime when I can get it. I really enjoy traveling, but I maybe enjoy it too much. I really got after it in the spring.”
With a list of trips lined up, Widmer was uncertain about Switzerland, arranged through former AWCA head coach Christian Flury, now in charge of the Swiss women’s team. She knew if she received the call up to Canada’s Senior Development Team, which she had been working for her entire junior career, her schedule would depend on the national team’s.
Lucky for her, it all worked out.
“I’ve been working toward getting on the national team for a couple years and the fact that it all fell together, it just kind of means that the work is just beginning,” Widmer said. “It’s gratifying knowing that I’m doing something in the right direction.”
She heard the good news soon after emerging from the backcountry during an April meeting with AWCA women’s coach Chris Jeffries. Her initial excitement came with some apprehension: did her brother Phil make it, too? Jeffries couldn’t say, so she waited to hear from her older brother, who was in the backcountry away from reliable cell service for another week.
While making pizzas with friends one night, Widmer got a phone call from her mom, who was crying. Phil, 29, left a message about being renominated.
“My mom was so happy,” Widmer recalled. “It’s really cool being able to accomplish something together. … I think that says a lot about persistence. He’s been for sure inspiring, to watch him take the setbacks in stride and keep working towards getting where he wants to go.
“I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have him to follow in the sport,” she added. “I remember when he qualified for Torino [Olympics in 2006]. I was at an influential age where you’re like, ‘My older brother can do this, so can I.’ ”
Last season, Widmer tallied two podiums at nationals in the 5- and 30-kilometer freestyle races. At U23 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, she placed 28th in a 10 k skate. There, she spoke with Flury about her dream of coming to Switzerland, where her father was born and she and her siblings have citizenship.
Also in Liberec, Widmer saw online that The Gypsy Kings and Fleetwood Mac were playing in New Orleans. Taking a short detour to Louisiana on the flight back from El Salvador was a no-brainer, and so was going to Switzerland.
Flury assured Widmer it was possible and spoke with Jeffries about her training plan.
“Through email and conversations with him, I knew that he was really open to it and I felt extremely comfortable coming over to train with him,” Widmer said. “The rest of the team being so welcoming, I was optimistic it was going to work out, but they definitely exceeded my expectations.”
After visiting her grandmother in Zurich, Widmer met up with the Swiss team at the national-sport centre headquarters in Magglingen, Switzerland. She spent the next week adjusting to the time difference and recovering while the national team did baseline testing.
Widmer then spent few nights in Davos with Tatjana Stiffler, originally her Facebook friend, before heading to a training camp on Stelvio Pass at a glacier some 2,700 metres (8,850 feet) above sea level.
“It’s been amazing,” Widmer said. “I always wanted to come over here and train but I didn’t really know what to expect. … Right away the team was super inclusive and everyone was really supportive of me being there, and I felt like part of the team instantly. It was pretty awesome.”
She didn’t speak much Swiss-German, but was learning thanks to Stiffler. The dialect and vocabulary were much different than the High German she knew, but Widmer said she was having fun catching on and chatting with Swiss skiers when she could.
“I always felt, ‘My name’s Heidi Widmer … and I’m not super connected with Switzerland,’ ” she said. “I know they had a strong team to train with and the environment seemed like it would be a good fit and a good experience. I’m always interested in learning how different teams are approaching ski racing so that was also a draw.”
So what’s different about Switzerland, in terms of its national-team training methods and glacier? According to Widmer, not much on the philosophical front, except for a few technical points she’s been working on.
“It’s been very similar to what we do in Canada,” she said. “You’re doing longer hours and more hours when you’re at altitude on the glacier and similar approach to the training speed and … not just going out and hammering at altitude.”
As for the glacier itself: “I’m trying to think of another word besides pimped,” Widmer said with a laugh. “It was a lot more comfortable living than our [Haig] glacier camp, let’s put it that way.”
From the hotel, one can cross the road and immediately access the 4 k ski loop, which starts with a brief descent before winding back up to the top of the glacier.
“Then you go back to your hotel and all the meals are cooked for you,” she said. “All the teams are there, and it’s a really cool atmosphere.”
Widmer spent five days with the team on Stelvio before heading back to Davos last week. She’ll be dryland training there for the rest of her stay with Stiffler and a few U23s, like Nathalie von Siebenthal and Christa Jäger. World Cup skier Bettina Gruber, 28, is also in Davos, and the two planned to meet up for some intensity.
Looking ahead, Widmer said she’s most focused on peaking for her last year of U23’s – and making the Olympics if possible. Number one on her list: the skate sprint at U23 World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
“What I did last year is working; I don’t think I have to do anything drastic to change my training approach,” she said, adding that she’s boosted her strength training.
Naturally a sprinter, Widmer didn’t rule out her potential in distance events, especially with a 10 k classic Olympic qualifier in January in Canmore.
“My classic skiing in distance and sprinting has to step it up a notch so I’m putting my focus on that as well,” she added. “I haven’t had a breakout international performance yet so I’m really looking towards that.”
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