North Americans have heard the name Nishikawa ad naseum over the last few years, as Graham Nishikawa has established himself as one Canada’s top domestic skiers. But now, his younger sister Emily Nishikawa is the rapidly rising one.
After finishing as the top Canadian and winning a national title in the 5 k freestyle in Canmore in March, in the first individual event at the Canadian Championships, Nishikawa went on to place 2nd overall in the senior women aggregate standings after the week of racing – firmly establishing herself in the top tier of Canadian women’s skiing.
The 22-year-old from Whitehorse, Yukon, is a member of the Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), and she started the season slowly after suffering a shoulder injury in the fall. That limited her training, and at her first race, the first Nor-Am in Vernon, B.C., she finished 16th in the 10 k freestyle. She then traveled to Rossland, B.C. where she finished 16th in the Nor-Am mini-tour.
However, at the Canadian Under-23 World Championships Trials in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Nishikawa was fully healed, and surprised even herself in the very first race. In the 15 k pursuit, she finished 5th overall, as the top U-23 – she described the race as “better than I ever could have imagined.”
Afterwards, she just kept rolling, finishing fourth in the sprint, and booking a ticket to Otepaa, Estonia, for U-23’s and a start in the Estonian World Cup.
In Otepaa, Nishikawa finished 46th in the 10 k freestyle World Cup, which she described as “one of the hardest courses I had ever raced.”
At the U-23 World Championships, Nishikawa raced the 10 k, the sprint, and the 15 k pursuit, finishing in the top 30 in all three events.
Nishikawa pointed to the 10 k classic as her best race, where she finished 16th, as the top North American. Nishikawa was surprised at her speed, describing it as a “great race.”
“When I came around for my second lap, I stayed with this German girl who just started. I was never sure just how good my fitness was, but I guess I can ski with those girls,” she said.
Nishikawa then returned to Canada, and won every race at the Eastern Canadian Championships Nor-Am mini-tour, boosting her standings in the Nor-Am series, in which she eventually finished second.
Nishikawa attributed much of her recent success to her hard training with the AWCA over the course of the year.
“There’s a great program here,” said Nishikawa. “I have great coaches and teammates – it’s just a good environment.”
But Nishikawa – as well as her older brother and AWCA teammate Graham – got her start skiing much further north, in Whitehorse.
“The ski community in Whitehorse is huge,” she said. “It’s kind of a cool, tight-knit group.”
The Whitehorse Cross-Country Ski Club has around 1,300 members, which, for a city with just 20,000 people, is impressive.
And the Nishikawa’s are far from the only successful skiers from the Canadian north. Shannon and Shirley Firth were pioneers in Canadian skiing, from the northern community of Inuvik, NT, going to four Olympic Games between 1972 and 1984. More recently, David Greer and Knute Johnsgaard, both of Whitehorse, were members of the Pierre Harvey National Training Center (CNEPH), this past season.
Each year, Whitehorse arrives at Nationals with a small but extremely talented group of skiers – this year they finished sixth in the overall club rankings.
Nishikawa attributes the success partly to the city’s long winter. It’s not uncommon for Whitehorse to have snow from October well into May, giving skiers great conditions to work in.
Also, the club is coached by Alain Masson, a three-time Olympian in cross-country skiing and track cycling and Canadian ski coaching legend.
But for Nishikawa, the decision had to be made to leave. She departed Whitehorse for Whistler, B.C., and the chance to train with other dedicated young Canadian athletes at the Callahan Valley Training Center (CVTC).
However, Nishikawa struggled at CVTC. She suffered from cross-country skiing’s biggest nemesis, compartment syndrome, and lost an entire race season because of the injury. She also was getting used to the new location.
“It’s a big adjustment moving away from home – you’re training full time,” she said. “It took a while to get it all right for me, but I had a great experience.”
This season she switched to the AWCA, where she had a significant improvement, regularly battling for Nor-Am wins, and becoming arguably the best female non-National Team skier in Canada.
And Nishikawa now has a familiar home environment as well – she lives with her brother and fellow AWCA skier Graham, and his girlfriend Madeleine Williams, a Vancouver Olympian and retired AWCA member.
The two older athletes have a wealth of racing and training experience that the younger Nishikawa is able to draw from on a regular basis, something she considers valuable.
“Graham’s really good with race tactics,” she said. “We’ll talk a little bit about a race the night before.”
For next year, Nishikawa is remaining with AWCA, and with one more year of eligibility, she is aiming for top results at the U-23 Championships again.
But before she gears up for another season, Nishikawa headed south for a quick trip to recharge in Mexico, before heading home to Whitehorse for a brief visit. She aims to start up serious training in May, with a training camp in Vernon, B.C., where she can ski at Silverstar Resort, while still enjoying spring weather in the Okanagan Valley.