VERNON, British Columbia — Mike Cavaliere had a pretty distinct idea of what he wanted the Alberta World Cup Academy to look like when he developed the training center just over four years ago.
With several AWCA athletes zipping around in the Canadian national team’s unmistakable neon jackets and four Olympians assisting them at last weekend’s NorAm opener at Sovereign Lake, things appeared to be going as planned.
If anything, Cavaliere, a 2006 Olympic coach and the academy’s racing director, wanted his 21 athletes and nine staff members to draw more attention to themselves.
“Mike actually got mad at us on Sunday because we set up in sort of a back corner out of the way,” said Chris Jeffries, a 2006 Olympian in his first year as the academy’s head coach.
“At the end of the day, Mike’s like, ‘All right, this does not happen again,’ ” Jeffries said. “ ‘We’re not a back-corner team, we’re a front-and-center team.’ ”
After helping Cavaliere revive the Canmore National Training Centre, which closed in 2003 and reopened as the Alberta World Cup Academy in 2008, Jeffries appreciated that mentality.
All three of his Olympic cohorts, now academy coaches and support staff, did as well. Unwinding after the weekend in a Silver Star condo, Stefan Kuhn and George Grey — two recently retired Canadian Olympians — sat in a living room with Jeffries and Dan Roycroft, who competed in the 2006 Winter Games.
The academy wasn’t intense as it appeared, Jeffries said. That just didn’t always show on race day.
“It’s structured, but it’s laid back,” Jeffries said. “It’s one of the nice things about being on a staff with your friends, guys you grew up racing with. It’s an extension of what we did when we were racing.”
Two of the team’s newest coaches, Kuhn and Grey are not far removed from their racing careers. Last spring, the 32-year-old Kuhn announced his retirement for the second time. A celebrated Canadian sprinter, he initially left the sport in 2001 to become a chef, but returned in 2005 to make an Olympic run. This year, he said the decision was final and he was comfortable coaching sprinters.
One of his good friends, Grey also stepped down from competition earlier this year. Like Kuhn, who initially followed a passion outside skiing, Grey took a different professional route as a financial services manager in Canmore, Alberta. Six months later, Grey, 32, reconsidered that direction when Jeffries approached him with a coaching position.
“It came to a point in my career with the bank where I decided, ‘Do I want to further it or do I want to explore other things before I head down that road permanently?’ ” Grey said. “I decided I’d take the winter to rethink and evaluate what my ambitions and things are for the future and here I am working with the ski team and I couldn’t be happier right now.”
The academy as the brainchild of Cavaliere has worked so far. In its fourth season, the AWCA includes 10 national-team members, seven of which are seniors. Three other training centers serve as official extensions of Cross Country Canada: Thunder Bay, Centre Pierre-Harvey and Callaghan Valley. Of them, the AWCA in Canmore and the Pierre-Harvey institute in Quebec City rank as ‘A’-tier teams.
Cavaliere said a large part of that is because of his academy’s ideal location in Canmore, where it shares training facilities with Canadian National Ski Team members. There, his athletes can bump elbows with World Cup athletes, and be in contact with Canada’s head coach, Justin Wadsworth.
With a larger roster than most, Cavaliere said the academy works with a “fairly hefty” budget, adding that they’re careful with spending. Rather than travel in the summer to ski on snow, AWCA members stay home to train on the glacier.
“We live in the greatest facility in I think the world,” Cavaliere said. “So why would we have to go anywhere else?”
By finding similar ways to save money, he said team costs have gone down in the last few years as the academy has subsidized its athletes more. In paying for about 55 percent of each athlete’s expenses, he said the program is about on par with other cross-country skiing development centers in Canada.
The difference is that AWCA was the first to be privately funded. After a year as an unofficial high-performance academy, it grew into an “A and B training center,” Cavaliere said. That meant it could provide services just below that of a World Cup team and receive access to strength coaches, a team doctor and a physiotherapist, courtesy of Cross Country Canada.
“Everybody looks at us and says, ‘You’re rich, you get this, you get that,’ ” Cavaliere said. “But we’re wise. We buy great used vans and we take care of them. We’re frugal, I’d say, even though we may not appear to be.”
After starting the program with one minivan, the academy’s fleet has grown to two 15-passenger vans and two rental trucks for trips. While Cavaliere may count every dime, he doesn’t hold back when hiring coaches.
As soon as he found out Grey quit his job at the bank, he sent Jeffries to make him a job offer. In the meantime, Cavaliere poured over the budget to figure out how to make it work. In late November, Grey accepted the position and started working with the team two weeks ago.
“It was really exciting,” Cavaliere said. “Here’s George Grey, one of our best distance skiers. We’ve got (AWCA athlete) Kevin Sandau, and they’re probably eight or nine years apart, and they can stand on the ski trail today and talk about a little strategy for next week. … That’s pretty powerful stuff. You can’t get that in a manual.”
Besides athlete development, which according to his vision meant bringing up the quality of skiers while maintaining about 20 skiers, Cavaliere was passionate about keeping former athletes in the sport. Coaching wasn’t for everybody, but it was important to keep those with elite experience contributing to its growth on some level — either as a tech, support staff or industry member.
“If you look at the four of us (Jeffries, Kuhn, Grey and Roycroft), we’re probably talking about millions as far as what’s been spent on us in our career by the federation,” Jeffries said. “If they don’t engage us post-racing career it’s wasted money.”
Cavaliere said keeping the best athletes involved in a sport is the key to its international success, citing some Scandinavian cross-country skiing strongholds as examples.
“We’ve always wanted to retain these guys,” he said. “Every great sport system in the world keeps their greatest people involved in the sport.”
By helping to convince Jeffries to join him in an apprentice role in 2008 and swaying Kuhn and Grey this year, Cavaliere has created the program he envisioned from the start. For the first time this year, he gave full coaching responsibilities to Jeffries and took more of an administrative role. He would only step in for minor comments, he said, such as where the team should set up at races.
“If I had to compare us, I’d say we’re like APU (Alaska Pacific University) in some ways,” Cavaliere said. “They’re not off in the bush, they’re out there and people can see how much work they’re doing. If you want to make change you have to lead by example.”
One example they’re setting is that athletes can make great coaches. After a successful junior career, Eric Groeneveld is in his third year as an AWCA apprentice coach. Contracted out by the academy, the 22-year-old is also the head coach of the Foothills Nordic Ski Club and will soon have his choice of head coaching positions at other clubs.
“The goal is not to have him in the program much longer,” Jeffries said. “He’s learned the tools and he understands what a good program looks like.”
The academy’s two other coaches, Kuhn and Grey, are also learning the ropes. For former World Cup athletes, waxing knowledge isn’t a forte.
“Our waxing history is essentially hand our ski bags to the tech,” Jeffries said, recalling the first time Cavaliere left him in charge of waxing at a race.
“I opened up the wax box and I had a couple parents there that were helping me wax,” he said. “(I) pulled out the first wax and I was like, ‘So what’s this? and they were like, ‘That’s LF4. And I was like, ‘All right, let’s try that one.’ ”
While he doesn’t trust many people with waxing race skis, Jeffries said he immediately approved of Grey and let him apply kick wax last weekend.
“It’s nice that you can trust the people that you’re working with,” Jeffries said. “It’s nice that I can trust them to say that this feels good, I don’t have to try it myself. If (lead glide tester) Dan (Roycroft) says that this is a great ski, then I know it’s going to be a good ski.
“It makes for an easy transition,” he added.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.