When Amanda Ammar first saw the start list at the Sovereign Lake Nordic Centre in Vernon, British Columbia, she couldn’t help but think it was comical. Next to her name where her points total should have been was nothing – zero, zilch, nada – as if she had never raced before.
Six years earlier, the Alberta native was one of the best cross-country skiers in Canada, making the 2006 Torino Olympics at age 19 and racing in several World Cups.
In 2007, Ammar posted the second-best Canadian women’s result in the inaugural Tour de Ski, placing 45th between fellow national team members Chandra Crawford (43rd) and Perianne Jones (47th). Ammar finished despite back troubles, but the pain increased severely after the Tour to the point that she couldn’t put on boots or tuck while skiing.
She made it through the U23 World Championships that year, but ended the season with a number of scratches. The DNS-pattern continued into 2008 and by December 2009, Ammar decided to take a break from racing. She was injured, run-down and just plain tired of the sport.
“I remember actually laying in bed and getting up to go skiing and I was like, ‘Oh, I have to put on ski clothes,’ and I almost would start crying,” Ammar said in a phone interview from Canmore, Alberta. “It seemed like too much of a job to do. I was that exhausted that any little thing seemed impossible.”
The time away from skiing made her miss the sport she excelled in since age 16. Last year, Ammar jumped into a couple of races at the Canadian national championships at the request of her former team, Canmore Nordic. There, she and teammate Annika Hicks finished second in the team sprint, giving Ammar her first senior nationals medal. She also posted the fastest lap times of the day.
The surprising results made her want more. Well-rested and ready to get back to skiing, the 25-year-old reentered the NorAm scene in early December with a pair of races at Sovereign Lake.
Once she saw her seeding for the classic interval start, Ammar knew that having zero points indicated exactly what she was in for. After two years away from racing, she was starting from scratch.
Unsure how to analyze splits when the fastest racers started something like 15 minutes later, Ammar decided to throw out all expectations and just go for it. She had put so much pressure on herself in the past and wanted to focus on skiing fast while having fun.
As it turned out, Ammar posted her best 10 k classic result in three years, finishing about a minute off the podium in 10th. Besides giving her some points for a slightly better position in the next race, the result confirmed she was on the right track.
“I’m not seeded down there with the good ones yet, but I’m making my way down,” Ammar said. “I still have that 10-minute gap between me and when Emily Nishikawa starts.”
A top racer at Canmore’s Alberta World Cup Academy (AWCA), Nishikawa serves as a sort of measuring stick for Ammar. At a recent NorAm in Whistler, British Columbia, Ammar placed second to the Canadian Senior Development Team member in a 10 k classic race on Jan. 15. Just 13.6 seconds out of first, Ammar realized her fitness was coming along sooner than she anticipated.
“I could feel like things were getting better, but you just don’t know until you finally hit the podium, like, ‘OK this is solid. We’re good. We’re going in the right direction,’” Ammar said. “Thank God things are actually working out this year, too, because I’m doing something completely different than most people. I’m on my own. I’m not with a team.”
She Knows Best
To make for a gradual transition back, Ammar decided to approach the season independently without a team or coach, per se. Considering everything she had been through, including injuries, mental blocks and food allergies (she later discovered she had lactose and gluten intolerances), Ammar felt she would be the best person to monitor a training plan. But she wanted someone else to write it.
Her longtime boyfriend and former racer, Chris Butler, volunteered. With his guidance and some preseason help from Mike Cavaliere, Canada’s 2006 Olympic coach and AWCA founder, Ammar embarked on her comeback.
It wasn’t traditional, but Ammar believed it could work. She was surprised at the amount of others that believed in her as well. At a concert fundraiser in Canmore last fall, Ammar said the community helped her raise a good chunk of money to fund her season.
Essentially on her own except for clothing provided by her main sponsor, Track ’n Trail, Ammar said not having team fees cut down expenses significantly. At the end of the season, she would pay the Callaghan Valley ski club for helping her out with travel and waxing, but other than that, she said the financial aspect wasn’t too straining.
It helped that she spent the better part of the last two years working at Rocky Mountain Rehab in Canmore, where she still holds a part-time secretarial job. Last summer, Ammar said she worked most days, about 30-35 hours a week. That gave her time for one workout per day, which she said was key to helping her ease back into race form.
“Most of my training was quality over quantity,” she said.
While she scaled back her work hours and amped up her workouts last fall, Ammar made a conscious effort not to overdo it. After experiencing rapid weight loss in her younger years, she wanted to make sure she was healthy and strong.
“I got really small, like, quite skinny at one point for my size. It was too small for me, which wasn’t natural,” said the 5-foot-2 (157-centimeter) Ammar. “I went from 17 percent body fat to 11 in a month the year that I went to the World Cup and made the Olympics. … That really messed a lot of things up by doing that.”
While Ammar said she looks different now, her recent performances prove that her fitness and strength are developing as needed.
“When I went to the Olympics, I looked fit. When you looked at me, I had the six-pack and I looked kind of jacked and what you think an athlete should look like,” Ammar said. “I’m healthier now and I feel like it’s probably better than what I was at. … You have this vision of what you think an athlete should look like, but that’s ridiculous.”
The shift in mindset went deeper than looks; Ammar changed her approach to racing as well. Instead of putting a tremendous amount of pressure on herself, she resolved to take each race and result in stride.
“I want to get to a certain level again, but I can’t force it,” she said. “I just have to do what I love doing.”
So far, it’s working. Ammar recently placed third in a 10 k freestyle pursuit at the NorAm mini tour in Canmore. She typically excels in classic distance races.
With her sights set on continuing to improve this season, Ammar hoped to make a team by next year. She said it’s difficult to make a training centre at her age, but hoped a team like Central Cross Country (CXC) of Wisconsin would pick her up. With her good friend Sara Hewitt on the team, Ammar was convinced training with a strong group of women would help her.
“As fun as it’s been this year on my own, I do miss having training partners,” Ammar said.
After that, she entertained the possibility of making a development squad and reclaiming her spot on the national team. Despite her history of overtraining and losing her passion for the sport, Ammar was excited about a fresh start. At the same time, she had no regrets.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world, but I do wish it wasn’t so fast,” Ammar said. “It’s good to know what you had and really appreciate it for what it was.”
When she was younger and “fried” with skiing, she said all she wanted to do was go to work. Once she started working full time and skiing on the side, she found herself longing for the latter.
“Every day I was like, ‘I really want to go back. I really miss it,’ ” she said. “I’m sure once I’m done with skiing this time I can enjoy the real world, but it was just a shock to the system. … I just feel like I can push still harder and I have a long way to go. It’s definitely not the end.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.