When the phone rang and Alana Thomas answered to hear the voice of Tom Holland, Cross Country Canada’s high-performance director, she had a sense of what was coming.
The 23-year-old Nakkertok racer, who lives and trains in Ottawa, had been waiting for a similar call since she started skiing competitively more than seven years ago.
With a considerably better-than-average start to her season this year, Thomas knew this might be her best chance to earn a trip to Europe. She had passed the windows for the Junior World and U23 World championships and never belonged to one of the Canadian national team’s elite training centres, yet Thomas had a few results going for her.
A week and a half ago at the NorAm mini tour in Canmore, Alberta, she placed second in a 5 k classic interval start. She was third in a preceding NorAm skiathlon in Whistler, British Columbia. By her estimations, that put her in the running for Canada’s OPA Tour/convergence trip Feb. 3-12.
Holland’s news confirmed she was right as he invited her to join a select group of Canadians for the European Continental Cup circuit – the Scandinavian equivalent of NorAms.
“I tried to play it cool, obviously,” Thomas said with a laugh on the phone Saturday before flying out on Sunday. “It was funny. He’s pretty understated so he was like, ‘You can go if you want,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, I really want to go,’ then I was like, ‘Uh, where does the trip actually go?’ ”
Thomas said this will be her first time in Switzerland, Latvia and Estonia, and she never raced in Europe before. She’s mostly excited for the adventure of the whole experience.
While packing Saturday night, Thomas said she was sorting out some necessities after her last shift at Fresh Air Experience, a ski and bike shop in Ottawa. She remembered to buy a hairdryer outlet adapter, but wasn’t sure what else she’d need.
As a university student for most of her ski career, the Carleton University grad had been to northeastern China for the 2009 World University Games in Yabuli. The OPA Cup events in Campra, Switzerland, and Scandinavian Cup races in Madonna, Latvia, and Albu, Estonia, would likely be entirely different.
Regardless, Thomas remained relaxed about the trip. Since flying home from Canmore on Monday, she had been home for six days and spent the early part of the week resting. She sat out the final pursuit race of the mini tour in anticipation of the OPA races she found out about just a day or two before. At the time, Thomas said she felt slightly run down, but was at full strength in a prologue with her Nakkertok teammates on Saturday.
“For me, it’s huge. It’s so satisfying,” Thomas said of the trip. “It kind of makes me feel like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’ even if it doesn’t result in being on the national team or going to the Olympics.”
After graduating high school in her hometown of Mississauga, Ontario, she explored her racing options and applied to several national development centres.
“I always got turned down so I just sort of thought, ‘Well, I guess school’s the right place for me then,’ ” she said. “ ‘If I’m not good enough for that, I might as well go to school and keep skiing, have fun.’ ”
She started at the University of Toronto and transferred to Carleton University two years later for better skiing opportunities. There, she joined Nakkertok, and in December 2010, graduated with an economics degree. While most of her competitors took the more common path in Canada and jumped into full-time training after high school, Thomas said the balance kept her going strong later.
“It was at some points super-discouraging, feeling like, ‘Yeah, I really want to ski race, and I really want to be good at this, but I can’t go to a training centre,’ ” she said. “Maybe I’ll just try to tell myself I’m a late bloomer.”
In her first season without studies on her mind, Thomas was happy with her decision to stay with the sport for at least another year. Despite holding two jobs, including a teaching-assistant position at Carleton, she devoted last fall to training and said it made the difference this season.
“Usually I don’t really find my groove until January,” she said. “I tried to be on my game a little earlier in the season this year.”
Of the seven athletes who will race on the European circuit, Thomas is one of the few without ties to a training centre. Zoe Roy races independently with the help of several teams, including the Rocky Mountain Racers, and Brian McKeever of the Foothills Nordic Ski Club is also a national team Paralympian.
Three members of the Alberta World Cup Academy will also race in Europe: Alysson Marshall, Graham Nishikawa and Phil Widmer. Michael Somppi will represent the Thunder Bay’s National Development Centre on the team along with head coach Eric Bailey, the appointed team leader.
Looking ahead, Thomas said she was especially excited for the 5 k classic in Switzerland and a 15 k freestyle mass start in Latvia. An outsider to the competition, she wasn’t sure what to expect, but said she would attack each race and with the intention of feeling good about every performance.
“Hopefully the results are, well, I don’t know, they’ll be what they are,” Thomas said. “I kind of feel like I have my chance, like they’ve given me a chance to kind of prove myself or get a little more experience. I’m hoping to take this chance and run with it and go over there and be focused. … Hopefully it all goes well.”
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.