With Chandra Crawford, Alana Thomas, Zoë Roy, and team founder Amanda Ammar all bowing out of competitive cross-country skiing this year, Team Ninja only existed for a season, but what a season it was.
FasterSkier recently checked in with each of the Ninjas, including Thomas, Ammar and Roy, to talk about the independent team and discuss what each of them intend to do as they turn the page to a post-ski racing chapter of life.
Training with Team Ninja
“Once you get to a certain age, I don’t think you should be on a generic program. We all had our own focuses and goals and we didn’t hold hands the whole time but we came together for key workouts where we’d push each other hard.” — Amanda Ammar, two-time Olympian, former Canadian National Team member and Team Ninja founder
One of the features that set Team Ninja apart from other ski teams is that there wasn’t a single coach responsible for guiding all four athletes’ training regimens. Ammar was coached by Chris Butler, Crawford by Peter Larsson, Roy developed her own training program with help from several coaches, and Thomas worked with Jack Sasseville. This approach allowed each member to focus on their own strengths and weaknesses and helped them to work their training around work and injuries. Both Thomas and Ammar were plagued with lower-back issues, common among nordic skiers.
Ammar tried upping her running hours to take strain off her upper body, only to develop a foot injury from too much running. With advice from U.S. Ski Team member Sadie Bjornsen, Ammar switched her training to swimming for a week and a half and soon after, she posted a personal best in a time trial up the Mt. Norquay access road in Banff, beating her previous best by two minutes.
Thomas’s back pain stemmed from disc issues and affected her for a large portion of the year.
“From July on through to January, training was really tough because of my back,” she said.
For Thomas, it was Team Ninja’s support and positive attitude that motivated her to stick with it.
While the Ninjas trained hard, it was their desire to have fun first and foremost that defined their training season. They had filled up Sriracha Hot Sauce bottles with a sport drink for “Ninja Juice” feeds on long runs, worn “Like A Boss” T-shirts for every workout at their training camp in Invermere, B.C., and had a blast while mountain biking on trails in Bend, Ore.
An Olympic Year
“I had a really solid race season, but it wasn’t quite good enough for the Olympics. I think it was a pretty good ratio having half our team going to the Olympics though! I was really happy to help along my teammates and be part of building their success.” — Zoe Roy
When the dust settled after Canadian Olympic trials, two of the seven women on the Olympic team were Ninjas: Crawford and Ammar.
For Ammar, qualifying for the Olympics was the big goal and, according to her, her team was instrumental in getting her to Sochi.
“I needed those girls this past year,” she said. “They brought a whole new element of fun and working with them challenged me to push out of my comfort zone. That extra diversity of not having to train by myself really helped me raise the bar. Without them there was no way — plus we had so much fun.”
Ammar described her Sochi experience as more or less an uphill battle. She and Brittany Webster, of Team Mito Canada, were added to the Olympic team after the official team naming, and as a result, prepared separate from the rest of the team.
“It was really rough going to the Olympics, having to fight so hard to get there and then have my skis broken in transit,” Ammar said. “I felt like it wasn’t a really fair shot against the world.”
Aside from the Olympics, Team Ninja made every stop of the NorAm circuit except Westerns. At the first NorAm of the season, they “Christmas-tree bombed” trees at the SilverStar venue. Roy posted two podiums, including a win, at Canadian Eastern Championships in February, and Ammar finished her season with the first national title of her career in the 30 k classic event at Canadian Nationals in March.
The Future of Team Ninja
After Nationals, Ammar, 28, was debating continuing her career.
“At the end of the season it was almost hard for me to retire, I’m in the best shape of my life right now,” she said. “Mentally and physically I’ve never felt stronger than this season.”
But having spent over 13 years racing competitively (her first nationals was Thunder Bay in 2000), and after having injury continually crop up, she decided it was time to move on.
Reflecting on her final season, she was content with meeting her two big goals of qualifying for Sochi and winning a nationals distance race. Ammar plans to begin studying Chinese medicine at a Calgary acupuncture school this fall and has already been offered a position, upon the completion of her studies, at the Canmore Alberta clinic where she currently works as an administrative assistant.
In terms of milestones, 2014 was it for Ammar. The weekend after her return from Sochi, her boyfriend of five years as well as her coach, Chris Butler took her backcountry skiing and proposed to her on top of a mountain.
“All the Ninjas were betting that it [the proposal] would be at Christmas but when it didn’t happen I thought it’d be next fall,” she said. “I was surprised when he proposed right after the Olympics!”
She said yes.
Roy, 26, was happy to finish her career with a solid race season, ranking sixth overall on the NorAm circuit without racing at Nationals. Having raced on the U.S. collegiate circuit with the University of Utah, to the Scandinavian Cup, Roy says it’s time to try something new.
“I’m moving on to different things,” she said.
She’s currently the assistant manager at the Paintbox Lodge, owned by 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sara Renner and her husband Thomas Grandi, an alpine Olympian, in Canmore. Roy works with former Alberta World Cup Academy skier Kate Brennan.
That’s her “summer plan,” she said, explaining she’d like to go into business with her brother.
“My brother has started a backpack company so I’m thinking of going back to Bend to help him with that in the future,” she said. “This is still in the works but that’d be my plan in the fall.”
After coping with injury for the last year, Thomas, 26, finally stepped back from skiing in January.
“On any other team I would have quit earlier, but I wanted to be with the Ninjas and support their races, that was really what kept me around,” she said. “The other Ninjas were really successful and I’m very happy to have been part of it. … I had hoped that I could finish it off strong, but injury ended things a couple months earlier than expected.”
With a degree in economics under her belt, Thomas will be working this summer at the CIBC bank in Canmore and shredding mountain bike trails in her free time. She plans to return to Ottawa, where she completed her undergrad, to start work on her master’s in the fall.
The Ninja Spirit
One thing that each of the Ninjas are adamant about is that, while Team Ninja may have raced its last Canadian Nationals, the team itself is not a thing of the past.
“The team is retired, but anyone can think of themselves as a Ninja,” Thomas said. “We hope that the idea of team Ninja will live on.”
The Ninja spirit created by the four athletes has inspired many younger skiers and has the potential of growing into something even bigger than the team that conceived it.
“I’ve had a couple coaches approach me to keep it going,” Ammar said. “I didn’t realize we had connected with so many younger athletes, but I’d like to share this with younger generations of girls and boys. I’m just trying to figure out how to do this right now.”
The Ninjas are entertaining the idea of starting an outreach camp for young skiers but for now, with limited time on their hands, they plan to start off small, stepping in to help coach the occasional practice with the Canmore Nordic junior team.
A Canadian cross-country ski racer with the Alberta World Cup Academy, Zeke spends most of his time in Canmore, Alberta, but calls Cantley, Quebec, his home. He thinks that you can learn a lot about a person from their goals — his is to ski really fast on the Winter Olympic race course in 2018. Find him on the web: http://ezekielwilliams.ca/ and on twitter: @zek3r