OTTAWA, Ontario — Mark Rajack, a dual citizen of Canada and Trinidad and Tobago, was first introduced to nordic skiing two years ago in 2012, but in the time since, he’s not only learned to ski and compete in his new sport, but he’s also set his sights higher than many will in their skiing careers.
Rajack, 33, lived in Trinidad and Tobago until the age of 6, at which point his parents were drawn to Ottawa for a job opportunity. From the time of his move, it would still be almost three decades until he would discover cross-country skiing.
“You don’t come from a tropical country with a background in winter sport,” said Rajack, mostly a recreational cyclist before skiing. “I didn’t know that Gatineau Park [Ottawa’s largest ski-trail network and outdoor destination] existed until I started working at the local bike-and-ski shop.”
“I started [skiing] the year I turned 32 and it was an accident,” he explained in an interview at Carleton University on Sept. 3.
He wanted to learn how to fix bicycles so he got a job working at a bike shop. In the process, he got to know some ski racers who worked part time at the same place.
“A lot of the bike shops here are ski shops in the winter, so it was through the racers working in that ski shop and through their community orientation that they managed to bring me on and just teach me to ski from scratch,” he said.
Rajack’s initiation was not exactly a cake walk.
“It was horrible,” he recalled. “I had no glide. It was too cold. I got the wax wrong and with no technique it was just a struggle from the very start to the very end. And it was because I was expressing my struggles in skiing that a member of XC Ottawa said, ‘You know what, I’ll take you out and I’ll teach you to ski properly on my Zone-1 [easy] days.’ ”
That skier was 23-year-old Andre Marchand, a longtime XC Ottawa skier and now Rajack’s good friend.
“I remember Mark picking up the technique instructions I was giving him pretty quickly,” he wrote in an online message. “It was impressive, and then after about 40 min of some pretty good technique skiing from a newbie, he just started falling over here and there, on downhills but also on flats… Now he’s regularly skiing for 2 or 3 hours at a time with Team XC Ottawa and he has no problems doing that!”
Looking back, Rajack stressed the importance of the local ski community and the type of person it takes to get a newcomer excited about a sport and its culture.
“It takes people who are fully inclusive and I’ve found that in the ski community we have here in Ottawa-Gatineau,” he said.
After getting on snow a few more times his first winter, the season of 2012/2013, Mark decided he wanted to venture deeper into the world of his newfound sport.
“I went to a race in Val Morin [in Laurentides, Quebec] with Andre just to see what it was about,” he said. “When I went to the race, his dad took me to the wax tent. His dad explained how races operate, I saw the culture behind the race, I saw the environment and I knew instantly that it was something that I would enjoy. It was then that I decided that I would try to get into racing. That would be the long-term goal.”
Just 1 1/2 years down the line, Rajack is a member of the Trinidad and Tobago National Ski Team and aiming for 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden, and 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
One-and-a-half years down the line, Rajack is a member of the Trinidad and Tobago National Ski Team and aiming for 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden, and 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“It took about three-to-four months before the idea entered my head that I had the option to ski for Trinidad and Tobago and then I started to look into it,” he said. “It was only through a fluke joke. Some of the skiers I was with were critiquing some of the techniques of the non-snow countries at the  World Ski Championships and only then did I think, ‘You know what? That could be me!’ ”
It just so happened that Trinidad and Tobago has a ski association, already linked to the International Ski Foundation (FIS), the president of which is a skier who lives in Calgary. Once Rajack made that connection, it was a matter of applying for his FIS license. With a mountain of ski technique and experience to climb, he set off to join a team.
Naturally, he wanted to join Marchand, so he applied at XC Ottawa. It didn’t matter that he had no skiing or endurance sport background, “they were still able to justify bringing me on because I fit their mandate of national and international competition,” Rajack explained.
With the pieces starting to fall into place, he jumped headfirst into the world of nordic racing and started to compete last February.
“The premise of last year  was learn to ski and race locally,” he said.
He started with Eastern Canadian Championships in Cantley, Quebec, where he placed 53rd in the 15 k freestyle and 50th in the 20 k classic mass start — last in both events.
“Next year’s focus is a different one,” he said. “Next year, there’s a focus on more NorAms than local races and I’m aiming to break the 300 FIS-point limit,” which is the FIS standard for Olympic qualification.“I always get that Jamaican bob-sled team reference,” he said.
The other big focus for him this season is World Championships.
“Me being the only skier for Trinidad and Tobago competing at an international level, I basically by default have qualified for Falun,” he said. World Champs differs from a standard World Cup, which has a tougher points criteria.
“But when I get [to Falun] I have to qualify for the distance race,” he added. “It’s likely that people in my situation will only get to race the 10k free and then the classic-sprint qualifier.”
Getting to race at least two races at World Championships will provide Rajack with a wealth of experience, and he was excited for the opportunity.
“Without a doubt I’m very much looking forward to it,” he said.
He’ll have a support team there to help him with waxing and other preparations, including coach Mike Vieira and Colin Abbott, a competitive skier with the Yukon Elite Squad. Rajack estimated the whole trip will cost him around $850 dollars, with complimentary accommodations, and he explained Viera and Abbott are paying their own way to support him.
Abbott spent three years with XC Ottawa before leaving the city to train full time for another three years.
“I kept close ties with XCOttawa and heard about Mark joining the team long before I met him,” Abbott wrote in an email. “I returned to Ottawa this year to complete my studies at Carleton University and met him in September this year. From what I have seen of him so far he is motivated, realistic and open to critical feedback. I believe he has the ability to make the 300 FIS point cutoff to qualify for the next Olympics in Korea.
“As far as international success, he will probably never be a medal contender on the World Cup,” he added. “His technique is his biggest weakness right now and he knows it. He’s put in a lot of time this summer focusing on becoming more efficient.”
With a new focus on racing, Rajack finds training taking up more and more of his time.
“I’ve put my career on the back grill for the moment,” he said. “As a teacher with the Ottawa-Carleton district school board, I very well could have made choices that would’ve led to me being a full-time teacher at this point. I’ve made the decision to continue substitute teaching to focus on my skiing for the next four years.”
“In terms of finances, too, I was at one point saving for a downpayment on a house,” he said. “Potential house [or] potential Olympics.”
In a place like Canada, where high-performance skiing does not hold the same clout that it does in other countries, there’s always the pressure, both societal and financial, to follow the path of least resistance: school, job, house.
“I think it takes a bit of bravery to not lead that scripted life when there’s a lot of pressure to conform,” Rajack said.
“I think it takes a bit of bravery to not lead that scripted life when there’s a lot of pressure to conform.” — Mark Rajack, Canadian dual citizen and Trinidad and Tobago’s lone national cross-country ski team member
But he’s willing to make the sacrifice — even without financial assistance from the Trinidad and Tobago government.
“At this time, the government is unable to provide support,” he said. “And I understand the challenge of understanding what someone like me is trying to do, especially that I’m, right now, off the island.”
Unfortunately, that puts him in a sort of no-man’s-land for funding. Without the Trinidad and Tobago or the Canadian governments helping him out, and with the limited workload that he is able to fit in around training, finding sponsors will be one of the many challenges for Rajack in the coming months.
What does he see as key in his preparations for international competition?
“It just comes down to trusting people who have done this their whole lives, listening to them and believing that, if I follow what they do and if I keep my effort and dedication up, I’ll be well under that 300 FIS points standard by the time the Olympics roll around,” Rajack said.
The Greater Good
At the end of the day, it’s not all about the Olympics for Rajack. His dream is to help grow the sport that has already given so much to him and, in doing so, help those new to winter climates who struggle with getting used to the colder season just as he did when he moved to Canada.
“There’s no way for me to be living in Trinidad and training to ski but if I could wish anything, ultimately, it is that we develop a rollerski team in Trinidad and Tobago,” he said. “In the same way that you have North American athletes who play tennis and golf who go down south to do whatever golf camps and tennis camps in the states, well the reverse can be true. We’ll take those rollerskiers and bring them up to [The Forêt] Montmorency or Nakkertok and get them time on snow and then put them in competition.
“I don’t know if that will ever happen, but there’s always the dream and then there’s the reality — that would be the dream,” he continued. “The reality is that it will probably just be members of the Trinidad and Tobago diaspora [who become involved in skiing], which is spread right across the world. You’ve got Trinidadians living in every corner of the world and many of them, like me, live in northern climates and, like myself at one point, the winter is a significant negative impact on their quality of life.”
“If, through my efforts, I could help a Trinidad and Tobago kid get to the World Cup in a way I would feel that I had made the World Cup as well.”
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