In Rossland, British Colombia, most residents can reach the town’s lone alpine hill by car in five minutes, the cross-country trails in seven. Tucked high in the Monashee Mountains, hemlock and fir outnumber some 3,500 locals, most of whom know each other by name. And over the past two decades, Rossland, which was featured three years ago in The New York Times travel section, has shown that a small town can produce nordic talent, repeatedly.
Thanks in part to snow that covers the ground an average of five months each year and roadways that provide 25 kilometers of continuous rollerski climbing, the area is one that Dave Wood — Cross Country Canada’s national-team coach from 1998 to 2010 and the current head coach of Rossland’s Black Jack Ski Team since 2010 — says has “everything you need to make great skiers.”
George Grey was one of them. The two-time Olympian grew up in Rossland after moving there from Great Britain, where he was born, with his parents at the age of 2. He spent much of his childhood skiing and racing for Black Jack before being selected to Canada’s national team in 2001. Grey then moved to Canmore, Alberta, the home of Cross Country Canada (CCC) since 1995.
Despite living more than six hours away, Grey returned to Rossland often enough to join his old club team for training camps. When he was in town, “George Grey Days” were occasionally held for local youths interested in testing their skill against anyone else willing, including skiers from a relatively nearby town, Nelson.
Racers received race bibs and a chance to learn the course by following Grey around the trails beforehand. While many young skiers participated, one Nelson native saw the events as more than just a chance to race against friends.
“Before I joined Team Black Jack, when I was still racing for Nelson, he’d have George Grey Days where we’d put on a race and we’d all meet him and ski with him,” 24-year-old Julien Locke recalled on the phone earlier this month. “I think to have someone like that in the regional ski community was huge in impressing upon me that it is possible to come from a small place and get somewhere in sport.”
Born in Nelson, a town with a population of about 10,000, Locke grew up participating in the Nelson Nordic Ski Club’s Jackrabbits program until he was 14. He then moved an hour away to Rossland, where he joined Black Jack in 2006.
“Rossland became an adopted hometown,” he said. “I consider the Rossland club my home club.”
Locke’s first year with Black Jack was also his first year completing a full, yearlong training program. Though he had been skiing since he could put boots on his feet and click into skis, that season gave him new insight into his sport and what he wanted to do with it. In 2009, Locke competed at Canadian nationals in Duntroon, Ontario, and finished fourth in the juvenile boy’s classic sprint.
“That sat heavily with me all summer because I knew, I believed that I was capable of being on the podium in a sprint at nationals,” Locke said.
The following year, Locke returned to Canadian nationals, held in Whitehorse, Yukon. This time, he won the juvenile boy’s freestyle sprint.
“I think that was a pivotal moment in understanding that training and preparation makes the difference at the end of the day,” he said. “Coming from a small town … I’ve always had a belief that I can rise to the top, but that was the first moment it really cemented into my mind.”
From then on, skiing became Locke’s primary athletic focus. He placed second in the classic sprint at the 2015 nationals and third in the freestyle sprint at the 2016 U.S nationals. Later that season, he racked up another third place in the freestyle sprint at 2016 Canadian nationals, and the following spring, he was nominated to CCC’s national U25 Team for 2016/2017. Last season, before making his World Cup debut in PyeongChang, South Korea, Locke won two races at South Korea’s national championships: the classic sprint and 10 k classic. At the subsequent PyeongChang World Cup, he finished 36th in the classic sprint.
This season, Locke has his sights set on the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February. After what he called his “best summer of training” yet, which included two national-team training camps in Park City, Utah, and a few camps with Black Jack, he put his fitness to the test on Nov. 1 at Frozen Thunder’s opening races in Canmore.
This year, the first race, the Frozen Thunder classic-sprint qualifier held big implications for those vying for the final spot on the Canadian men’s World Cup Team for Period 1. The winner of the men’s qualifier would earn a trip to Europe to race the first four weekends of the World Cup, from late November through December. And World Cup results were what Locke needed if he wanted to qualify for the Olympic team.
“[My coach Dave Wood and I] made the decision this summer to put a pretty high priority on the Frozen Thunder race because, with the way the Canadian selection process works this year with the Olympics, World Cup results are the most important thing, and there’s not a lot of opportunities to get on the World Cup, with these trials being the first and the most straightforward way to get there,” Locke said.
But Locke understands he’s not the only one with Olympic aspirations this season. A number other top domestic skiers are also gunning for a spot on the team.
“Start of every year in the spring, you sit down and look at what the goals are going to be and of course, this year it’s the same for everybody,” he said. “The Olympics are the big focus, across the board, everybody is going for the same thing.”
Despite the pressure to perform in the Frozen Thunder sprint prelim, he was able to push aside any nerves.
“I knew my season would look drastically different if I didn’t perform,” Locke said. “And I was quite confident in my preparation. I think with any race, that’s what I build my confidence from is knowing that I prepared well.”
Locke won the qualifier in a time of 3:37.81 to secure that spot on the World Cup team. He flew to Sweden on Nov. 11 for the opening International Ski Federation (FIS) races in Gällivare, Sweden, this past weekend. This week, Locke and the rest of the Canadian World Cup team is headed to Kuusamo, Finland, where the World Cup opens on Friday with the Ruka Triple mini tour.
While his coach, Wood, will remain in Rossland, he’ll continue to keep in touch with Locke by phone to help guide him through the start of the season.
“It’s a step along the road for the season,” Wood told FasterSkier. “Lots of athletes you see, their focus is like a funnel. In May, they’re looking at the funnel through the small end instead of the big end, and by the time the fall comes, now they’re through the big end and for whatever reason they can’t maintain or refine the things they have to do. In May, they’re doing everything right and in the fall they’re doing not very many things right. Julien is one of those athletes that understands that and as the season gets closer, his focus intensifies.”
This past Friday through Sunday in Gällivare, Locke raced to 72nd in the opening 10 k freestyle, skipped Saturday’s 15 k classic, and then placed 39th in Sunday’s classic sprint qualifier. He missed the top 30 needed to qualify for the heats by 2.36 seconds.
“This weekend was a great chance to do some good race efforts ahead of the World Cup,” Locke wrote in an email on Sunday. “With such large fields, it was a good reminder that the margin for error is very small. Leading into the World Cup next weekend, it will only become ever more important to focus on the details. I’m looking forward to the upcoming three weeks, particularly the Ruka sprint as it has always been a favourite race of mine to watch. It’s such a tactical course with so much potential for excitement in the last 45 seconds.”
While Locke previously referred to his win at Frozen Thunder a “relief”, it is just the beginning of a several-monthlong journey.
“Of course I’m excited, but it felt to me sort of as the first step in the broader plan for the season,” Locke said. “Just one box being checked off.”
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Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.